Short-fingered vulgarians at the gate (or how I became a typographer, pt. 2)

As I mentioned in pt. 1, I grew up in southern New Hamp­shire. That part of NH is less rural than the rest of the state. But still more rural than the rest of the country.

My home­town paper, the Union Leader, was famous in those days for publishing reader letters. Not just some of them—all of them. (And thus maybe deserves to be consid­ered a fore­bear of internet-based social media.)

The page below, seen during my last visit to NH, includes three head­lines that basi­cally run every day with small vari­a­tions—opioids, motor­cy­cles, and weirdos.

In my 2L reme­dies class, my professor joked that bitty New Hamp­shire prob­ably only had seven people in its state legis­la­ture. Well actu­ally, professor, it has 400. According to entrenched NH state-govern­ment lore, that makes it the fourth-largest legisla­tive body in the world. (According to a reader, this is not even close to being true. What’s your point?)

As time passes, these quirks—we could add to that pile no income tax, no sales tax, no helmet law, and most intran­si­gently of all, no seat­belt law—seem less like the product of some flinty, inde­pen­dent-minded state char­acter, and more like adoles­cent self-absorp­tion.

Nowhere is this more evident than pres­i­den­tial-primary season, a quadren­nial pageant where New Hamp­shirites plainly see them­selves as the stars. This has long been one of the worst ideas in US poli­tics: allowing a tiny, homo­ge­neous, rural state to monop­o­lize the pole posi­tion on the primary calendar. And yet—New Hamp­shire tena­ciously retained that posi­tion for a century, against all polit­ical logic. (In 2024, it will go second, on the same day as Nevada, which means absolutely no one will care, except the Union Leader.)

Not to sound mean. Local boos­t­erism is charm­ingly parochial wher­ever you go. Give NH credit for parlaying its other­wise indis­tinct port­folio as a United State into some­thing more. For most every­thing NH is known for, better versions exist in Vermont. In 2000, NH put its only major land­mark—a natural rock forma­tion opti­misti­cally called the Old Man in the Moun­tain—on its state quarter. Three years later, it collapsed. An omen? During my last visit, NH felt less invested in its own culture, and more like a northern suburb of Boston. In my day, parents did not let their chil­dren grow up to be Mass­holes.

Later, I would live in the big cities where coastal elites would enjoy the humor of The Onion. But those raised in big cities tended to under­stand The Onion strictly as a parody of the news. For those raised else­where, The Onion was more deeply a parody of small-town news­pa­pering, with all its petty preoc­cu­pa­tions.

Bringing us to Spy magazine

Spy started publishing in late 1986. (A complete online archive of the maga­zine is avail­able—have a look before some buzzkilling lawyer ruins it for everyone.) I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it until fall 1988, when I started college and had access to campus news­stands. For reasons that will become clear, it is liter­ally impos­sible to imagine anyone in Spy’s busi­ness depart­ment arranging to ship cartons of the maga­zine to book­stores in New Hamp­shire.

Spy was not a parody of the news in the sense of making things up. But it sati­rized the rich and famous and powerful of New York City, and the publi­ca­tions—e.g., Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York Post, and most of all the New York Times—that helped amplify their preferred public personas. (In a reversal, Spy’s founding editor Graydon Carter would leave in 1992 to become the editor of Vanity Fair.)

Spy’s angle was to cover the same people, but focus on reality: the catty, imma­ture, cheap, grubby behavior that burbled just below the surface (or, in many cases, spilled into plain sight). Spy’s edito­rial voice was that of a small-town news­paper where the town in ques­tion was the tiny, insular domain of the wealthy and powerful. As such, Spy’s other close antecedent was Mad maga­zine—I own about 100 back issues, mostly from its coun­ter­cul­tural heyday—which also never missed a chance to deflate the powerful with puerile humor.

As a New Hamp­shire native, the world Spy depicted was largely foreign to me. So were many of the recur­ring char­ac­ters—Henry Kravis? Binky Urban? Donald Trump? (Who was always intro­duced as “short-fingered vulgarian”, a sobri­quet he disputed for decades.) But their striving and tribu­la­tions and petti­ness and half-baked plans were univer­sally recog­niz­able. They were treated as cartoon char­ac­ters, but—aside from the baroque stip­ples of Drew Friedman and a handful of others—there were no cartoons, just text. A comic book for the literate and the literary.

Bringing us to the typography

The founding editors of Spy—Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen—correctly assessed that one of the best ways to get atten­tion for a young, low-budget maga­zine was to hire a young, low-budget typo­graphic designer to give the inte­rior a char­ac­ter­istic flavor. The initial designer was Stephen Doyle, who after the fourth issue passed the reins to Alexander Isley. Both are alive and well and still designing things.

I would’ve supposed that Doyle & Isley were sick of hearing about Spy. But a few years ago, I sent Isley some fan mail anyhow. Not only did he accept the compli­ment with kind­ness and grat­i­tude, he told me he was—gasp—like­wise a fan of Typog­raphy for Lawyers. I’m not worthy!

Because as a designer, no single work of typog­raphy has been as influ­en­tial on me as Spy maga­zine. Thus, in some way, what­ever I’ve done in my typo­graphic career owes a debt to Doyle & Isley. A modest public encomium is long overdue.

“Oh come on. You’re not inspired by the Incunabula? The Arts & Crafts move­ment?” At age 17? Nope—I hadn’t seen any of that. (Now? Uh—a little.) New Order albums made the first major typo­graphic impres­sion. But Spy was next: it was the first maga­zine where I really noticed the typog­raphy. It looked like nothing else. Not only did I want to read it, I wanted to know how they did it. And whether, armed with a Macin­tosh Plus, I could too. (Answer: no.)

One of the best deci­sions Doyle made was basing the design on two text faces—Gara­mond 3, designed by M. F. Benton, and Metro, designed by W. A. Dwig­gins—that had been reason­ably popular in the earlier part of the 20th century but had since gone obscure. As a type designer, I’ve typi­cally been a propo­nent of using fonts by living designers. But the mid-’80s were an awkward moment, as main­stream typog­raphy pivoted from the banality of late photo­type­set­ting to the banality of early digital type­set­ting.

For Spy, histor­ical type worked better: the whole maga­zine sought to upend a certain entrenched story of New York fame and wealth. Visu­ally, the subver­sion of Gara­mond 3 and Metro became an analogy to what Spy did to its subjects: some­times they were handled care­fully; some­times they were butchered. As Doyle later said, the layout was “our reac­tion against clean mini­malism” that was then preva­lent.

Whereas new fonts of that era tried to achieve the smoothest possible finish, Gara­mond 3 and Metro were packed with weird details that kept the pages lively. They remain two of my favorites. Metro was a big influ­ence on Concourse. (I’ve also designed a text face in the spirit of Gara­mond 3—previewed below—though so far I’m the only one who gets to use it.)

Even though Spy emerged at the dawn of the desktop-publishing era, its densely packed layouts were, due to budget constraints, produced using tradi­tional layout tech­niques. Boggling. To demon­strate the ludi­crous amount of typo­graphic japery you still got in each issue of Spy, I’ll show you a set of spreads from one month—February 1987, the last issue designed by Doyle. I still don’t know how they did it, though I can’t rule out certain perfor­mance-enhancing compounds common in New York at the time.

The front section of Spy, “Naked City”, was glee­fully exces­sive. Spreads like this were a direct influ­ence on the paper­back Typog­raphy for Lawyers, where I used as many fonts as I thought I could get away with. For some it was too much; for others, just right. Je ne regrette rien.

I liked that the layout presented multiple possible starting points, catching the eye as well as the mind. The left side of the page is part of an extended New Yorker joke, in even tinier type.

Spy was big on lists, maps, charts and other labo­ri­ously tweezed-together info­graphics.

Detailed maps for using the bath­rooms at NYC’s private Ivy League clubs—you need only supply the “air of belonging” and the “confi­dent gait”.

A multiple-choice quiz.

Diag­o­nally set type.

A compli­cated wide-format map of Manhattan’s commer­cial zones. Why? No idea.

Careful viewers will notice that despite the seeming chaos, the feature pages conform to a grid with two inner columns of the same size, and a smaller outer column. (Another idea stolen for Typog­raphy for Lawyers, and which persists into the web version of Prac­tical Typog­raphy).

In the head­line, the Gara­mond italic letters are pushed together tightly, empha­sizing their pecu­liar differ­ences in height and angle.

In this spread, the outer and center colums are merged on the left-hand page 

… and in this one, the inner columns are split in half and converted into a 3+3 column layout with inter­spersed photos. I counsel against over­re­liance on grids because it tends to lead to a false sense of supe­ri­ority. This, however, is galaxy-brain grid-fitting.

In the last section of the issue, a switch to a simple three-column layout (usually this is the part of the maga­zine where you have to find enough space for the ends of stories that you didn’t make space for earlier).

The legacy of Spy

Spy endured various ups, downs, buyouts, and reboots before it ended perma­nently in 1998. A victim of the internet? Maybe to some degree. But as the ’80s yielded to the ’90s, the center of national cultural gravity shifted from New York City to Silicon Valley—where it has remained. Spy’s primary focus on the NY finan­cial, media, and social scene left it stuck in an unfash­ion­able niche.

In terms of design, Spy’s closest successor today is prob­ably New York maga­zine, which continues its typo­graphic exuber­ance—too many fonts is never enough.

Was there ever a Spy for the tech industry? Gawker, perhaps. Though in general, tech jour­nal­ists have always had a cozier rela­tion­ship with their subjects than finan­cial and media jour­nal­ists. Over decades, tech compa­nies and their CEOs have lever­aged this cozi­ness to normalize the idea that crit­i­cizing tech for any reason is anti-progress, anti-jobs, anti-pros­perity—in short, anti-Amer­ican.

This is, of course, horse­shit. Those who concen­trate and control wealth should always be held to higher scrutiny. The people Spy wrote about—including the short-fingered vulgarian—knew this. They appre­ci­ated that their exis­tence depended on a certain capi­talist kayfabe, for which they were well paid, thus it behooved them to go along with the joke.

Tech bigwigs, by contrast, have competed in a down­ward spiral toward a state of total humor­less­ness. Their art form is the griev­ance of priv­i­lege. (By strange coin­ci­dence, this group is predom­i­nantly wealthy, white, and male.) Gawker was even­tu­ally murdered by a tech billion­aire who didn’t like being the subject of their coverage. A few years ago, even I was smeared by a rich tech CEO after I wrote skep­ti­cally about his company’s product. To para­phrase the title of a book by Spy contrib­utor Joe Queenan—if you’re tweeting about me, your startup must be in trouble. Though Twitter, always a cesspool, has been increas­ingly refash­ioned as the safe space for the powerful to conduct perfor­ma­tive displays of self-pity and punching down.

“But dude, what does this have to do with typog­raphy?” Typog­raphy, and the words under­neath, are expres­sive. But more than that, they’re tools that can be used—by anyone—to level a playing field—anywhere. Some­times the goal of typog­raphy is to make things pretty. But some­times it’s to afflict the powerful. Spy’s typog­raphy was exuberant, beau­tiful, chaotic, swung for the fences, and blew shit up. Whether it influ­enced my creative char­acter, or confirmed what was already germi­nating, is hard to say. But the idea of subver­sive uses of beauty has been with me ever since.

Friends and colleagues tease me about my refusal to touch social media, or sell my fonts through resellers, or use certain soft­ware programs. I try not to be an abso­lutist about these things. But yes, I’m highly resis­tant to deploying creative energy within the confines of a box that a profit-seeking entity has defined. That’s how they control farm animals too. To have a voice at all is a priv­i­lege. Who would waste that?

update, 53 days later

The senior US senator from New Hamp­shire, Jeanne Shaheen, darkly warns Pres­i­dent Biden of polit­ical conse­quences for strip­ping NH of its posi­tion in the primaries.

update, 61 days later

New Hamp­shire still mourns the loss of the Man in the Moun­tain, 20 years after it collapsed.