Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Thinking with Type

  • Title: Thinking with Type
  • Author: Ellen Lupton
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Typography
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/29/2015

This book wasn’t what I was expecting – but I enjoyed it anyway. The first section was about the history of typography, which was very interesting but not necessary what I wanted to know. Although to me, with no formal graphic design training, I had always assumed that Graphic Design was like Architecture, a field where the emphasis was always on “the hot new thing” with little knowledge or care for the past (other than the “opposite” effect – that is, new trends tend to rebel against the previous trend.) But as someone completely new to Graphic Design, it was nice to see everything laid out from the beginning of hand-painted and copied Illuminated Manuscripts to modern website design.

This book also has a very easy style about introducing information. It doesn’t say, “Now here are the parts of a letterform – memorise them.” Information you want to know is slowly introduced and teased out as various examples are presented. It made for an enjoyable, and quick read. There are a lot of examples in this book, I hesitate to call it a textbook, though it probably is, because it’s also a fun, enjoyable read.

A couple of frustrations – included in the examples were things called “type crimes”, sort of a “What not to do.” Sometimes the two “good” examples and the “bad” example, side-by-side, made it obvious why the “type crime” was a bad idea. But more often, I found myself wondering why the bad example was so bad. To my, admittedly, untrained eye, it didn’t look any worse (or better, usually) than the good examples. Now, part of the reason I’m reading books on graphic design in the first place is to try to train my eye, so to speak, but I can’t do that if it isn’t explained why Option A is so much better than Option B (and if it really is just personal preference or opinion the author should state so). Rules make a lot more sense – if you know why they exist. And rules can be broken if you know what they are, the reason for the rule, and the effect of breaking it – in art and design.

Another frustration was the inclusion of pieces of typography that, while they may be nice pieces of art, or pretty to look at, or really cool – were impossible to read. I’d think that for any sort of graphic design or typesetting, or typography – Rule 1 would be “Can you read it?” Now some of these frankly illegible examples (and I’m not talking about historical documents) were “Art” pieces – so maybe I missed the point, but in modern pieces – say a poster for an art gallery opening, if people can’t read the day, date, time, and location – How on Earth do you expect them to show up? It’s like those advertisements that you see, and remember for being amusing or strange or unusual or just plain weird – but you can’t remember what the product was, much less what company produces it. And, to my mind, it’s even worse – because in other sections of the book, the author does talk about the necessary utility of design – that is, the importance of it being used, and leading the reader to understand the information better. Ellen Lupton’s section on tables, charts, and graphs is especially clear on the subject of how good design can help make information clearer and easier to understand (or by implication, obscure information or even make it misleading.) There is now even a new field that combines information into graphics – Infographics, which when done well, is accurate, makes the point, and is easy to understand. But when Inforgraphics are done poorly – they are difficult to understand. And Infographics, like statistics, also has the capacity to be very misleading.

Anyway, I just wish Lupton had made the importance of making graphic design, especially when typesetting a book, legible – more clear.

Overall, it was a fun, informative, quick read that I don’t regret purchasing. Recommended to graphic design students.

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Book Review – Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?

  • Title: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?
  • Author: Paul Cornell
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/06/2016

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? is the third book in Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series. Like it’s predecessors – it’s a very intense, but also somewhat violent and depressing read. Quill and his team are back – and everyone is dealing with some pretty heavy stuff from the previous two novels. Quill even suffers a breakdown from the knowledge he gained at the end of the previous book, The Severed Streets.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes begins with a murder and (separately) an unusual bank robbery. The novel bit by bit ties together the various crimes that the Team investigates. The murders, even from the beginning, seem to be linked to the famous Sherlock Holmes stories – then the ghost of Holmes is murdered. But as the team investigate and try to prevent further murders – the situation becomes more and more complicated. Then Quill has his breakdown and begins to see Moriarty. However, considering Holmes himself was murdered – this novel doesn’t take the easy and predictable route to a conclusion.

The novel has many twists and turns – which I’m not going to spoil. It is much better to read this book and discover them for yourself.

The characterization in this book is awesome. Several of the characters – Ross, Rebecca Lofthouse, Costain, Sefton, and Quill, all go through major life-changing events. The characters have always made this series of unique crime novels for me – and this novel in particular adds and changes the characters’ experiences (and I cannot wait to read more!). We also, finally, find out more about the previous “Continuing Projects Team” and what happened to them.

I don’t want to spoil the story – but in general terms, the murders in the book are connected by the resemblance to murders in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – and the fact that the victims had at one point in their lives played Sherlock Holmes. London is also experiencing “Holmes-mania” because three different Sherlock Holmes productions are filming in London at the same time. But that is the background, and the plot – what makes this novel really work is the characters and their own, individual, dramas. Highly recommended!

Non-Fiction Textbook Book Review – Adobe InDesign CC Revealed

  • Title: Adobe InDesign Creative Cloud Revealed
  • Author: Chris Botello
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Adobe InDesign, Software
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/08/2015

This was my textbook for a recent class in Adobe InDesign, at a local Community College. I liked the textbook, and I’ve bought two more in the series. The book starts with the very basics of InDesign – the workspace and adaptable panels, and precedes, chapter by chapter, to go through major features.

Each chapter includes numerous project-type examples you can do with the software (if you have it) and learn along with the book. The end of each chapter has a Skills Review – usually assigned as homework in my class, for practicing the skills explained in the chapter, a Project Builder – one or more more involved exercises, that can be added to a student portfolio, and the Design and Portfolio Project – which are further examples for building a portfolio or discussion-provoking questions about a design. In order to successfully complete any of the skills reviews, Design Projects, Portfolio Projects, or Project Builders, you must be able to download and access the data files for the textbook. For me, these were found on the school server, from the path my instructor gave me. However, going from the other books in the series, there are publicly-accessible websites from the publisher for downloading zip files of the data files.

The chapters included good information, and the skills review and other exercises reinforced the knowledge of each chapter.

There were a few things to watch out for, however:

  1. Sometimes instructions referred to skills one hasn’t learned yet, and were in the subsequent chapters – this happened rarely, but was annoying when it did.
  2. Following the skills reviews step-by-step often involved using different methods to accomplish the exact same goal. Though I understand why multiple techniques towards the same end might be taught, it often became either annoying or boring (who wants to do the same thing three times using slightly different methods?); on rare occasions it even became confusing (I thought I did X by using tool Y – now you’re telling me to use tool C?).
  3. Format of the book/skills review. Sigh. It’s a rectangler book, which opens on the skinny side – depending on your desk, it can be hard to work with, compared to a standard portrait-style book. (Try picturing a landscaped Excel spreadsheet verses a standard Word doc). The font in the skills review sections is a bit too small to read comfortably.
  4. Every once in awhile the printed instructions and the pictures did not match. My guess is the text was revised but some illustrations weren’t updated.

Finally, just for me, personally, I would have liked at least some chances to do more creative things, rather than blindly following instructions. I mean, I did try various things out anyway, but when someone hands you a playbox – it’s a shame when you can’t creatively use the toys.

Overall, a great textbook, and, like I said – I ordered two other books in the series. Recommended.

Book Review – The Severed Streets

  • Title: The Severed Streets
  • Author: Paul Cornell
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/29/2014

The Severed Streets is Paul Cornell’s sequel to London Falling but whereas London Falling started slow because there was a lot of set-up, The Severed Streets jumps right in. It’s a brilliant novel that I highly recommend, but I also don’t want to spoil it. Simply read this novel.

The plot is three-fold: due to government cuts to salaries and personnel the London Metropolitan Police are threatening an illegal but justified strike. Fed-up with the Coalition government cuts to necessary services, “flash mobs” in Toff masks and costumes are showing up all over London, raising havoc and slowly becoming more and more violent. And, in the midst of all this, James Quill’s special unit is called to investigate supernatural murders in impossible places that superficially resemble the crimes of Jack-the-Ripper.

The novel draws you in to its world and moves fast. Reading the book kept me up late for several nights because I could not put it down. And it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that was that engrossing.

This is a somewhat depressing book – but it’s a story with hope too. At it’s heart it’s more of a Supernatural mystery or crime story than fantasy – James Quill and his unit are cops – cops with special abilities, which they acquired in an accident in the first novel in the series, London Falling. And, yes, by the end of the novel, like in all crime stories, the crime is solved. But in no way is the story predictable, there was only one detail where I could have predicted something would happen that did – and it happened in an unpredictable way (and my reaction was more along the lines of how series fiction works than anything the author telescoped unnecessarily).

The book was awesome, and the last line is an “OMG!” moment that stuck in my head for days. I highly recommend this novel, and I dearly hope there will be another book in the series.

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – The Non-Designer’s Design Book

  • Title: The Non-Designer’s Design Book
  • Author: Robin Williams
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 01/22/2015

I bought this book for an advanced Technical Writing class, then ironically had to drop the class because I got a full-time job. I just picked up the book again and read it all the way through.

The good points – this is a quick and breezy book with a lot of examples. I felt most of the examples clearly illustrated the points that the author, an experienced graphic designer, was trying to make.

The bad points – the section on website design was extremely out of date. Recent research on how people use the web emphasizes two things: for websites, san serif fonts are easier to read, especially for large blocks of print (the opposite is true for printed books – where serif fonts are easier to read); and second, although customers hate horizontal (or back-and-forth) scrolling on websites, vertical scrolling is OK. In fact, with the phenomenal growth of tablets and smart phones, vertical scrolling is not only OK – it’s expected.

The author repeats the out-of-date, graphic design advice that “everything has to fit on a standard screen size for a webpage”. That simply isn’t true anymore, in part because there is no standard screen size – a flat-screen monitor may be large and square – or thin and rectangular (widescreen). And then there’s screens which are very small and vertical (smartphone), or vertical and larger (tablet), or even medium sized and horizontal (tablet in landscape mode). Since you have no idea what the viewing screen will be – deciding the “optimum” screen size and designing for it isn’t possible. The latest marketing tools talk about “flowable” screens and “design for mobile”. However, that’s really only one chapter of this book – and the basic design principles probably haven’t changed, especially when designing for paper (books, magazines, newsletters, print ads) etc.

My other gripe was the Mac-Centered nature of the book. Yes, I realize that graphic design was one area that has been traditionally dominated by Apple computer products – but I use a Microsoft Windows PC, and when I use Adobe products (Acrobat, InDesign, Photoshop) it’s the Windows-versions of those products that I use. It was annoying for most of the sample typefaces to be Mac-specific fonts, or the Mac version of fonts because that makes it hard to figure out the specifics of some of the lessons. At least a comparative list of Mac vs. Window fonts would have helped.

Still, I enjoyed reading The Non-Designer’s Design Book and I felt I learned something from it. It also wasn’t overwhelming at all, which is perfect for an introductory textbook.

Here are three recent blog posts all declaring that for on-line use san serif fonts are more readable (serif fonts still rule for paper publications).

What’s the Most Readable Font for the Screen?

Screen Readability

The Best Fonts: Print, Screen, Email

The concept of designing, without design, that is – to allow a website site to flow correctly on any screen size from an extra-large PC Monitor to a small smart phone is known as Responsive Design.

 

Book Review – London Falling

  • Title: London Falling
  • Author: Paul Cornell
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/02/2014

“You with the tentacles, you’re nicked!” ~ Paul Cornell ~ London Falling

The first fifty pages or so of London Falling read like a gritty British police drama. Four cops are working their last night on a long complicated case to catch a gangster. One of the cops is dirty, and the others are just exhausted – knowing if this last desperate try doesn’t work, their funding will be pulled and they won’t be able to continue to pursue Toshack. It’s all or nothing. They catch him, but he dies in police custody in mysterious circumstances. Circumstances that have nothing to do with the usual suspects of bent coppers. The investigation quickly changes everything as the four cops (one’s an technical analyst) develop The Sight, and end up on a much stranger case.

Technically, I would give this book three and a half stars. It reads more like horror than fantasy. And, although I liked it – the story was SO dark, at times I just didn’t feel like picking up the book. However, the story does move at a good clip, once it gets going, and I loved the last few chapters.

The end of the book sets up a sequel, which is apparently coming next May. I’ll look forward to it. Much of this novel felt like set-up and introduction, and a full story set in this world with these characters could be really cool.

Oddly enough, when I was reading the book, I thought it would make a great television series. Paul Cornell is nothing if not a visual writer. In the afterword, the author mentions it was originally a television series pitch from “decades ago”.

PS: This movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the recent (2014-2016) apocalyptic disaster film with the same title.

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Spring into Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers

  • Title: Spring into Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers
  • Author: Barry J. Rosenberg
  • Subject: Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/22/2012

Update: – Read this for a technical writing class, back in 2012, per the date on GoodReads.

Spring into Technical Writing is a textbook, however, it is useful and even amusing at times. Some of the examples are a bit overwhelming but I like a challenge, and they weren’t so dense as to be completely off-putting or to cause me to put the book down.

This was a very readable textbook. It kept my interest and was a quick read. It also seemed to be full of good advice. I really liked the “bad”, “better”, “good”, “best” examples throughout the book and it could have used even more. I did at times find that the book was a bit simplistic (I do know, believe it or not, the difference between a serif and sans-serif font) and throughout the book often the starting point for a section or chapter was too easy. On the other hand, the chapter on HTML was very difficult for me. Yes, I realize this wasn’t a manual on learning HTML, but that seemed to be the only section in the book that assumed some pre-knowledge that I didn’t have. (The web is like a car, I can use it but I don’t know or care how it works. I know more about how a server and a network “serve” web pages, and the meaning of terms like “caching web browser” than I do about HTML – and I’ve learned more HTML from the Goodreads website than any web design book I’ve read or class I started then quit). But I digress. Other than the HTML section, which I intend to re-read, I found this textbook to be light-hearted, useful, and fun to read. The humor and examples helped.

Second Update: Since reading this book, I’ve learned more HTML by using WordPress, and from my four-month stint as a knowledge base writer/editor. So I should probably re-read the HTML section and see if it’s less confusing.