Welcome to Shady Characters

This is Keith Houston’s blog about the unusual stories behind some well-known — and some rather more outlandish — marks of punctuation. Read a brief introduction, get started with the life and times of the , or pilcrow, or order the book. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Google+, get email alerts of new posts, or subscribe to RSS feeds for new posts and comments.

It’s paperback publication day!

The Shady Characters paperback cover

It barely seems a year since the Shady Characters hardback was launched. That’s because it was only a year ago, and yet here we are: the paperback is published today in the USA!

Jarrod Taylor designed the excellent new cover; Mark Forsyth, Eric Johnson, Zoran Minderovic, Tim Nau, Jeff Norman, Bill Pollack, Patrick Reagh, Jeff Shay, and Liz B. Veronis all helped weed out the errata that slipped through the net in the hardback edition. Thank you all!

So, if you’re in the market for a Shady Characters paperback, you can order yours now from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound or Powell’s. (Dare I say that it would make the perfect Christmas gift for your favourite punctuation, typography, or history buff?) If e-books are more your thing, you can get Shady Characters for your Nook at Barnes & Noble; for your iPhone or iPad at iTunes; for your Kindle at Amazon (USA) or Amazon (UK); and in ePub format at Waterstones (UK).

Paperback competition: we have a winner!

Or rather, two winners. Congratulations to commenter Lyla and Twitter user @donserifa! Theirs names were picked at random from the set of all commenters on the original competition post, plus all those who replied to, retweeted, or marked as favourite the tweet announcing the contest. Their copies of the paperback edition of Shady Characters will be on their way very soon.

There were 212 entries this time round — thank you for all the fantastic tweets and comments! Commiserations to those of you who did not win, but rest assured there will be another competition on the way in the new year!

Win a paperback copy of Shady Characters!

The Shady Characters paperback cover

Here’s your chance to win a copy of the new, all-singing, all-dancing paperback edition of Shady Characters. I have two copies to give away, and I’ll happily post them to the two winners wherever they are in the world. To enter the competition, just do one of the following:

  • leave a comment on this post, making sure to supply a valid email address so that I can contact you in the event that you win, or
  • reply to, retweet, or mark as favourite the tweet announcing this contest, making sure to follow @shadychars so that I can send you a direct message in the event that you win. (Please don’t create multiple accounts or repeatedly reply to the message — Twitter may ban you as a result. One reply is fine!)

I’ll make a list of all unique commenters and tweeters in two weeks’ time and pick two names at random as the winners. The contest will close at noon GMT on Sunday 19th October 2014, so make sure you enter before then. Good luck!

Update: the competition is now closed. Thanks to all who entered!

It’s National Punctuation Day!

I had an enjoyable chat last night with Katy Steinmetz of Time.com about this yearly festival of punctuation (you can read her article on the subject here), but of arguably even greater importance is that the Shady Characters book is exactly one year old today! Happy birthday to it! (Or to me. How does that work, exactly?) Also, what better day than today, then, to reveal the cover of the forthcoming paperback edition?

The cover of Shady Characters paperback edition, to be published on October 20th.

The cover of the forthcoming Shady Characters paperback edition. Click on the image to take a closer look.

The paperback will be published on October 20th — just in time for Christmas, I might add — and you can pre-order your copy in the US from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound or Powell’s. And of course, Shady Characters is still available in electronic form from the Apple iBookstore.

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Pilcrows and poker chips: an interview with Jim Ford

A pilcrow, hedera, ampersand and @-symbol from Jim Ford's Quire Sans. (Quire Sans™ is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.)

A pilcrow, hedera, ampersand and @-symbol from Jim Ford’s Quire Sans. (Quire Sans™ is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.)

Last month, you may remember, I featured an image of two manicules drawn by Eric Gill for Gill Sans but which never made it into the finished typeface. I lamented the fact that some shady characters just don’t get the love they deserve, citing the fact that Gill’s manicules still don’t exist in Gill Sans, even in its most modern digital incarnations.

By way of compensation, Monotype’s PR team got in touch to ask if I’d like to get a type designer’s perspective on such things — the perspective, specifically, of Jim Ford, the designer behind Monotype’s new Quire Sans typeface. Quire Sans is unusual in that Monotype has deliberately talked up its credentials with regard to pilcrows, fleurons, and other unusual marks, and so I was eager to hear how Jim approaches these characters at the fringes of the virtual type case. Here, then, are my questions and Jim’s answers, along with a smattering of shady characters drawn from Jim’s typefaces. Enjoy!

KH: What was the inspiration for Quire Sans?
JF: Well, Quire Sans is more intuitive than inspired. Throughout my career as a designer, I’ve always struggled with making a personal [graphic] identity, one that lasts anyway. And so it becomes time to make business cards or forms and you have to pick a typeface that works and represents you well. Easier said than done…especially if you’re a creator of typefaces and things. You don’t have a favorite typeface. Anyhow, for these purposes and others, I needed a dependable family for general use, one with discerning esthetic qualities as well.
The press materials for Quire Sans mention the inclusion of “pilcrow and fleuron symbols, unique to Quire Sans.” Did you pay more than the usual amount of attention to designing these lesser-used marks?

No, I approached these like I would with any other typeface — try to make everything count, sensitively, harmoniously. The significance of the ‘pilcrow’ and such, in Quire Sans, is that it visually represented the former brand names for the typefaces, and so care was take to make these sit well with the type.

As with many symbols in Quire Sans, the shapes, fitting and alignment had to work universally with upper and lowercase as well as small caps and the default old style figures. I use all these settings relatively, and often, so it’s convenient to have a typeface that accommodates all these preferences, ideally.

Manicules and a poker chip from Pokerface, Jim's playing card-themed typeface. The chip is not a standard Unicode character; instead, it replaces Unicode character 263b, or "black smiling face" (☻). (Pokerface™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

Manicules and a poker chip from Pokerface, Jim’s playing card-themed typeface. The chip is not a standard Unicode character; instead, it replaces Unicode character 263b, or “black smiling face” (☻). (Pokerface™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

Are there any marks of lesser-used punctuation or printer’s ornaments that you’d like to see more often? Have you evangelized any of these in your work, via Quire Sans or otherwise?

Yes, there are a handful of non-standard symbols that I try to include [and promote] in all my designs. One thing I often design thematically is the ‘.notdef’ character — ‘not defined’ rather, is the box you get when a font doesn’t contain a certain character. I see it as a place for humor and symbolism in type design…it’s the font equivalent to The Price Is Right “losing” horn.

Numero is a fashionable alternative to # and is a nice touch in editioning, packaging and collectibles. ‘℗’ the ‘published’ symbol — very few fonts have this, but it’s needed for publishing and nearly all music packaging. I like a double bar ‘||’, or capitulum, as an alternative to the ‘paragraph’ and bar, or just as an information/navigation separator. And of course, I’m a huge fan of artistic elements like manicules, decorative brackets, borders and ornaments. Unfortunately you don’t see people using these things much.

This year I’ve been infatuated with parens (parentheses — ed.) and brackets, among other things. They are one of the most difficult things to balance, so I’ve been consciously trying to strike that perfect balance. And explore their creative possibilities as well. My projects this year have been mostly serif typefaces, with an almost linear progression in concepts. A quest of sorts :)

Can we expect to see manicules or an interrobang in the next release?
Manicules, yes. I’ve included them in a handful of typefaces and have drawn them to compliment other people’s designs as well. I’ve drawn an interrobang or two, but I find it to be an impractical mark that doesn’t quite make a good-looking alternative to ‘?!’. I take care to see that these punctuation marks work together, standard. Like ct and st ligatures, I may have awed over these things as a young designer, but I’m more practical now. With most designs, I find it to be frivolous, making some of these things.

A pilcrow, skull and crossbones, and interrobang from Captain Quill. Jim explained that the skull & bones is mapped to Unicode's own skull-and-bones symbol (Unicode 2620, or ‘☠’), but that it is also encoded to the ‘notdefined’ character -- when a specified character is not available, a grinning skull will appear in its place. In addition, Jim said, "ALL CAPS setting was forbidden due to their swashbuckling nature. So if you tried to set all caps, the text would automatically be replaced with skull & bones. You’d have to turn off contextual alternates to get around this feature. I got away with this for a while, but I think that feature has been removed since then." (Captain Quill™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

A pilcrow, skull and crossbones, and interrobang from Captain Quill. Jim explained that the skull-and-bones is mapped directly to Unicode’s own skull-and-bones symbol (Unicode 2620, or ‘☠’), but that it is also used for the ‘notdefined’ character — when a specified character is not available, a ‘☠’ will appear in its place. In addition, Jim said, “in Captain Quill, ALL CAPS setting was forbidden due to their swashbuckling nature. So if you tried to set all caps, the text would automatically be replaced with skull & bones. You’d have to turn off contextual alternates [whereby a font’s author can substitute characters in defined circumstances — ed.] to get around this feature. I got away with this for a while, but I think that feature has been removed since then.” A shame! (Captain Quill™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

I must thank Jim for answering my questions and Monotype for facilitating our chat. If you’re interested in Quire Sans or any of Jim’s other typefaces, take a look at his portfolio on Fonts.com. And while you’re out and about on the web, why not help us save Facebook from itself and promote the irony mark at the same time? All signatures are gratefully received!