White space according to Gerrit Noordzij and my Thesis on street painting

carlgraham7's picture

Hey guys, I was reading Gerrit Noordzij's translated "The Stroke: Theory of Writing" and am trying to get my head around applying the idea of white space to all forms of writing,

as he says:

"Writing rests on the relative proportions of the white in the word. The various kinds of writing with their various constructions and their various strokes can be compared with each other only in terms of the white of the word – every comparison requires a vantage point that makes things comparable. The white of the word is the only thing all the various kinds of writing have in common. This universal vantage point holds for handwriting and typography alike, for ancient writing as well as modern writing, for western writing as well as the writing of other cultures, in short, it holds for writing."

I'm doing research for my thesis on urban street typography in Metro Manila (Philippines). This is the link to the current research online: http://www.whoiscarlgraham.com/urbantype/jeepneytypography.htm

I am fascinated how Noordzij says this but am wondering if there's some structured way I can speak about the type using the concept of white space. I loved "The stroke of the pen," but I'm still trying to fully grasp the concepts covered as I feel they can really help me with my thesis.

carlgraham7's picture

Is he just speaking of the color (visual density) of the word? and why does he seem to accuse scholars of separating type and writing like it's all a big conspiracy?

Nick Shinn's picture

It would help to clearly differentiate between writing, lettering, and typography.
Because your thesis concerns constructed brush lettering, not writing or type.

JamesM's picture

> the relative proportions of the white in the word

What he's talking about is "negative space", which is the space around an object. It's an important concept in graphic design. Sounds like he's focused on the space immediately around the characters themselves, rather than the entire page or sign.

I wouldn't call it "the white" because that's only accurate when writing on a white surface. If a sign has white type on a red background, for instance, the negative space is red.

> The white of the word is the only thing all the
> various kinds of writing have in common.

I haven't read his writing, but my offhand impression is that his comment doesn't seem very useful. The negative space is dictated by the shapes of the letters. If the negative spaces have common traits, it's because the writing itself has common traits.

hrant's picture

One of his disciples will surely provide a superb
explanation soon enough. I myself would simply
like to deploy my standard disclaimer:

You can respect the white, and try to make it happy, but
as long as you're only marking the black it's all an illusion.

Jefferson loved Sarah Hemmings, but she was still a slave.

--

That said, there's plenty of room and reason for
a good study of what he wrote, and really means.

hhp

Chris Dean's picture

@carlgraham7:

1. Is this for a masters or PhD?

2. Where are you studying?

3. Who is your supervisor?

4. “since he was 10. He’s 54 now, so that’s like, forever (44 years).” — lose the ‘like’ if you want to be taken seriously. Seriously. (deliberate use of rhetoric). Watch the capitalization.

5. “a neater outter form is valued more than the color or visual density of the words.” — In a document as formal as a thesis, never cite Wikipedia as a source (unless of course you are making a statement to the effect of “Wikipedia defines typography as…). It has been my experience that a professor won’t even dignify the work with a mark. Even at an undergraduate level. It will simply be returned to you with comment to the effect of “re-submit this after you have conducted a literature review.” Regardless of it’s lack of credibility, it can change over time resulting in differennt interpretations of your work. Typo on outter = outer.

6. I agree with Nick. You need to operatinalize your terms. This means to define what you mean when you use a word in your paper. Not a formal declaration of the word’s meaning in every context in every dictionary in the world. Just for the purpose of your paper. This prevents potential misinterpretation and is standard practice in virtually all writing at a graduate level and beyond.

7. The structure of your current writing is remarkably close to the APA structure of a manuscript. I encourage you to move forward in that direction to formalize your work. See:

American Psychological Association, (2009). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (sixth edition). American Psychological Association. Washington, DC, United States.

Continue with your literature review and remember to stay focused. It feels very daunting at first and is very easy to shot-gun off into too many directions, but as you proceed with your reading, it gets easier and easier to determine what is relevant and what is not.

hrant's picture

Professors tend to be afraid of change.
It's not like printing a book makes everything in it true.

hhp

carlgraham7's picture

@Nick: that's just the thing. I know he differentiated the 3, but then he also said they were closely related. I do plan on setting that forward in the writing though. I guess what I'm looking for is some systematic way of looking at the white space as opposed to just "feeling" them as I normally do. Any suggestions?

@Christopher: thanks for reading! I actually use the term thesis casually in that first post, which I probably shouldn't have done. It's actually a final project for our undergraduate level course. The interviews were written more casually in hopes that they'd be more interesting and readable. The actual project has more weight in the quality of the execution using the medium (web, application, feature video). And the website up there was a smaller class project that served as an impetus for this final project topic which I have yet to execute. You provide some very good points though, regarding the literature. I wanted something even more straightforward in the final site, something visitors would "get" within seconds and have the option to look into through something like a read more link. Any thoughts on that?

@hrant, I saw that you did work on non-roman scripts on the fonts on your site. How did you go about developing/analyzing the forms? Do you know of any resources I could look into for the evolution of brahmic scripts? The Philippines has an ancient one and i'd like to see of the forms may have trickled into the forms of the letterers.

Can I call them that btw, “letterers” any one-word alternatives to sign painters?

hrant's picture

Uh, that's not a post, that's a book. :-)

A couple of possibly useful points though:
- For scripts I have nativity in (Armenian, Latin, Arabic) my
main goal has become to be progressive*; whereas for scripts I
don't have nativity in I either remain safely imitative or when
I do dare to be pushy I make sure to consult a native (like I did
with Akhalkalak).
- In terms of formal analysis I do rely in part on letter
frequencies, which become especially relevant in multi-script
font families. http://themicrofoundry.com/ss_rome1.html

* Although for Arabic I haven't yet produced
such fonts - it's all been sketch work so far.

** http://themicrofoundry.com/f_akhalkalak.html
http://www.slavic.ucla.edu/people/faculty/ivanov/

BTW, sign painting is indeed lettering.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

…some systematic way of looking at the white space…

It is determined by the relative scale of the tool size to the letter height.
The white space is what’s left over after the ink/paint has been applied.
This applies even to constructed brushwork.

Constraints include the complexity of letterform, and the amount of words in the page layout.

hrant's picture

> The white space is what’s left over

Which is, of course, the problem.

hhp

Chris Dean's picture

I wanted something even more straightforward in the final site, something visitors would "get" within seconds and have the option to look into through something like a read more link. Any thoughts on that?”

I agree. Your paper should be more academic, and a plain-language version for the lay-person online. The full academic paper should certainly be a downloadable PDF from the site. However, if you have the full academic version online as HTML (in addition to the plain-language HTML version, and the full downloadable PDF) then you may be more findable via search engines.

Keep up the good work.

Nick Shinn's picture

…some systematic way of looking at the white space…

Moveable type allows great subtlety in horizontal spacing of type.

Perhaps strangely, more recent technologies have been more restrictive:
- typewriters
- linotype
- pixel screens
- ocr

More methodologies:

Types of Space
http://books.youworkforthem.com/book/P0226/Type-Spaces

Fourier analysis
http://typophile.com/node/33659

John Hudson's picture

Hrant: You can respect the white, and try to make it happy, but as long as you're only marking the black it's all an illusion.

If Noordzij were talking about the shape of the white, I'd agree that there are specific situations in which the marking of the black determines the shape of the white such that the latter must be considered secondary. By the same token, though, if one were to manipulate the pen to shape the white in some particular way, that would subjugate the black to the white, and I'm not sure the situation is much changed if one creates the black/white edges in some independent way: decisions about shapes affect adjacent shapes.

But Noordzij is not talking about the shape of the white, he is talking about 'the relative proportions of the white in the word', in the context of comparing different examples of writing. His point, and I think it is a sound one, is that if one seeks a single common measure by which one can compare any two or more examples -- regardless of script, age, style -- then the only measure available is relative proportion of the white, because all other aspects of the examples introduce too many variables. In particular, note that the stroke itself does not provide such a measure.

hrant's picture

> if one were to manipulate the pen ....

Which nobody does, and for good reason.

> the only measure available is relative proportion of the white

That's the easiest measure available, but one of
the less significant ones; just because something
is difficult to grasp and discuss does not make it
irrelevant. In fact to me it's the other way around.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Hrant, we're talking about measures of comparison, a basic principle of which is that you need to isolate the factors that are unique to the things being compared, and identify a common factor or factors. In the case of text, given the particularities of writing systems and of individual styles within those writing systems, proportion of white isn't the easiest measure available, it is the only common measure. This is not to say that there are not other common measures that would apply to some particular set of compared examples -- slant is a common measure by which italics can be compared, for example, but not romans --, only that when you take all text, in toto, the only common basis on which they can all be compared is relative proportion of white. And I don't think Noordzij is making this point in order to suggest that comparing different examples of writing in this way is a useful exercise, but to stress the universality of the proportional role of the white in all the world's writing systems.

hrant's picture

> "Writing rests on the relative proportions of the white in the word."

What does "rests" mean to you? To me he seems to be
making a much more radical statement than you state.

BTW are you sure he means relative to the black?

> The white of the word is the only thing all
> the various kinds of writing have in common.

By "the white" does he really mean "the relative proportions
of the white and black"? Because otherwise it's entirely white-
centric. Is this his way of negating black-centricism? Because
to me it's like demolishing a building full of people you don't
agree with; it's better to convince them to leave the building
because it's not livable.

> it is the only common measure.

It's the only common explicit measure. But what I
was saying before is that doesn't make it valuable.

If you take two unlike Latin typefaces where the
Regular and Bold of one is comparable to the other's
in terms of weight, is it accurate to say that the two
Bolds are more alike than the Regular & Bold of each?
Certainly not.

--

If GN is in fact saying what you think he's saying,
it's entirely banal. What I think he's saying -in
obstructive language- is simply that the white is
important. Which is worth pointing out to novices,
but does not really help deal with the deeper issue
of how to build optimal type.

hhp

typerror's picture

@ Hrant

WHITE is critical to me! When I design I am constantly bouncing back and forth between the black and white. In Pooper the black came easily but the white was critical in defining the appearance, fit and texture and frustrated me for quite some time. Without hesitation I would proffer that the white was/is primary, the black secondary (although black was the genesis of the font). Whenever I do commercial lettering the first generation touch up is white letters on black background so I am essentially reworking the "white."

This may not bolster your argument if you really think my fonts are "junk" :-)
When I started 30 years ago Notan was mentioned frequently by calligraphic artists that I respected.

hrant's picture

Thanks for the input. It's interesting how you had to
handle the black and white sort of separately, which
seems to make for an interesting dynamic.

I myself don't pretend to have a good grasp of notan.

I don't think your fonts are junk. Some of them
I would surely use if the right project came up.
Except I don't use fonts much...

hhp

typerror's picture

Actually Hrant, I handle them simultaneously. I do not "distinguish." I simply came upon, and practice, the realization that they are interdependent. In Pooper though the white was the pivotal "color." And I do, very much, manipulate the pens in consideration of the white. Pooper became a "chess game" in that respect.

typerror's picture

Actually I think Notan has been over-complicated by academes. I view it as a very simple principle... for me it is the process of harnessing the "energy" of two polar opposites to create a "synergy," or whole, of sorts.

typerror's picture

Hrant... I have an example but with the new "format" I have no idea as to how to load a picture! :-(

typerror's picture

What happened to the lady's post before mine? I see the moderators are getting aggressive. Just like Montalbano's thread they deleted last week :-)

hrant's picture

Was she selling leather bags?

For the record: I didn't request any deletions. I never have.

hhp

typerror's picture

Did not say that Hrant :-)

Anyway, did my remarks clarify anything? Do you have any idea as to how to upload a picture?

riccard0's picture

Do you have any idea as to how to upload a picture?

At the moment, you need to have it stored somewhere in the interwebs and then you can "hotlink" it with a < img > tag.

typerror's picture

interwebs????? I am a plug and play kind of guy :-)

hrant's picture

I think it's very interesting -and centrally relevant-
to grasp how the black and white interplay to unite.
And then applying that knowledge. The tallest peak
to climb in this craft.

hhp

enne_son's picture

Carl,

You say you are fascinated with what Noordzij says about the white but are wondering if there’s some structured way you can speak about type using the concept of white space.

I see chapter 1 of The Stroke as a manifesto about something that eludes ‘structural’ description, and less about the ‘synergy’ between the ‘white’ and the ‘black,’ than about the centrality of the white.

In writing, that is, when it comes to readability, it's all about the white. The black of the letter must be close enough to conventional forms to be identifiable — and these vary from type to type and script to script — but when it comes to words and texts (which are what writing puts in place) the white is primary. If there is no equi-valence between the whites inside the letters and the whites between the letters, and if there is no disruption between the white of the word and the white space between words, the word disappears because the word-image as a bounded visual gestalt or unitary object-like entity falls apart.

However, while you can get a precise or ‘structural’ description of the black, even when the shapes deviate from the strokes of writing in systematic (and unsystematic!) ways, you can only gauge the whites of the word according to their comparative ‘weights’ or valence.

I said the white eludes structural description, but it is possible to talk about the hierarchy of the whites in typography.

Peter Enneson

brianskywalker's picture

Do you have any idea as to how to upload a picture?

Michael, posting an image, at present, is described on Michel Boyers blog. It pretty much boils down to attaching the image to a blog post (as he did) and then copying the URL and using it in an <img> tag. It's described in the post. I think it's been possible pretty much the entire time I've used Typophile.

typerror's picture

Thanks, I always just uploaded a png file from my desktop.

Nick Shinn's picture

…attaching the image to a blog post…

You can also use “CloudApp” on a Mac, to store your image at a URL in an Apple server farm.

Birdseeding's picture

Something like imgur is probably the best solution: You upload a file, copy the relevant embed code they provide and hey presto.

hrant's picture

> the white eludes structural description

Indeed, and that is its nature. Having two Yins or
two Yangs is just pointless; and the more different
they are (for example one being explicit the other
implicit) the more fruitfully they unite. That said,
the way we make the black can improve, in terms
of ending up with better notan.

One thing that would help me understand things
better, looking at my own very modest efforts in
marking the black*: exactly what should I do to
make the white less servile?

* This is the only semi-decent thing I've ever produced:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/48413419@N00/222343485

hhp

typerror's picture

> the white eludes structural description<
I do not agree. It is just as tangible to me as the black! Just 'cause ya caint see it dont mean it dont exist :-)

Hrant, the white gives order to the black and harnesses its "randomness."

In your piece the white is irregular/disconcerting because symmetry/equality does not exist in the black. Individually your letters are acceptable but do not "fit," in toto. Sorry, but at the point when you were doing the letters you WERE CONCENTRATING on the black... ONLY. You had not yet begun the process of assimilating the "Yin and the Yang."

I look at the "channels, or canals" that exist within and around the black. That is the white, and it has to work with the black in a way that is consistent, ordered and rational. It literally controls how the black should appear.

This too defines spacing/kerning.

hrant's picture

Michael, no need to apologize. The only thing we should
hold back is the vitriol, and only because that causes most
everybody to lose focus. In my view people who can't handle
impersonal criticism, no matter how close to home it strikes,
simply don't belong on a public forum devoted to progress.
We all have our limitations, and admitting them -first of all to
ourselves- is likely to reduce friction and misunderstanding.

--

- I don't pretend to have a handle on notan. Not even in
my fonts, much less in real-time marking of the black!
My consolation is that instead of admiring the beautiful
plateau we're all frolicking on, I'm looking straight at the
big scary mountain.

- I don't see how the black is "random". Not that the white
is random, but Peter's point concerning the black being
explicit while the white is implicit seems to make a lot
of sense (although those are not the terms he used).

hhp

William Berkson's picture

I think when Peter writes about white "eluding structural description", I think he is alluding to the kind of structure you can ascribe to the black of a letter: that the b is a long vertical stick with attached ball, etc. The shapes of the white, especially between letters are not "read" as a structure so much. Still, the visually experienced quantity of these whites, in relation to other spaces between letters, between words, etc. are important to both readability and aesthetics.

hrant's picture

As an aside, this is a very well-written synopsis:
http://www.eyemagazine.com/review.php?id=130&rid=620
It manages a balance that very few apologists do.

hhp

typerror's picture

@ William
That is exactly what I was saying! The "whites" ARE read. They are as important as the black... otherwise the black does not make sense, or, if done incorrectly, at minimum makes it difficult to read.

This is why I love lettering, calligraphy whatever... it is more obvious to us... the relationship, that is.

@ Hrant

Think of the black as variants... /(|. These are the basic shapes, therein lies the "randomness" that I was speaking of. Verticals, curves, and diagonals... and the "white" that cushions them.
Why is this so difficult to understand?

hrant's picture

I do understand, and even agree.

My main concern is "mechnically" how to render
the black (I mean how to manipulate the virtual
marking tool) in order to get ideal white.

hhp

enne_son's picture

[Bill] I think he is alluding to the kind of structure you can ascribe to the black of a letter: that the b is a long vertical stick with attached ball, etc.

Actually I'm not. I'm referring to the type of description Noordzij lays out in The Stroke using the idea of the moving front.

William Berkson's picture

Peter, so you're not talking about your 'role units' of letters, but about rotation and expansion of the moving front? —Which has no analogue for the whites.

typerror's picture

Geez.
What the hell does that mean William.
That sounds like gobbledeegook or doublespeak!

@ Hrant... that is what I am saying. You cannot do one without doing the other. They are intertwined!

typerror's picture

I said this in a class of professional lettering artists 18 years ago... "The first stroke you lay down will determine everything that follows!" There's your moving front :-)

William Berkson's picture

Michael, I do recommend Noordzij's brief book, The Stroke, which Peter translated. You will probably enjoy it, and then this lingo won't be alien to you. I'm sure what he writes about will be extremely familiar to you.

typerror's picture

Read it. Does not change my feeling on the overly verbose attempts to talk about something that is very simple. I think people obfuscate to hedge their "practical" bets, over compensation in my mind! You still have not picked up a pen have you? Pen manipulation is a reality.

William Berkson's picture

What you call pen manipulation Noordzij calls rotation of the moving front. But if you're going to get hostile again, forget it.

hrant's picture

I agree it's simple. It's natural. Which is why it's possible
to understand it (not the same thing as mastering it!) with
minimal instruction. But the next step is what stumps me.

hhp

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Quote: Read it.

Problem: This can imply that one has to read it, or that one has already read it. Semantics. The same applies to Noordzij’s essay. I will reread it (Reread it!) and will get back to you all with my sentence (not a sequence of words with some meaning, but a diversion of implications or whatever).

(There are some advantages to being Dutch.)

typerror's picture

Look at architecture... not buildings but the bricks... windows and their relationship to each other. Look at landscaping, planned gardens. You are in LA... look at wave sets as they arrive on shore, especially from a high vantage point (this literally influeced one of my fonts :-)). Any thing that has a rhythm, random or metered. Therein lies the key to the white/black relationship.

Look at your hand, palm facing you, fingers spread and closed. Interrelationships!

Bert. I read it, past tense.

typerror's picture

Not getting hostile William... but I do not understand how you can call it the leading front when pen manipulation affects the left and right side of the form. Once again you are going off without even a basic understanding of......... wait for it........ pen manipulation, which you denied the existence of two years ago.

Stick to redrawing existing/old forms, it replaces the need to be creative.

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