Exhibit H: Found Typography Sister Blog

Hey readers, exciting news!

Funnily enough, if you Google “That Belongs in a Museum”, this blog here is the second hit, right after the IMDb page referring to the famous Indiana Jones quote. So hooray for that – but that’s not the big news!

I’ve started another blog cataloging my hunt for found typography here in NYC. I know you’re saying, “John, you almost never update this blog, why are you starting another one?” Well this is different. For one, it’s on Tumblr (is it sacrilege to promote a Tumblr blog on WordPress?), which means it’s much more image-based than text-based. In fact there’s hardly any text at all. But there are beautiful photographs and digital renderings of hand-lettering and found typography ripped from the streets of this city. I think if you’re the kind of person who likes this blog, you might be into Font Hunter as well – so check it out! Here’s the link:



Until next time,


Exhibit G: New York City Cocktails

Hey all, It’s time for my twice-yearly blog update!

In recent news, I’ve graduated and now live in New York City! Above all, NYC life means access to NYC bars – and the wonderful concoctions to be had within. Now I love a good pitcher of PBR at a sticky-floored dive bar or bottom-shelf whiskey at a hipster dance party as much as the next guy, but on nights when I’m feeling high on class and low on parsimony, I head to a speakeasy.


Where you'll find me.

The trend of haute-cuisine beverages concocted by celebrity “professors of mixology” in Jazz Age-inspired environs exploded so rapidly in this city that the all-knowing Arbiters of What’s Cool have no doubt already labeled it “passé” and moved on to cupcake trucks or unicycle riding or whatever.


This is cool now.

But novelty aside, these speakeasies, if you can get into them (or even find their well-hidden doors) remain an elegant place to find superb cocktails carefully crafted from premium ingredients by People Who Know What They’re Doing. And for mixology nerds like me, speakeasies like Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey are what David Chang’s Momofuku Ko is to foodies.

How appropriate that New York City is the nexus of this quality cocktail revival, as the very streets of this city have been the inspiration for a number of classic cocktails – in fact there’s (nearly) one for each borough. We’ve all heard of the Manhattan – but did you know the Bronx was once one of the nation’s most-ordered drinks? Let’s take a borough-by-borough tour of NYC-inspired cocktails!

The Manhattan

2 parts Rye Whiskey

1 part Sweet Vermouth

Dash of Angostura Bitters

Stir over ice, Strain, Garnish with a cherry, orange slice, or both.


The Manhattan

I’ve seen some bartenders shake this drink instead of stir it – I suppose that’s fine, but I find it makes things too cloudy and frothy for a cocktail that doesn’t need to be super-chilled anyway. The ratio of whiskey-to-vermouth seems to have increased over time: the International Bartender’s Association currently suggests a stronger 5:2, while the 1935 Edition of Old Mr. Boston’s Official Bartender’s Guide called for a sweeter 5:3. This follows a general (and, I think, tragic) phasing out of vermouth in cocktails over the century – just look at the poor Martini which is now little more than a cold glass of gin with the word ‘vermouth’ whispered quietly across its rim.

The origins of the Manhattan are, like many iconic drinks, shrouded behind multiple unverifiable tales. Most commonly cited is the 1945 testimony of journalist Edward Gibbs who claims the drink was invented at a private party on December 29, 1874 at the Manhattan Club (then located at 350 5th Avenue…that’s right, the current site of the Empire State Building). The drink was mixed up in honor of New York Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, became an instant hit (unlike Tilden’s primary campaign), and was asked for ever after.

The problem with this story is that a good number of bartender’s manuals mention a drink called the ‘Manhattan’ in publications dating well before 1874. While varied, all seem to contain a basic mixture of whiskey and vermouth – it seems the drink served at Tilden’s party was simply a variation on an existing favorite rather than an spontaneous invention.

The Bronx

4 parts gin

1 part sweet vermouth

1 part dry vermouth

2 parts fresh orange juice

Shake with ice, Strain, Garnish with an orange slice, if you like.


The Bronx

This is basically a Perfect Martini (a gin martini with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth) with OJ added. It should always be shaken, in order to adequately mix the sticky fruit juice component. Ratios vary widely, from ‘updated contemporary versions’ that all but suck the vermouth completely out, to booze-heavy ones that skimp on the characteristic orange flavor.  Above is an adapted recipe from the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, and the one I think works best.

The Bronx was a number 1 hit in pre-Prohibition America – legend has it that the hotel bars literally went through cases of fresh oranges every night to meet demand. Unlike the Manhattan, his one has a pretty sound origin story. Johnnie Solon, bartender at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in the early 20th Century was purportedly mixing up a Duplex (a now-archaic cocktail of vermouth and orange) when an apparently cranky customer accused him of being unable to make anything original. Defending his mixological honor, Solon upped the orange juice, threw in 2 jiggers of gin, and made an instant classic. When asked for the origin of the name, Solon recalls, “I had been at the Bronx Zoo a day or two before, and I saw a lot of beasts I had never known. Customers used to tell me of the strange animals they saw after a lot of mixed drinks.” Seems like a bit of a stretch, but okay Johnnie.

The drink first appears in print in 1907. A few stories instead point to an inventor named Joseph Sormani, a Bronx restaurant owner – but they contain discrepancies, and, as far as I can tell, lack the first-person account found in Solon’s version.

The Queens

3 parts gin

1 part sweet vermouth

1 part dry vermouth

1 part fresh pineapple juice


The Queens

Ok, you guessed it: this is pretty much a Bronx with pineapple instead of orange juice. The amount of juice is lessened a little, due to the stronger flavor of pineapple as compared to orange. Again, as a fruit juice cocktail, the Queens should always be shaken not stirred. Some recipes call for muddled pineapple slices instead of squeezed juice – but that just sounds like a pulpy, stringy mess to me.

As a proud and loving resident of Astoria, Queens, I wish I knew more about the origins of this cocktail. But after the Manhattan and the Bronx, the borough drinks start getting a little more obscure. A part of me thinks that some Queens bartender was just keeping up with the Joneses, took the Bronx, and made a variation for a his prettier borough to the south. What’s particularly “Queens-y” about pineapple though, I can’t say. Although famously multicultural, the dominant ethnic flavors here are Greek and Chinese – maybe adding tzatziki or soy sauce to the beverage just seemed less appealing.

However, while browsing through a store copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book the other day, whose publication date I unfortunately don’t recall, I came across a “Queen’s Cocktail” of almost exactly the same description. Notice the apostrophe – as in “cocktail of the queen.” Was this originally a monarch-themed beverage that got mistaken for a borough name in some accident of folk etymology? Any information you loyal readers may have should be sent my way!

The Brooklyn

6 parts whiskey

2 parts dry vermouth

1 part maraschino liqueur

1 part Amer Picon

Stir with ice, Strain.


The Brooklyn

Your first reaction upon seeing this recipe should be “What the hell is Amer Picon?” This is understandable  – leave it to friggin’ Brooklyn to demand a vintage ingredient that is now obscure, out of production, and unobtainable. Like most of the neighborhoods in its eponymous borough, a source of this liquor is basically impossible to get to. What did it taste like? I’m not quite sure – but Cocktail Database describes it as at herbal apertif bitters. “Amer” is the French term for the more familiar Italian “Amaro,” which includes still-available variants like the infamous Fernet Branca (although that particular one is too medicinal for this drink). If you want to make this cocktail, a dark herbal Amaro liqueur is probably the way to go – Punt e Mes could work too, I bet.  I hear Torani even makes a French Amer variant, if you can find it.

Sasha Petraske’s Little Branch speakeasy reportedly offers a Brooklyn cocktail which is supposed to be fantastic – I don’t know what secret liquor they’re using for the Amer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were specially made in-house.

This drink’s origins are mysterious. Cocktail historian David Wondrich found the basics of this recipe written down as early as 1914 by a David Straub, who, like Johnnie Solon, shook his shaker at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel bar. A cocktail going by the same name appears in 1910, but bears no resemblance to the current drink. In 1945, the New Yorker Hotel served a drink with apricot brandy, and it too was named after the city’s most populous borough. In short, like most cocktails, nobody knows where the Brooklyn came from.

The Staten Island


A postcard, not a drink.

Poor Staten Island – the often-forgotten, and more-often-mocked, little sibling of the 5 boroughs. It doesn’t really have it’s own cocktail. Not mentioned in any cocktail books, internet searches have come up with various dubious concoctions from all manner of blogs and message boards. A common thread often seems to involve coffee-flavored vodka, but the correlations end there. A brainstorming session with friends came up with the suggestion of “one part garbage juices, one part hair gel, one part marinara sauce.”

That recipe might get too easily confused for a New Jersey cocktail, though.

There is such a thing as a “Staten Island Ferry” cocktail, served at the Jade Island tiki bar on SI. It’s basically a quick and dirty Piña Colada, substituting coconut-flavored Malibu rum for the coconut cream.

I’m sure the nice suburban people of this lil’ borough deserve their own mixed drink. Perhaps something tropical and rum-based as a play on their “island” status? Or maybe with Italian spirits to celebrate the heritage of many of the residents? Or maybe something bright orange, like their ferry!  In the exciting world of mixology, anything is possible!


Exhibit F: Miniature Worlds

Hey all, it’s been a while – been working on my Senior Thesis recently. Anyway, I was doing some early shopping the other day for potential Christmas gifts for my mother at Department 56, whose products she avidly collects. Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling any surprises on my blog here – I’ve bought her the same thing every Christmas since I had my own money to spend, so she knows what to expect by now!

For those of you who don’t know, Department 56 is a collectible product line of approximately 1:48 scale model porcelain houses, shops, churches, and other largely Christmas-themed, hand-painted village buildings – each outfitted with an interior electric light to give off a warm Thomas Kincaidesque holiday glow from the inside. Along with their flagship line of buildings, Dept. 56 offers a whole array of accessories including fences, shrubs, lampposts, and, of course, porcelain people to populate your quaint miniature town.

Like most collectible product lines (Hummel, Beanie Babies, etc.), Dept. 56 cultivates a huge amount of brand loyalty. No self-respecting collecter (and certainly not my mother) would have  another brand’s miniature homes polluting their Dept. 56 display –  in the same way that a Pop Art collector would not be content with a fake Warhol for their collection, even though the forgery may be cheaper and indistinguishable from the original.

The psychology and sociology of collectors and collecting could be the subject of an entire college course (in fact, I have taken this course) – but suffice it to say, Dept 56 fans, who are almost exclusively middle-aged and elderly women, are willing to pay top dollar for the real product. I can assure you, as a frequent gift-purchaser, this is not a cheap hobby to support.

48 Daughtry St - $85 new.

So, comes the inevitable question, why? Well, let’s take it from one of the thousands of doting Dept 56 fan websites:

“We all like to dream and imagine what would be if…..

With your Dept 56 collections you can bring some of that imagination to life. For instance, what would you have been doing if you could have lived back in the wintery times of Dickens? Which shops would you have liked to visit (or own)? Where would you have liked to live?

Or how about if you lived in New England. What would you have liked to do there? Fish, watch the sea, skate,???

Your collections allow you to display some of your dreams and desires.”

It seems the main themes here are an outlet for imagination and a degree of escapism. The Dept 56. hobbyist can, to quote a recent movie, “build a place where only the things you want to happen will happen.” In the real world, Christmas is expensive and stressful, shopping budgets are tight, the weather is bitter, and snow banks are muddy and grey – but in your own little Christmas village, all is warm, peaceful, picturesque, and cared for.


Real Christmas


Model Christmas

In essence, it is playing dolls for adult women. But before we feminize this trend, let’s remember one of the nation’s largest adult male hobbies : model trains. Is this so different? Carefully detailed, expensively acquired, lovingly displayed miniature worlds – masculinized, of course, with the addition of things like muscular steam engines and gritty coal hoppers – but no less idealized, often set in a simpler, more peaceful, time and place. There are never drunken transients sleeping on the benches of model train stations. And even traditional boy’s toys, from Lego towns to toy soldiers, follow this trend of an ideal miniature world at your control.


HO-scale model train layout

Why then, do so many seem to need to collect, build, and care for a miniature world? Is it some sort of God complex, the love of power over those smaller than you? Perhaps, at some level, it goes back to the idea of escapism: while you are never completely in control of life’s events, and bad things happen to good people, at least in your own little village you can make sure that everything happens just as it should.

Exhibit E: Inter-departmental Mail

Hey all! My various academic, theatrical, and employment commitments are through, and now it’s summertime! Which means I should, in theory, have more time to dedicate to little blogthing here. I’m doing some housekeeping, and there will be some changes in the blog format – namely posts will be a lot shorter. This will hopefully allow me to update more frequently. Also, to be honest, I doubt any of you had the time or inclination to read those massive 10-page research assignments I’ve been posting.

Also, tidied up a few broken links and images in previous posts.

So here’s a little something I starting working on a few months ago, but only just got around to finishing.

Yale University Inter-Departmental Mail

Yale University Inter-Departmental Mail.

A paper I wrote a while back was finally returned to me in one of these reusable manila mailer envelopes (or as a 5-year-old John Yates once called them, “Vanilla Envelopes”). I’ve always liked manila envelopes for their clean, simple functionality. Sturdy enough to protect a sizable stack of documents, yet light enough to not add big bucks to your postage rate. Just the right size for standard 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper to fit snugly, without the folding necessary for conventional envelopes. And they come in that unmistakable yellowy-tan hue.

I was thinking to myself recently, why do they only come in that color? And why are they called ‘manila envelopes’? Something to do with the Phillipines? A bit of research says yes, in a sense. Manila envelopes (and manila paper in general) were once made of a fibrous South-East Asian plant known as Manila Hemp, also called Abacá. The sturdy hay-colored fibers imparted their signature color to the paper pulp.

Manila Hemp Fibers - Ew. Looks like a bunch of blond wigs.

Nowadays, the envelopes are made out of plain old bleached wood pulp like most consumer paper. The envelopes are colorless, and modern manufacturers actually add that yellow coloring as a dye. It seems the distinct color remains, even after the material change, the essential marker of a product as a “manila envelope” instead of just a “big envelope.”  This incidental, non-functional feature is added to a new product whose materials and manufacture longer require this feature – simply out of convention and consumer comfort, it seems.

Reminds me of how digital cameras play a faux “shutter click” sound effect from their speakers when a picture is taken, even though the camera no longer contains any actual moving shutter mechanisms.

Manila envelopes are also great for their re-usability. Unlike conventional envelopes with their lick-and-tear system, most manila mailers have a re-sealable brad or string clasp. Plus, in either their hemp or wood pulp construction, they’re sturdy enough to last through dozens of mailings.


Reusable clasp

However their recyclable use is hampered by one simple problem: the to/from address slots can only be filled once, and it takes only a few rounds of scratching out old addresses with Sharpie and re-addressing before the front of the envelope is a scribbly overwritten mess, unusable as a mailer, although still structurally sound.

And thus most manila envelopes are thrown out or relegated to secondary uses, such as the storage of news clippings or old Christmas Cards. Few companies or individuals want to be the ones who send their materials in clearly salvaged second-hand envelopes. We like crisp new packages. When was the last time you received mail in a used envelope?

Simple grid format.

The inter-departmental mailer solves all these issues with its gridded ledger of Date/To/From slots. Once delivered, the new owner of the envelope need simply fill out the next entry line, and the envelope is on its way.

This creates an interesting six-degrees-of-separation scenario, in which one can construct a backwards “she sent to him who sent to her who sent to me” timeline, often complete with dates. A network is created between strangers, linked only by the fact that the same envelope passed through their hands. One is left to imagine what different items the envelope might have held at each step – and one may even recognize names from much earlier in the ledger, revealing previously unknown connections with mutual friends.

On my envelope, the original sender’s name has been obscured. The earliest recognizable transaction was from “Visitor Services” of the Kahn Building (aka the Yale Art Gallery), to a “John Gordon” in the American Decorative Arts department. A Yale staff search reveals a John Stuart Gordon, a curator of American design & decorative arts in the process of  receiving his PhD from Boston University.

My new friend.

According to his C.V., Mr. Gordon once delivered a series of lectures on the design and history of the modern cocktail shaker, which sounds pretty neat to me. What did he receive in this envelope from Visitor Services? What did he send in it on the next leg of the journey? I’ll never know. But I do know we’re connected by one long fiber in the massive web of modern human communication.

Exhibit D: Isometric Pixel Art

Hey readers, it’s been a long while. I seem to go through alternating cycles of being either extremely busy or extremely lazy. Neither of these is conducive to getting a blog entry done. But here we go with a little something the graphic designer/illustrator in me thinks is really neat.

Isometric Pixel Art.

What does this mean? Let’s break it down!

“Isometic” is a style of graphical projection. A projection is simply a method of representing a 3D object in 2D space, used everywhere from Renaissance perspective painting to architectural modeling software. Every time you draw a cube as something more than just a square on your page, you’re using a form of projection. In fact, even if you draw just a square to represent a cube, you’re still using Orthographic Projection, which repesresents just one side of a 3D object at a time.

Isometric Projection is special because every dimension is equally foreshortened. When the axes of height, width, and depth meet, the angles formed are all equal (120 degrees), like so:

All this is in the word: iso meaning “equal” and metric meaning “measurement”. It is quite common to represent 3D objects using projections in which these angles are not equal. In fact, non-isometric renderings often look more natural to many viewers as they cause less distortion to the “front” face of an object. See these three different projections of the same desk:

Axonometric projections.png

However, because all axes meet at equal angles, isometry is often easier to draw and also allows for interesting illustrative possibilities, including optical illusions like one found on this Swedish postage stamp:

This illusion is only possible due to the equally foreshortened axes of an isometric projection. Many of M.C. Escher’s famous illusions were achieved through the juxtaposition of placing an isometric object against a non-isometric background.

Because isometry is built around a very specific set of angles, it actually represents the view from a precise camera angle above and in front of the object. Knowing this, a photographer may actually place him/herself at this exact location in relation to the subject, and replicate isometry through photography, as in this real photograph of a corner in NYC:

isometric "illustration" of a New York City corner by Garrett LeSage.

This is not an illustration, and the photograph has not been altered in anyway. The artificial, toy-like “computer-gamey” feel is due purely to our cultural associations of isometric projections with artificial illustrations. This association is so strong that our minds actually read real photographs of isometry as some sort of replica or computer graphic. This brings us to one of the prominent uses of isometric projection in our culture: computer game graphics.

Before the dawn of complex 3D physics engines, early low-power gaming systems needed to represent 3D environments in a simple, yet passably realistic manner. Enter: Isometric projections!  The classic SimCity is a great example of this:

These early computer games (and any other software that required graphics) did not have access to nearly as much computing power as we do today. Images and gaming environments were simplified by limiting the color palette, resolution, interactivity, and level of detail. In these simplified low-resolution images, the pixels, small grid squares of color that make up all digital images, were still quite visible:


These are both screenshots of video game aliens. The left character hails from 1978’s Space Invaders, is 10 pixels high, and is rendered in 1-bit color (each pixel is either ‘on’ or ‘off’). Next to him is a direct descendent from nearly 30 years in the future, a creature from 2007’s Halo 3. He, in contrast, is 389 pixels high and is modeled in the 16,777,216 colors of 32-bit graphics.*  Both images are essentially the same: a grid of pixels tuned to specific color values. The difference is the number of pixels in each image (resolution) and the number of colors each pixel can be tuned to (color depth). The rapid advances in computing speed and memory capacity in the past 30 years are all that separate the generations.

However, a glance into any Urban Outfitters will reveal, through racks of Transformers T-shirts and cassette-tape belt buckles, our youth culture’s obsession with appropriating the aesthetic of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. While this is largely irony-driven, the nostalgia of first-generation gamers who are now reaching adulthood is sincere. Whatever the motivation, there has been a huge interest in creating art and graphics that return to that blocky, bright-colored, low-fi look of early video games. Hence the rise of “pixel art.” Simply Google the term and you’ll find the trend

This spark in interest is also fueled by the accessibility of pixels as an art form. Although many artists use the Adobe Creative Suite for their creations, the very simplest (and cheapest) of raster image-editing programs are quite sufficient, including MS Paint and a number of freeware programs like Pixen:

So what makes something pixel art? While it is technically true that all images created on a computer are made of pixels, “pixel art” generally refers to illustrations in which the individual pixels are intentionally visible and are not blended to create smooth gradients and shadows (think Space Invaders, not Halo). Blockiness is the desired aesthetic, and pixel artists specifically avoid the anti-aliasing capabilities of most image-editing software. Additionally, pixel art involves the painstaking dot-by-dot manipulation of each individual pixel, making it much more similar to mosaic than painting. Most pixel art also embraces a cartoon-like form in which each shape is outlined by a black line, and filled with a solid, bright, color.

So, as pixel art has been seized by the internet zeitgeist for it’s easy-to-make retro charm, isometry has come with it. Most pixel art made in recent years has used this specific projection. The grid-like nature of pixel drawings also lends itself well to the mathematical manipulations needed to convert a 3D image into a 2D isometric one. To create the 30 degree and 60 degree lines key to isometry, game designers and pixel artists use a stair-step system of  2 pixels over-1 pixel up, 2 pixels over-1pixel up, like this:

Do the trigonometry, [arctan(1/2)], and you’ll see this arrangement actually creates lines of 26.6 degrees and 63.4 degrees instead of the true 30 and 60. However this 1-over-2 stair-stepping creates an easy-to-use, smooth line. A true 30 degree line made of pixel blocks is messy and jagged. So, technically, isometric pixel art only employs a close approximation of isometry.

So while the building blocks and methods of creating isometric pixel art are simple and easily taught, artists can create some amazingly complex and beautiful works of art and illustration. In recent years, the style has leapt from the online art community to appear in mainstream advertisements for Coca-Cola, Bell Telephone, and Adidas as well as in print illustrations for magazines Fortune, Wired, and Popular Science. You’ve probably seen a few.

Arguably the current godfather of the isometric pixel art world, and certainly the most commercially exposed, is the illustration firm eBoy.  Their signature style creates whimsical toy-like portraits of world cities, such as Baltimore, Singapore, and Dublin. In fact, cityscapes seem to be the most popular subject for isometric pixel drawings, and I can’t help but wonder how much of this is directly inspired by SimCity’s early use of the form.

Just to wrap things up, here’s a short gallery of some of the neat things that illustrators have been creating with IPA:




Outside of the large design firms, amateur pixel artists have united in a number of great collaborative projects, in which each contributor draws their own block of a massive city, or floor of a high-rise tower

The website of the city of Washington DC has seized on another great application with an interactive isometric pixel map to help tourists navigate the city in friendly 3D format.

And finally, here’s a little something I made, just to try my hand at the style. This was made in Photoshop CS2 and took about 30 min. Maybe I’ll populate it with some details and characters sometime.


Food for Thought: What sort of products/services lend themselves best to advertisements featuring IPA illustrations? What sort of associations does this style of ad connote for a product/service?  Due to the readily available tools and universal grid format, IPA lends itself to massive collaborative projects, do you know of other forms of art that allow for this level of democratic cooperation?

Continuing Research: I’d like to follow this trend, to see if it takes off and appears in increasingly widespread and mainstream venues or if it becomes proves a forgettable few-year fad, like so many items of the fickle internet zeitgeist.

*Well, it was originally in 32-bit color. Depending on your computer, the actual color space you’re seeing on this page probably has fewer bits. But you get the idea.

Well, there’s my epic 4th entry. I promise future entries will never be this long or far between…I don’t have the time to write them, and I’m sure few of you have the endurance to read them. My plan for TBIAM is to update much more frequently, with much shorter entries…you know, like a normal person’s blog. So expect quick “I was just thinking about this the other day” blurbs…and keep your eyes on this page, I haven’t abandoned it yet! In fact, I already have some ideas lined up for future exhibits.

Exhibit C: Hand-Lettered Indie Movies

Sorry it’s been such a long time since I last added an exhibit to my little virtual museum. I’ve been really busy with…being a college student.

But I haven’t forgotten TBiaM (do you like the cute acronym?)*, and I’m here to add a little entry on a trend I’ve been noticing for a very long time now.

We’re talking about the logos for independent movies. I don’t mean any movie that was made by a small independent studio, I mean movies that are in that self-consciously quirky “Indie Style”, like Juno or Napoleon Dynamite. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to these as Indie Movies, as distinguished from independent movies as a whole.

Have you ever noticed that the trailers and posters (and usually credits) for these Indie Movies (especiallly the oddball comedy-romances) overwhelmingly use hand drawn, 10-year-old-with-a-crayon-style, lettering in their titles? Let me show you a few examples, and you’ll see what I mean:




Alright, there are a boatload of other examples out there, but you see the general style. Whether cartoony block letters or marker-drawn cursive, I can understand why this sort of lettering is appropriate: it recreates the playful, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek mood found in many of these films. What I find unusual is the fact that the style has been adopted en masse across the entire genre, almost serving as an essential semiotic marker for what audiences can expect from the movie. 

This use of a specific title typeface as a label for an entire genre is already in use for the largely inane “—Movie” parody films, eg:


Here, these parody films use all-caps red block letters as a marker for the genre of movie they advertise. In a similar trend, the typeface Trajan has been used on nearly every action, adventure, or horror film produced in the last 10 years, as amusingly exposed by Kirby Ferguson:

Scary Movie 1 is clearly the grandfather of the red block-letter parody movie line, and Trajan as a movie font with “epic” connotations has its roots in Roman monumental inscriptions (you’d know that if you watched the youtube video!). However, the primogenitor of the hand-drawn indie movie title is less clear. 

After some research into the chronology, I point to Napoleon Dynamite as the culprit. This oddball 2004 indie comedy predates most of the trend and was a watershed in terms of creating the quirky Indie Movie style. 

While not among my favorite films, I believe many later movies (particularly Juno) are indebted to Napoleon Dynamite’s ironically uncool characters, tongue-in-cheek tone, overload of kitschy pop-culture references, and, apparently, it’s hand-drawn title card.** In the case of ND, the hand-drawn titles are a specific reference to events in the movie, namely Napoleon’s eccentric drawing hobby. While this makes a drawn title font a logical choice, later movies have borrowed it’s style and lettering without it’s in-movie references to actual drawing. That’s how we end up with hand-illustrated typefaces advertising movies that have nothing to do with actual hand-illustration. 

Simultaneously, hand-lettering has been catching on all across the graphic design industry in advertisements, band identities, and book designs. Michael Perry has catalogued this development in his provocatively-titled book Hand Job, which I highly recommend. I believe this increased interest in irreverent, humanistic, hand-made lettering is a Postmodern rejection of the stark, clean, mechanical typefaces of Modernism that have long dominated design until recent years. But that’s a topic for another day.

Continuing Research: I believe this all fits into much larger potential research project regarding the semiotics of typefaces. While it’s established design theory that typefaces can be used add a desired “tone” or “feel” to text (clean, mechanical Helvetica vs. old-world, humanist Garamond, for example), certain fonts convey a meaning of all on their own, independent of the actual content of the text. The hand-drawn lettering says, “quirky indie movie” and red block letters say “parody movie”, the actual title of the film is unimportant. I’d like to explore this concept further.

Food for Thought: Can you think of other movie styles that adopt a fairly consistent graphical identity across the genre? How much do you personally judge the genre or tone of a movie by it’s poster? Can you think of other fields of design where typography conveys an independent semiotic meaning, rather than acting purely as a vehicle of the content of the text?


*This is technically not an acronym, it is an initialism. Acronyms are pronounced as a new word, like NATO or NASA. Initialisms, on the other hand are spelled out, like NBC or LSD. You learn something everyday.

**Some trace these characteristics back to Wes Anderson Films, contending that Napoleon Dynamite was simply a poor man’s Rushmore. Still others, in turn, argue that Wes Anderson is simply a poor man’s Francois Truffaut, but that’s beside the point. I guess nothing’s original anymore.

Exhibit B: Tarako Kewpie Commercials

Continuing with my theme of foreign cultural artifacts that seem bizarre to the American culture, I bring you Tarako. Hailing from Japan, this brand of cod roe pasta sauce has apparently chosen a strikingly upsetting mascot: a red fish egg combined with the disembodied face of a human baby.

But there’s not just one of them. They march (hop) in vast legions, eventually surrounding (and in one case, mounting) the consumer of the pasta sauce, which is almost always a female Caucasian child. And the music…the eerie, haunting, Tarako chant. Perhaps I should just show you:

and here’s another:

I’m sorry for giving you nightmare fodder for the next several nights.  But I feel it’s like the videotape in the horror movie The Ring: you have to show it to someone else or the terrifying characters of the surreal footage will come after you. And I sure don’t want those baby-faced roe monsters marching out of my TV set. Incidentally, The Ring also originally came from Japan.

But all horror movie comparisons aside, it is interesting to note that something so surreal and unsettling to Western eyes is an extremely successful marketing campaign in Japan. A quick Google search has found evidence of Tarako Kewpie costumes, Tarako Kewpie CD’s, Tarako ring tones, live Tarako Kewpie performances on talk shows, and “adorable” Kewpie dolls that were practically Japan’s Tickle-Me-Elmo. One can even purchase a Tarako MP3 player:

While Tarako is a purely Japanese brand, it should be noted that the “kewpie” is a American invention. These highly collectible baby-faced imps were the subject of a huge craze in the first half of the 20th century. So representative were they of American culture at the time, that one was placed in a time capsule at the 1939 World’s Fair, which we are scheduled to unearth in 6939 AD.

Now, Japanese commercials have long been a source of amusement and bewilderment for Western viewers. A simple Youtube search will result in dozens of examples.

What fascinates me is the extensive use of American celebrities and cultural memes in these commercials intended for Japanese viewers. In a process known as Japandering, English-speaking celebrities such as Nicholas Cage, Bruce Willis, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appear in Japanese commercials to sell Japanese products to Japanese viewers.  Although there are no celebrities, there are several Western artifacts in the Tarako ads:

  1. In nearly all cases, the female lead is Causcasian, presumably American or European.
  2. The Tarako Kewpie has the face of a blond-haired Caucasian baby.
  3. Kewpies, as mentioned above, are an American cultural object.
  4. The pasta is eaten with a fork, a Western utensil. In all the Japanese noodle houses I visited, dishes were exclusively served with chopsticks or spoons.

So, with all of these Western cultural artifacts, why does the Tarako add campaign feel so alien and eerie to Western viewers? (And it’s not just me, read the comments on the Youtube videos!). My theory is that this off-putting effect is generated when these familiar items and events (baby dolls, marching armies, playing on the beach, eating pasta, etc.) are re-combined in a decidedly unfamiliar manner. Added to this is a soundtrack with minor-key tonality, associated with fear and sorrow in Western ears.

Let’s look back to the videotape from the horror movie The Ring. Individually, many items in this video are mundane on their own: a ladder, a chair, a well, a tree, a woman brushing her hair. Again, it is their odd juxtaposition layered with eerie music that creates much of the horror effect. Now, the Ring video is also interspersed with traditionally frightening images, such as a screaming face and severed fingers, and this the only essential separation between an intentionally horrifying ghost-video and an unintentionally horrifying pasta sauce commercial.

Continuing Research: I plan to shop around local Asian markets to see if I can find a sample of Tarako Pasta Sauce to purchase.

Food for Thought: Why do you think many Japanese commercials, cartoons, and comic books use white Caucasian faces in their representation of characters? While many of our ads may seem strange to other cultures, do you think any are actually terrifying to foreigners? The kewpie’s red oblong form is easily identifiable as fish roe to Japanese consumers; do you placing the baby’s face on a more familiar product would make it more acceptable to Westerners?

Exhibit A: ¡Sponch!

This unusual artifact was discovered at 2:30am in the 7-11 convenience store at the corner of Valmont and Folsom, in Boulder, CO. ¡Sponch! seems to be a Mexican snackfood cake produced by Marinela brand of the massive Bimbo Bakeries Group.  

¡Sponch! is a strange concotion. It starts with a graham crackery biscuit base. This is then topped with four round marshmallows, two pink and two white. These marshamallows are coated in dry coconut flakes and the orifice between them is injected with strawberry jam. A friend noted that this recipe “sounds like the kind of candy you invent when you’re five.”

Despite (or because of) this novel combination of flavors, eating ¡Sponch! is a strenuously unpleasant experience. My expedition colleagues’ reactions were “Mmf….this is very disppointing” and “I can’t…I can’t eat this.” In the name of research, I finished my cake item and I regret the experience. I catalog the failures of ¡Sponch! as follows:

  1.   When the cake is pressed against the transparent package, the blood-red filling oozes out from the fleshy marshmallow surface, striking a unsettling resemblance to an open wound.
  2. The moisture from the jam and marshmallows is absorbed by the graham cracker base, transforming the crisp biscuit into a soggy mass of paste reminiscent of the breadcrusts that didn’t quite make it down the sink drain while you were washing the breakfast dishes. 
  3. The marshmallow texture is all wrong. Instead of the light foaminess of campfire marshmallows, or the sugary crisp of Lucky Charms ‘marhsmallows’, ¡Sponch! marshmallows are dense, rubbery, and spongy (sponchy?).
  4. ¡Sponch! is simply too much. Too many different flavors, too many textures, too many exclamation marks. And the cake is about 30% too large.  Like pizza and ice cream, great flavors don’t neccesarily taste great together. 

All of this leads us to an interesting question: “Why, if ¡Sponch! is so unappetizing, does it continue to be produced, sold, and, judging by internet research, widely popular? ” I believe there are 4 possible explanations. 

  1. Incidental: The ¡Sponch! we tried was a bad sample. It had sat on the shelf too long and was manhandled in delivery
  2. Personal: Most people find ¡Sponch! delicious. My research colleaques and I have peculiar tastes and are overly picky. 
  3. Cultural: As a Mexican product, ¡Sponch! is designed for Hispanic cutural tastes, and is considered to be quite tasty in that culture. Much like menudo, we have diffiulty appreciating ¡Sponch! with our Anglo-Saxon Americans palettes.  
  4. Actual: ¡Sponch! is truly unappetizing, and most people agree. Like Spam and Twinkies, the product is desired purely out of tradition, novelty, nostalgia, and morbid curiosity. 

And then there’s the name. “¡Sponch!” almost certainly sounds less bizarre in Spanish. It instantly reminded me of  “SBlounskched!”, a fictional candy bar featured in this episode of a popular web cartoon.

Interestingly, S.P.O.N.C.H. is an acronym used by biochemists to refer to the key elements that comprise living organisms: Sulphur, Phosporus, Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen, and Hydrogen. Perhaps these are also the key components of ¡Sponch!. For one, I don’t think the name accurately describes the experience of eating the product. I suggest “Spliidge…”

Note the lack of exclamation marks. 

Continuing Research: Investigation of the Marinela and Bimbo websites and company literature. I will return soon with more information on this peculiar discovery.

Food for Thought:  When used in packaging, what images and experiences does the color pink conjure? How important is the role of texture (as opposed to flavor) in your enjoyment of food? Which foods or flavors in your culture must seem bizarre to to others?

Note: Photo credits are due to the Photobucket account of ‘WendySue1000’ and the Flickr accounts of ‘justjason’ and ‘MMMMichelle’. Of course, I documented the experience with my own photographs, but misplaced my camera before they could be uploaded. Whoever you guys are, thanks for the photos, and please don’t yell at me for using them.