Music, Visual Design

Twelve Glyph Challenge

Challenge: design glyphs to represent the numbers one through twelve.

Consider the numbers arranged on a clock face.  Your glyph system should have the following properties:

  1. The glyphs for two numbers that are opposite on the clock face (like 12 and 6) should have some visual qualities that bind them together as a pair.
  2. If you look at the glyphs for any two numbers that are adjacent on the clock face (like 1 and 2), it should be easy to see which glyph represents the “lower” number in clockwise order, and which glyph represents the “higher” number.
  3. The glyphs for any three numbers that form an even division of the clock face into three parts (like 12, 4, and 8) should have some common visual feature that makes them recognizable as a group.
  4. The glyphs for any four numbers that form an even division of the clock face into four parts (like 12, 3, 6, and 9) should have some common visual feature that makes them recognizable as a group.
  5. The parity of a number (whether the number is odd or even) should be somehow discernible from its glyph.

Thinking of this problem in musical terms, the glyphs could represent the 12 notes of the octave (assuming 12TET).  Looking at any glyph, you should be able to quickly discern the following things about the note it represents: which of the four augmented triads does the note belongs to?  Which of three fully-diminished seventh chords does it belong to?  What is its tritone, and what is that tritone’s glyph? What are its upper and lower chromatic neighbors, and what are their glyphs?

I haven’t solved this.  But, to jog your imagination, here’s one of many glyph systems I’ve come up with while considering the problem.  Do you think it has any nice properties?  Can you do better?

12 Glyphs

Language, Signs and Ads, Visual Design

Swearing Prohibited

Swearing Prohibited (Censored)

I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.

Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?

Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most people were willing to take this sign at face value.  Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message.  (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)

For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!

Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — [BLEEP] — in his own mind.)

Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse.  And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign.  Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing?  Or do they really, really agree with it?

Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?

As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears?  I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.

As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:

Swearing Prohibited (Uncensored)

Nonsense, Visual Design

Do Not Donut


I feel like I see a lot of pro-donut signs (America Runs On Dunkin’, etc.) so an ostensibly anti-donut sign is a bit of fresh air. I have a taste for nonsensical and ludicrous signage, from Engrish to Legalese, and here, opportunity called.

I’m interested in graphic leitmotifs like the red circle with a slash through it.  Red circles with slashes mean business. Usually there’s a more complicated icon inside the circle that represents the thing to be avoided or “not done.” But in this case, the inner icon is as simple as possible: a donut that matches the red circle’s contour.  Perhaps the red circle was built to fit (glaze?) that donut in an act of accommodation? In this sign the “thing” and the “thing that negates it” are pals, in perfect formal agreement.

Lastly, the phrase “Do not donut” has caused me to develop a huge number of tongue-twisters that I really should stop saying, so “Do not donut!” means to me “Stop saying tongue-twisters about donuts!” Unfortunately, the sign doesn’t help!

The donut and enclosing circle in this sign were constructed from various sizes of the “O” from the font used in the lettering.


Visual Design

Daisy Wheel

Designing my personal logo has been a chance to explore things I’m curious about (design, typography) as well as a chance to reflect on who I am.  I went through three concrete steps in this process: choosing a font for my name, choosing a symbol to go beside my name, and getting them to match.  In this post, I’d like to tell you why I chose Daisy Wheel as my font:


Daisy Wheel is a typewriter font that Volker Busse created from the Dual Gothic typeface used in some IBM daisywheel typewriters.

The first thing that appeals to me about Daisy is its “tactile clarity” — it looks clear to my eye, and also gives me a sense that I could reach out and touch it with my fingers.  (This, incidentally, is the same feeling that I try to achieve in my photographic work.) The letters look like they’ve been reduced to their bare essences, on the one hand, but there’s also roughness and aberration in the texture.  I get the sense that the letters are machine made, but the distressed quality of the font also makes them seem natural or organic, and I’m intrigued by that tension.  It’s also interesting to me to recall the days of manual typewriters, and to think how this font came to us through a digital reconstruction of the output of a manual process–a long “distance” to travel.

I could talk much longer about the aesthetics of the font–why I like it on an abstract level–but  there’s a more basic reason why it captivates me, a reason from my past.  Daisy reminds me of the first book I ever wrote.

The book I’m talking about is a journal that I kept in kindergarten and first grade.  Once a week, a typist would come to class for “story time.” Every kid got a turn with the typist–you’d sit down beside her and tell her a story off the top of your head, and she’d type as you spoke. Then you’d take the typewritten page and paste it into your Steno book, along with a drawing if you wanted to do one. In all the years since then, I never forgot the look of that book–specifically, how the letters looked on the page as the typist transcribed my words, and how they stayed around on the page for me to see again later.

I don’t think Daisy Wheel is identical to the font from “story time,” but there’s a good resemblance, and that’s why Daisy calls to me whenever I see it.  (Interestingly, this resemblance only occurred to me on a conscious level after I’d been working with Daisy for some time.  At first, I wasn’t really sure why I liked it so much until: “Oh that’s why…”)

Here’s a page from the book, which my mom kept safe for me through several moves and many years:


It says:

December 22, 1981

I Set Up My Christmas Tree

I helped my daddy set it up. I got something for it. I got a star for the top and it blinks.

Story by,



Today I took the book out to my deck to take these snapshots in late afternoon light with my “ancient” iPhone 3S (and these images are what came out of the phone, without any color transformation). Here is the book on my deck with some melting snow:

BookAndSnowI got a star and it blinks

Visual Design

Wrestling Words

This is the story of a graphic design challenge and my path to solving it. It’s a story about all the meandering little steps that one takes on the journey from a design concept to a finished product.  The challenge was to express the meaning of the word edit in a picture, using any medium at hand (photography, pencil sketch, vector art). This was my first sketch:

edit 0

As you can see, I chose to include the actual word edit in the illustration (although that wasn’t required), and my idea was to give the word a taste of its own medicine: to show edit being edited. Once I had crossed out the d, I noticed that my red editorial mark gave rise to a second word: exit. This is where my obsession began.

Could I take my sketch and turn it into a really dramatic composition, where the words edit and exit would appear to be struggling against each other, competing for prominence in an undecided typographic battle? I wanted it to be violent but beautiful, something like… I don’t know… The Uffizi Wrestlers?


Background: Pictorial Matter

I should tell you how I came upon this challenge. The story starts in late 2009, when a site called WordIt announced it would close.

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