Earth and Œŧħ

YOU can leave Iceland, like Patagonia, but it’s such a special place that it probably never leaves you. A week ago in Reykjavik, ATypI, the Association Typographique Internationale, wound up its annual conference. (Next year, Hong Kong?) It was a great conference, with rich, detailed program and plenty of time to meet up with old friends.

Colleagues from the Font Bureau found time to soak in the Blue Lagoon and drive out to the volcanos. I was content to take the morning showers in natural hot water, and wonder at the sulphuric scent of the Earth’s crust.

The President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson welcomed the assembled type designers and typographers at the opening session, not with the usual tourist-office bromides, but with an insightful and eloquent speech about the cultural importance of maintaining Iceland’s unique language, with many glyphs we don’t see in English any more, like Þ and ð. This was the theme of the conference, spelled out in the logo (if you have a Unicode version of Georgia in your operating system): œŧħ.

Grimsson is the one of the few heads of state since Churchill not ashamed of a little erudition. He’s also the leader who, after his country’s hot banks melted down in 2009, suggested that citizens might give some thought to getting their boats back in the water and resume their historical vocation—fishing.

This was a great start to the formal conference. (For a later post, I’ll describe some of the workshops, which included a presentation by Cyrus Highsmith and me on the new “Heading Edge” fonts from Webtype.)

The ATypI opening session continued to soar with the keynote by Gunnlaugur SE Briem, backed by an elegant slide show, explaining succinctly and convincingly the link between culture, language and type. (There are excerpts of his presentation and other video from the conference on Vimeo).

Gunnlaugur (I used to call him Gunslinger) was the the only Icelandic type designer I knew until this ATypI. He was a striking figure in the late 80s, the early days of desktop type design, the Fontographer era. We were all a bit wilder then, and Briem looked nearly Gothic, with white northern skin and blond hair contrasting with an ever-present black raincoat. He jumped on the new platform and turned out some of the first major custom fonts for publications, including Economist 101 and Times Europa.

Now the gunslinger looks like a distinguished university professor, and his speech endorsed the audience’s usually unspoken belief that the work type designers are doing is essential to civilization. You can’t ask for a better keynote.

The point was rammed home by Briem’s countryman, Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon. Goddur, as he’s called, looks even more like an Icelander, or maybe a dwarf from Lord of the Rings. Firmly planted on the floor, blue eyes shining above a gigantic beard, Goddur started out lightly at noon the next day with an overview of nordic visual themes in art and craft. I don’t know how many hundred slides he showed, but the pace increased to the point of animation. Goddur tied essential Icelandic imagery to all of Western culture, if not all of human culture. The similarities became more obvious than the differences. At one point he started showing a rapid series of pictures of women with spears and shields. The Icelandic landdísir and the Norse Valkyries were linked with Britannia and Minerva. I couldn’t provide the captions now, but the effect was spellbinding. 

Other sessions added proof. Michael Everson, the American Unicode maven who lives in Ireland, extolled the Þ in a lecture entitled, “A Þorn by any other name.” (Some of us thought the talk was about something else). Invoking Tolkien, and relating Middle English to the nordic languages, he made a strong, sweet argument for the preservation—and the creation where none exist—of local glyphs in the face of homogenous globalization.

Thomas Milo, co-founder of DecoType in Amsterdam,  gave a rapid historical account of the historical wrongheadedness of Westerners about Arabic letterforms, resulting in a concoction called Eurabic. Weaving scripts and languages together, Milo showed how closely related are the scripts that we think are utterly opposed.

Onur Yazıcıgil of Istanbul wrung his hands over how badly the Turks have done with Latin letterforms after Ataturk threw out Arabic. But the Turkish examples didn’t really look that bad.

Jo De Baerdemaeker and Toshi Omagari, Belgian and Japanese scholars at the University of Reading, took us through the history of the Mongolian script at a healthy clip, tying in connections to Arabic and Tibetan, and discussing the Chinese government’s insistence on preserving the “minority languages.”

And there was much more, but by this point you can imagine how this multiculturalism started swirling together. Like the ATypI in Mexico City, the magic of the place set a tone for the conversations in Reykjavik. A week later, I am still thinking about it: We are all one culture, here on Œŧħ. We’ve just taken different glyphs.