The projects we risk everything for

Friends! Compatriots! Adoring fans!

Before we begin—hello! I’m Robin, a web designer and writer from the UK and you’re currently reading my newsletter, Adventures in Typography. In these emails I tend to write in endless fascination all about type design, letterforms, and the graphic arts.

You can, of course, unsubscribe at any time. And as for you fearless bunch who’ll continue to read these rambling missives anyway then, as always, I apologize humbly in advance.

So! After months of surfing the high seas of the darkest Web and playing enough video games to embarrass a ten year old, I now find myself returning to the familiar comfort of reading books in the evenings. And so this weekend I picked up two books by the designer Peter Mendelsund after I was jolted so thoroughly awake reading an interview with him about the redesign of The Atlantic.

I think the design of the magazine and the website is nothing short of outstanding and in this interview with Mendelsund he describes the whole process. His team dove into the archives to understand what the magazine stands for and what it means to their readers. They examined old issues of the magazine and critically looked at every graphic element in what the team called a “big design autopsy.”

The team also decided to create a custom typeface called Atlantic Condensed and, as Mendselsund says, this typeface would be categorized as a “Scotch face” because it has big swooping serifs with lots of contrast between thick and thin strokes.

It looks like the sort of thing that would be printed on posters and slapped up on a cold brick wall in 18th century London:

However! After scouring every place I can think of on the internet I can’t seem to find any information about which foundry or designer worked on this project. If you happen to know anything more about this typeface then please let me know! I’d love to give credit where it’s due and learn more about the project.

Either way, you can see the effect that this new typeface and style has across the website and magazine already. And I think the result speaks for itself:

When asked about how his team began this redesign, Mendelsund replied in perhaps the most Calvino-esque way imaginable:

I come to this work at The Atlantic primarily as a reader. And the things that were interesting to me as a reader were those designs that could best suit the language on the page. I wanted the design to be readerly. And I wanted it to feel confident. And, again, I wanted to make pages that weren’t clamoring for your attention in too many ways—that allowed you to enjoy that one-to-one experience, reader-to-writer.

The way that Mendelsund approaches all this work, and the way he writes of course, is of endless fascination to me. So the very second that his books arrived in the mail I stopped what I was doing, threw my phone in the nearest available river, and began reading voraciously.

The first book of his, What We See When We Read, is a love letter to storytelling and graphic design that tries to answer the following question: how does reading work? When we read a story what do we really see in our minds? If we’ve ever met in person then I’ve most certainly ranted to you drunkenly about it at one point or another in a bar. My arms would’ve been flailing about the air rapturously as I try to half-remember the following extract:

River, the word, contains within it all rivers, which flow like tributaries into it. And this word contains not only all rivers, but more important all my rivers: every accessible experience of ever river I’ve ever seen, swum in, fished, heard, heard about, felt directly or been affected by in any other manner oblique, secondhand or otherwise. These “rivers” are infinitely tessellating rills and affluents that feed fiction’s ability to spur the imagination. I read the word river and, with or without context, I’ll dip beneath its surface. (I’m a child wading in the moil and suck, my feet cut on a river’s rock-bottom; or the gray river just out the window, now, just to my right, over the trees of the park—spackled with ice. Or—the almost seismic eroticism of a memory from my teens—of the shift of a skirt on a girl in spring, on a quai by an arabesque of a river, in a foreign city...)

Mendelsund’s second book is a novel, Same same, and although I’ve just begun reading it I cannot help but recommend the thing whole-heartedly. It’s a novel about projects; projects that take months and years to complete, projects that we throw ourselves into and projects that become all-encompassing and engrossing, projects that make our lives worthwhile and special, projects that we’ll risk everything for.

It’s a novel (so far, at least) about the value of our work.

Mendelsund is a frustrating character, then. His talents appear to expand in all directions and looking at his life’s work is intimidating as much as it is inspiring. If you would like to be made particularly angry at this fact then Peter’s website is where you can find all the book covers he’s designed over the years.

My favorite of his designs must be the work Peter did for his series of Kafka novels, which includes this bright and lovely design for The Trial:

And then, a personal favorite of mine, which happens to be The Information by James Gleick.

And so if for whatever unholy circumstances Mr. Mendelsund happens to be reading this email right now then I can only say to you what we’re all thinking, sir: please dear lord just stop. You’re making us all look bad.