The $156 Million Typo

The $156 Million Typo

Before we went to the Moon, we went to Venus. Sort of, anyway. We sent an unmanned probe there in 1962 to have a look around.

Venus welcomed Mariner 2 on December 14, 1962, with a brisk 760 degree day. But that’s nothing compared to the heat generated when its predecessor, Mariner 1, was blown up with the push of a button (okay, two switches) right in the middle of its launch.

Mariner 1 cost 18.5 million dollars, which is about 156 million today. And we blew it up on purpose. This didn’t look good to the Mercury astronauts who were scheduled to ride atop the very same Atlas booster rocket. To make things worse, it was the third probe explosion that year alone—the first two, intended for the Moon, never made it past the launch pad. So how did NASA go from such fiery failure to sunny success with Mariner 2?

They fixed a typo.

Back then, smart people wrote on a piece of paper all the math needed to guide a rocket in space. Then other smart people created computer guidance systems, referring to those notes, to steer the rocket on its own when it got out of range of the Earth. One guy, whose job it was to translate the paper math into programming, made a typo. A really big, fat, explosive typo. A 156 million dollar typo.

See that big capital R at the top of this story? In smart-guy math, that R stood for radius. The dot above the R symbolized a derivative of the radius. I know, you’re thinking—pleading—don’t go there. I won’t. This isn’t about the math.

The typo: he forgot to transcribe the bar above the dot above the R. Without the bar, wild and spectacular things happened in real life.

In movies, rockets shudder and shake and wiggle during a launch. They do that in real life too. It wouldn’t be good—or even possible—for a rudder to correct every wiggle and twist and bump the rocket makes. The ground guidance system is instructed to average all those little data points (I’m leaning this way, now that way, now another way, hundreds of readings per second) and instead go with a general idea of which way the rocket is heading, and make general corrections when necessary. When we drive a car, we do the same thing without even thinking: we generally keep our car more or less in its lane, but we don’t micro-adjust for every puff of breeze or pebble on the road.

264 seconds into the launch, Mariner 1’s Atlas rocket temporarily lost contact with the Earth. No problem! NASA was prepared for that. Mariner was supposed to fly itself to Venus, after all, without any steering from Earth. The rocket’s own guidance system kicked on.

The ground control system didn’t have the typo. The rocket’s computer did.

When the ground crew back on Earth re-established contact with the rocket, they found the fins steering it wildly, frantically, this way and that, because guidance was reacting to every single data reading, and some of them were waaaay off. The more the fins tried to correct things, the worse things got, until the rocket was entirely out of control and pointed back to Earth at full throttle.

There’s a guy on the ground called the Range Safety Officer. He has one job: if things look bleak, he can blow up the rocket in the air so it doesn’t hit anybody on the ground. The detonator is in the huge first stage of the Atlas booster rocket, so once that stage is used up and jettisoned, Mr. Range Safety Officer can’t do anything. With only six seconds to go before Mariner 1 spent its stage one booster, he hit the button. Ka-boom.

The Mariner 1 probe itself was blown clear of the rocket. True to its intrepid nature, it continued sending information for 64 long seconds, until it was swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean.

The typo was easy enough to find and correct—so easy that in just five months Mariner 2 launched without a hitch and found its way to Venus, pretty much all by itself.

Some people (including the New York Times!) referred to this as the 18 million dollar hyphen. But it wasn’t a hyphen—that was just an easier way to say it. We typesetters call it a bar. We almost never get to use it, except in stories like this.

George Mueller, head of the Office of Manned Space Flight, thought the typo was so symbolic he kept a framed image of a hyphen hung over his office desk. Astronauts felt this was an important lesson too: get the little things right, so you don’t blow up up the big thing.

156 million dollar hyphen? We call it the space bar.

Font vs typeface: you’re all right

Font vs typeface: you’re all right

National Public Radio shared an interesting story about the redesigning of Helvetica. By far, Helvetica is used more often than any other face, so why redesign? Technical reasons, mostly to do with changing times. It’s a great story, but not for here.

Whew, what a relief. That made all the difference, huh?

Naturally, there were thousands of comments on their website, for and against. Next came the passive-aggressive “oh you said font when you meant typeface.” Then, like they do, the design snobs turned on each other like wild dogs in a feeding frenzy of who-knows-more.

Perhaps my favorite was the woman who said, “As a type designer, you should have said know-it-alls, all hyphenated with no apostrophe, not know it all’s.” She was right about the grammar, but her comment was as weird as if she had suggested, “As a plumber, I say you should get your tires rotated.”

I’ll bet my lunch that she’s not even a type designer. She works on page layout. Maybe a typesetter. You’re a type designer if you’ve created your own typeface from scratch. Maybe named it after yourself, like “Mr. Helvetica.” And if so, you’re way too cool to be scrapping it out with the rest of us in the comments of NPR’s website.

Font and typeface used to be very different. Like all things typographic, we snobs love to go back to terms used in the letterpress days, when everything was set by hand and made of metal and needed oil. But they’re not anymore, and those differences aren’t helpful. Back then, a font was a box of letters. You got them out and put them in a row to make a sentence. If you needed bigger or bolder letters, you pulled out another font from another box.

Nobody will jump you if you say typeface, because it is a general term for what you’re looking at. Do you admire the lettering on a magazine cover? Nice typeface! Proud of how your kid wrote on the sidewalk? Nice typeface!

So if there’s a a hair to split today, it’s here: a font is the tool you use to express your typeface. If Helvetica Regular 10pt exists as a different document on your computer than, say, Helvetica Regular 24pt, you have two fonts. (Back in the early Mac days, I had a unique font for every type size available.) Thanks to modern computer pixel fairy dust, we now use a single font to make any type size. But still, the font is the individual file on your computer.

Back in caveman days, Macs required a separate font for each size available. Cool!

So if you want to differentiate font from typeface, think of them this way: the lettering your kid drew on the sidewalk is a typeface made without a font. It was made with chalk, and your kid.

Zapf Dingbats is a computer font full of useful symbols—but it’s not a typeface.

My brilliant friend Frank is a linguist. I love this kind of stuff and pester him often with such questions. Because I actually listen to his answers, I know this is what he would say about font vs typeface:

“If two or more people use one word and they all understand what it means, it’s the right word. Words aren’t inherently right or wrong — they’re the tools we use for communicating. If they communicate successfully and reliably, they’re the right words.”

Can you imagine how disappointed I was? But I must admit, his wisdom is liberating.

So if you say “Helvetica is a great font and doesn’t need redesigning,” and all of your officemates know exactly what you mean, “font” was the right word.

I just can’t work with you.

How to catch typos

How to catch typos

Typos heading, spelled "typoes"

I got an email from my beloved Alamo Drafthouse movie theater. A new location was about to open, right in my neighborhood. Hooray! Right after that email, I received this emergency follow-up:

Just as an update, the $5 tickets was a miscommunication and we will be charging FULL PRICE tickets for Soft Opening except on $5 Tuesday. We apologize for the type and lets push forward!

Un-hooray. But I had to laugh: one typo in the message, but dang — what an exquisite typo. They misspelled typo.

It’s bound to happen when you rush out a correction, and it’s double-painful. So, Alamo, want some tips to help you mind your p’s and q’s?

Minding your p’s and q’s

That catchy phrase makes sense. Lowercase p and q look a lot alike. But the cliché originated in letterpress days where it was especially appropriate. When setting blocks of type, a printer has to remember that all his letters are backwards. If it looks like a p on the block, it’ll be a q when it gets printed to paper.

letterpress block including p and q
Nope. That’s q on the left, and a p on the right.

Ooo-ooo-oooo! And let me digress some more! Letterpress days also gave us the description uppercase and lowercase. Capital letters were generally kept in the top drawer — called a case — while the matching lowercase letters were kept in a lower case.

So cliché

Did I say cliché? That word has printing roots too, although it’s a long walk. When a big block of type was to be used often, printers would save time by setting the whole thing in a single metal casting. Then they could release all those individual letters for other jobs. This was called stereotyping, and you were sure to get predictable, cookie-cutter results. While most of Europe used this technique for full pages of text, the French experimented with using smaller blocks of repetitive or useful phrases. They called these clichés, which literally means click, because a typesetter could just click the phrase into place without having to redo all the individual letters.

Oh yeah. Typos.

That’s where I started with this, huh. I promised to give you some tips to catch all your typos so I don’t spot them and make fun of you.

It’s just that I love a good typo. To prove I’m not just being arrogant, I’ll share with you my most impressive goof. Years ago I released an album of 13 original songs, titled Used Without PermissionIt had been out for two weeks before a friend called to tease me that I had spelled my own name wrong on the album cover. Besides being a musician and a graphic designer, I’m a professional proofreader. I know how to spell my name, so I just called him a liar.

Then I looked. There it was. It was such an exquisite mistake that I decided to leave it. (You can go look. It’s still there.) Oddly, not one person has noticed it since.

Oh yeah. Typos!

So here are my suggestions (finally) to help you catch more typos:

  • Use your spell-checker first. One in four manuscripts I proofread have mistakes an automated checker would have caught. Spell-check doesn’t get everything right, but it can tease most typos out in an easy flash round, leaving you more brain energy to catch the trickier stuff.
  • Don’t proof your own work. You know what the words are supposed to say, and your brain will help out by subconsciously fixing misspelled words. Like your own name.
  • Read in incandescent or LED light. Flourescent light has a very slow flicker rate, which wears out your eyes faster. That’s why everyone in your office is happiest sitting by the window.
  • Follow with your finger. Or use a ruler guide. I’m a little dyslexic, so my eyes have to really focus. But you more perfect mortals tend to read in chunky blocks. Your marvelous brain processes all that data in a Gestalt kind of way that forgives errors. A pointer keeps your focus on a smaller spot.
  • Read aloud. It slows down your brain and keeps you from scanning.
  • Proof backwards, or from the bottom up. This won’t catch grammar errors, but it’s a great way to keep your brain from auto-correcting, by forcing you see each word individually.
  • Put it to paper. Nobody knows why. Editing on screen is convenient, but people are far more effective when proofing from a real live sheet of paper.
  • Knock it off after 40 minutes. Proofing is terrible on your eyes as well as your brain. After every half hour, give yourself a break for ten minutes or so. Focus on something distant, preferably something moving, like traffic or that protest across the street. This resets and stretches your eyes back to a more natural state. Cave men didn’t proofread.
  • Sleep on it. This is the best way to catch clumsy or unclear sentences. Things make sense when you know what you meant. Come back later and you’ll find yourself saying, “Wait — what?”
  • Publish it. Nothing makes a typo jump out at you like seeing it in the final product.

Follow this advice, and if you’re careful, and prepared, and skilled, and don’t have any typos, you’ll make a good impression.

Yep, that’s another phrase from the printing industry.

[ Happy sigh. ]
Is roman type really Roman?

Is roman type really Roman?

Aldus Minutius
Renaissance type designer Aldus Minutius

You know what an italic font is. Bold type is simple enough to understand. Bold italic? Easy-peasy. But what if a font isn’t any of those? If it’s just straight-up normal, like the text you’re reading right now?

We call that roman. (Normally I’d put a new term in italics, but that’d be a little confusing here, eh?) The type you’re reading right now is roman.

Bring on the machines

Before Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type, fonts were all over the place. Sometimes a lowercase e had a bar through it, sometimes it looked a whole lot like the letter c. Everything was done by hand, individually, by artists. And you know how artists can be.

The printing press had limited fonts available, and from that necessity was born the invention of type designers. There were a handful of great ones during the Italian Renaissance, like Aldus, pictured above. They went a long way to standardize how type should look, so we mere mortals could all learn to read easier. Since they invented it, they got to name it. And they were all Romans.

They defined three general font categories: roman, italic, and blackletter. Blackletter is the proper name of what we often call Old World or Old English, the big swirly medieval-looking calligraphic style, like this:

Before you start yelling at me, we don’t capitalize roman when referring to letters. That’s so we don’t confuse roman letters with paper letters written by Romans.

Renaissance: the rebirth

Why didn’t they call the non-italic non-bold non-blackletter font regular, or normal, or standard? Who knows — except it helps to remember that during the Renaissance nothing was regular or normal or standard. Everything was new. This was the era of Michelangelo and da Vinci and Machiavelli and Galileo and Columbus, all upending the world order. Besides, Times New Roman probably sounded a lot cooler than Times New Normal.

Originally, blackletter, roman, and italic were never used together. It took another hundred years before it occurred to anyone to mix and match. Not long after that, those crazy nuts came up with bold italic, probably while drunk.

And in confusion

In web design, italics are summoned by the name emphasis, and bold is called strong. That’s what what you get when you let computer geeks name things. What are you supposed to say? “Make it strong, but without emphasis.” Get outta here with that.

Oblique font styles are like italics, but they’re not. Done right, italic is a uniquely designed font that complements its roman sibling. It’s quite different — very scripty — yet belongs in the same font family. Oblique fonts are just roman fonts skewed over. They’re the font equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa: same, just crooked.

From the top: Garamond roman, oblique and italic.

You can see how much more elegant a real italic is. Faux italic was invented by Web designers to help you get italic whether it existed in the original font family or not. If it was there, great. If not, they bent over the roman letters. So — computer geeks again. Sheesh.

Underlines for emphasis? How about never.

Underlines for emphasis? How about never.

Underlined text looks like hyperlinks.

Underlined text looks like hyperlinks.

When you want to say something big — no, big — no, REALLY BIG, BIGGER THAN BIG, THE BIGGEST OF THE BIGS — should you choose italics, ALL CAPS, or underlined text?

First, consider none of those. Try letting the text speak for itself, rather than using formatting to speak for it. You’ll be surprised how often your story can remain clear and effortless without any text formatting at all. Indeed, reading this paragraph is a whole lot easier than the over-formatted one above. AM I RIGHT?

So okay, you’re sure you need emphasis after all. Which styling is best?

The case against underlines

Look at the sample text above. We’ve learned that underlined text is supposed to be more important, so that part works okay. But in this World of Internet Things we live in, many browsers use underlined text to suggest a hyperlink to another website. (They also often make links purple — don’t get me started on what a graceless idea that is.)

So what? So this: on websites, PDFs and eBooks, your readers will try to click on the link. Did you try to click on the purple word purple above? Nothing happened, in spite of it being underlined. And purple. Readers will think your document is broken, and they’ll pull out a voodoo doll of you and poke it for making them feel stupid.

Worse, the underlines cross right through the carefully designed descenders of the font: every g and j and p will have a fat black line across it. It looks crowded. To my eye, even underlined CAPITALS look jammed up. Underlining isn’t part of a font’s design, so it rarely looks like a nice addition.

So scratch out underlining for emphasis and leave it to the hyperlinks.

All caps: do you really need to SHOUT?

Maybe you do. Maybe your character is yelling his head off. But ALL CAPS has a big downside: it stands out on the page, calling attention to itself before the reader gets to the actual content.

Capital letters stand out on the page before you even read it.

Capital letters stand out on the page before you even read it.

In the sample above, the capitalized words might as well be in hyperlink purple. As soon as you see the page they draw your eye to them, without the benefit of context. Your eye scans the page, picks out every capitalized word, your brain wonders why, then hopefully you go back to actually reading the text.

It’s subtle, but it interrupts the reading experience. We want reading to be so effortless that the audience doesn’t even notice the process, and just wallows in your brilliant story.

Bonus points for proportional oldstyle numerals: Let’s digress. Notice the numerals “$28,000” on the sample page above? You had to search a bit, didn’t you? That’s because the number was set in an “oldstyle” font. All OpenType fonts include oldstyle numerals, which are designed with ascenders and descenders just like other letters. That helps them blend into the text. Normal “lining” numerals are all the same height, and guess what? They look just like ALL CAPS. Google your writing program to find out how to call up the oldstyle option where appropriate. It’s usually about as easy as choosing italics or underlines.

And the winner is: italics for emphasis

Italic text is designed to blend perfectly with its surroundings, yet give the reader a little nudge. It doesn’t look dramatic, but that’s the whole idea. Let the reader add the drama in her head. Her imagination will do the shouting, and in her imagination is where you want to work. Underlines and all-caps risk yanking the reader back to the cold reality of your physical page. Italics work more like a whisper in imagination’s ear.

Italics blend perfectly with the text while still conveying emphasis.

Italics blend perfectly with the text while still conveying emphasis.

Trust your reader to do the heavy lifting regarding how your story characters sound. Don’t force it with big font choices. Your words should do the talking, not your letters. And here’s a bonus primer on how to set italics properly.

Do you find the text samples above intriguing? They’re lifted from my latest book Of Mice and MeAnd that’s in italics only because it’s a book title. That’s the law.

Should punctuation be included in italics?

Should punctuation be included in italics?


Quotation marks sample

Quotation marks are designed to fit the letters within them.

This problem came up in a book I was working on recently. The author italicized a lot of words, but didn’t include any of his punctuation in the italicization. Put another way, his words were italic, but his punctuation was Roman. It left a lot of visual crashes. As a tall person who’s constantly bumping his head, perhaps I’m extra-sensitive. But it hurts nonetheless. It’s more obvious with some letter pairs than others, but letters either crowd each other or leave gaps big enough to look like a letterspace. It’s ugly.

It’s like seating a lefty next to a righty at Thanksgiving dinner. There will be jostling. If you’re a lefty, you already know to fix that mess before the elbow wars begin: pair up correctly.

Good type designers go to great lengths to make their letters fit together gracefully, and that includes the punctuation. But all that design effort presumes the letters are in the same style. Opening quotation marks it italics ootch over to the right a bit because they presume the next letter will be leaning to the right as well, and they want to nestle up close. Closing quotation marks do the same, because the letter preceding them is leaning into their personal space, so they lean away with it. With quality fonts, the fit is a beautiful thing to see.

So the short answer is “Yes!” As opposed to “Yes! (See what I did there? See that italic exclamation point topple into the unitalicized quotation mark?) Any punctuation attached to a word should be of the same style.

Seems easy enough. When I have a usage question, I head straight to the experts, like the Chicago Manual of Style. But wait a minute! Even these exalted sources disagree. Some even disagree with themselves: do it one way in this case, another way in that.

No. No no no no. Easy rule: when setting italics, select everything the word touches. Personally, I even select the space following the word before setting the style to italics. Like this.

Parenthetically speaking

It gets worse with parentheses, because they’re so tall. They start below the baseline and extend above the capitals, so the effect of all that leaning is exaggerated, like this:

Sample of parentheses in italics

Parentheses get really crashy if they don’t match the style of text within them

Use that rule for all punctuation. Except maybe one exception. There’s always an exception.

Dash away all

I tested dashes in a lot of fonts to see whether the dash itself moved to the right when italicized. Turns out it doesn’t much, if at all. Dashes fall at the waist of a leaning letter, and the gaps tend to appear only at the head and foot. The waist is in the middle, like the fulcrum of a teeter-totter. So no worries, right?

Sample of italicized dash

The first dash has square ends, and the italic dash has angled ends. Rats.

Wrong. You have to look really close, but in the example above, the italicized dash (second one in the bottom example) has ends that are slightly angled to match the italicization. Subtle, but handsome. Since the spacing between letters doesn’t really change with italicization, it’s better that your pairs of dashes match each other. Kinda weird to have a square dash followed by an angled one.

I suppose you could argue that this isn’t really an exception, because a dash isn’t attached to the words next to it—it is an independent character. But if you get in a drunken brawl over that point, I’m not going to step in and back you up.

Actually, if anyone notices that one of my dashes is italic and the other isn’t, I’ll buy them a beer and thank them for caring.