Intentional Mistake Due To Wrong Assumptions

After writing about Fenstern Zeichen, Herbert Marker’s delightful gallery of Austrian shop signs, it pains me to show you this miserable failure for contrast. This sign which I discovered only recently graces the facade of a restaurant/bar on the Friday Market in Gent, my home town. When walking around the city, I have been confronted with a fair share of ill-conceived or badly executed architectural lettering. Most of the time the mistakes in them were mainly due to inexperience or lack of typographic knowledge from the people who designed or installed them – misaligned characters, bad spacing, mirrored or rotated letters, incorrect punctuation marks, and so on. However this example is mind-boggling. Somehow the designer had to go to extra lengths to make this sign intentionally wrong. If you can’t stand pedantic rants, please stop reading here.

So what are we looking at here? The sign reads ’t Zuiden (The South) and is set in Mistral, the revolutionary script typeface designed by French icon Roger Excoffon (please ignore the dreadful Light version that was added almost 50 years later). Just like in English an apostrophe is used in Dutch when certain letters are removed in contractions; in this case the definite article het was contracted to ’t. The apostrophe is very, very wrong though.

As we all (should) know the typographically correct punctuation mark for an apostrophe is the right single quotation mark, defined as rsquo or ’ in HTML, as shown above. However the sign used for ’t Zuiden is the frankly non-existing upside-down straight quote shown in the first illustration. How come this logo uses a sign that is not even available in Unicode?

To understand the reasoning that produced this obviously intentional mistake, we have to examine what the designer of this piece was led to assume. The keyboard of personal computers is based on the very basic typewriter keyboard, only showing the single and double straight quote. Most text editors and graphic design software automatically convert those straight quotes (also called “dumb quotes” by type-savvy users) to typographically correct curly quotes. Because those come in two versions, left and right, the software changes them to opening or left quotes when preceded by nothing (a space or the start of a line), as shown above, and closing or right quotes when preceded by a character.

Yet the apostrophe is always represented by a closing or right single quotation mark. You must be aware of this and manually change it to the proper downwards pointing quote wherever needed.

Here the opposite happened. Not only did the designer of this logo manage to use software that doesn’t automatically change straight quotes to curly quotes, as shown above. He/she also remembered the incorrect apostrophes that are inserted by default by software that does do the substitution, and rotated/flipped the already incorrect straight quote into this doubly-incorrect version. This is extra embarrassing when the photograph at the top reveals that the designer cared enough to customize the end stroke of the “n” to make it look nicer.

The moral of this tale? If you are not aware of the proper typographic rules you are bound to be misled by the default settings in software. And I can be very pedantic, but only because I really care about typography. ; )

Read more about punctuation in The Sweet Sound of Punctuation, my article for InDesign magazine, republished on Creative Pro.

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