Phases of the Moon 2015 | Download

Every December I send out a Christmas card to family, friends, clients and collaborators.

This year, as in recent years, the card has featured the moon phases for the year ahead:



In case anyone would like to print this chart themselves, I have created a downloadable high-res PDF.

Happy New (Moon) Year!

Schottenfreude – German Rules

One of the design elements of my book “Schottenfreude” is the array of thin rules against which the German words are set, as here:


For this I was inspired by a Berlin school report, from 1925, written about my maternal grandfather, Hans Rosenblüth (later Anglicised to John Ross).

In such reports, the grades were hand-written over a panel of thin lines, thus:


Presumably this graphical ornamentation was intended to discourage students from erasing elements of a 4  (“mangelhaft” – “unsatisfactory”) to create a 1 (“sehr gut” – “very good”).

My grandfather’s report concluded “Hans is nicht fleißig genug”  (“Hans is not industrious enough”).


Which, coincidentally, is exactly what my teachers said of me when I was ten years old.

Money Bags

One for fans of functional typography, paper ephemera, muted colours, and bureaucratic minutiae. ¶ Below are a selection of coin envelopes issued by British banks, and collected by my maternal grandfather.

Somm notes


This brief post accompanies “Battle of the Somm” – an Op-Chart I wrote for the New York Times on the secret language of the city’s finest Sommeliers.

First, I would like to thank the amazing experts who guided me through the world of the Somm – from front of house service to the complexities of buying, selling, and pricing.

In alphabetical order, and with their Twitter handles, they are:

Joe Campanale – @joecampanale
Kimberley Drake – @missekard
Paul Grieco – @spitpaul
Morgan Harris – @MorganWHarris
Rita Jammet – @CaravelleChamp
Pascaline Lepeltier – @plepeltier
Greg Majors – @GregDMajors
Laura Maniec – @lauramaniec
Steve Morgan – @morgansteve
Thomas Pastuszak – @thomaspastuszak
Aldo Sohm [whose tastevin you see below] – @aldosohm
Raj Vaidya – @rajvine
Dustin Wilson [whose hand you see above] – @dwilson79
Eric Zillier – @ezillier

But, vocabulary aside, the central thing I learned from these talented people is that if you are dining in a restaurant which employs a Sommelier, you should never, ever order your own wine.

If you know little or nothing about wine, they will guide you to a bottle far more interesting and suited to your food than you could possibly pluck from the list.

And if you are a wine aficionado, you will not know more than the Somm about their list – or what they are hiding off-list in the cellar.

It seems that people are afraid of Somms for two reasons: they are embarrassed to admit their ignorance, and they fear being “upsold”.

The ignorance issue is easily dealt with: a Somm will always trump your knowledge about the wines they stock. So why pretend? And even if you do know most of the wines listed, why not use the Somm’s expertise to broaden your horizons?

With regard to “upselling,” no Somm worth their tastevin [below] is interested in ripping off a diner. The inherent immorality aside, it’s just bad business to create a (probably vocal) enemy for the sake of a few extra bucks. (Moreover, as I mention in my piece, diners are more likely to order a second bottle of a cheaper wine.)

Somms spend their lives tasting, buying, binning, selling, and inventorying wine. They work long hours and study crazy-hard for crazy-difficult qualifications. It’s no more in a Somm’s DNA to “bang” a diner than it is in a chef’s DNA to contaminate the food.

So, how to best use a Somm? First, tell them what you’re eating. Second, describe (as broadly as you like) the type of wine you’re after – colour, country, region, grape, style, body, flavor, whatever. And then indicate price (more on this in a second). As you are talking, the Somm will be working through the algorithm of their stock, selecting something to suit.

When it comes to price, there is a tried and tested ritual for those uncomfortable discussing money out loud. Open the wine list, point to a price in your range, and say “I was thinking about something like this…” The Somm will know exactly what this means (after all, you’re pointing to a price, not a wine), and will respect your wishes. If the wine they suggest is a little more expensive, or indeed a little cheaper, they will check with you first.

Inevitably Somms are going to be more excited about opening a unique bottle of expensive and supernacular wine … but such events are the exception not the norm. Most diners select from the shallow end of a wine-list, and most Somms spend their evenings opening wines from this range.

Best of all, befriend your Somm: they live to drink and share wine. A truly noble vocation.

I Dismantled the Box

In 2004, I designed a set of Sporting, Gaming, & Idling Miscellany ‘quotable’ playing cards. Each card featured a quotation pertaining to sporting, gaming, or idling which were arranged by the following themes:

Aces  = quotes on winning
Kings = chess
Queens = women in sport
Jacks = cheating
0s = defeat
9s = teamwork
8s = commentators
7s = luck
6s = fitness & exercise
5s = cards
4s = golf (fore!)
3s = idling
2s = referees & umpires
Jokers = nuns & cardinals

The printers sent me an Illustrator template for the cards and the box – the latter complete with folds and flaps. Tantalisingly, one side flap had a note warning that no text should be printed there, since it was the position of the glue strip. I could not, of course, resist this opportunity. So, for the first print run only, I added a line of tiny type that said: “If you have read this, please email:”.

On Friday 27 May, 2005, I received an email to that account which read “I didn’t mean to but I did”. After reassuring me that he did, indeed, dismantle the box, my fidget-fingered correspondent was sent a box of books. (The cat now being out of the bag, the competition is sadly closed.)

The Genius of Alison Lang

Alison Lang has created the cover-art for all of the Miscellanies and every Almanac – in total, including American and German variations, some eleven exquisite images.

I say created, because these beautiful illustrations are not drawn with ink, but etched with a metal stylus on scraperboard.

The process starts with me emailing Alison a list of topics included in the book. In the case of the Miscellanies these tend to be abstract (“something about apples”); with the Almanacs they are newsy (“we need to illustrate swine flu”). Alison selects those she thinks are most picture-esque, and sends me back some rough pencil sketches.

We bat these sketches back and forth, refining the ideas and tweaking the details. (“What if the airplane was coughing as it flew through the ash-cloud? Can you draw that?!”)

Below is the first pencil sketch for Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany, and the final image:



The fun begins when we have the component elements of the illustration, and we begin to tie them together. Where possible, we link elements within the illustration – perhaps most pleasingly with the Sporting, Gaming, & Idling Miscellany when an elegantly positioned shuttle-cock protects the modesty of a streaker.

The best illustrations are those where, despite being small, one cannot take in all of the details at first glance. (With the Quintessential image above, for example, I particularly like how Hitchcock’s cigar smoke is transformed into Morse code. This illustrates three separate entries in the book.)

Once the framework of the design is agreed, Alison goes away and transforms the pencil sketches into a 5″ by 7″ scraperboard masterpiece.

The greatest joy of working with Alison is what reality-TV calls ‘the reveal’ – the moment she hands you the finished artwork and you gingerly lift the protective cover. Each and very time, Alison has managed to capture exactly the image I had in my mind in crisp, clean, and confident lines.

That is the genius of Alison Lang.

Click to see Alison’s Miscellany and Almanac images; or her online portfolio.

Technical FAQs

I am occasionally asked what software I use to typeset my work. For those who care about such things, here is the answer.

My early design work was with QuarkXPress. This was the package I used to typeset the first three Miscellanies and the 2006 Almanac. However, the complexity of the Almanac design proved to be beyond Quark’s meagre capabilities – certain font ligatures, for example, simply refused to show themselves onscreen. Utterly frustrated, I took the plunge into InDesign and have not looked back.

It’s odd to feel evangelical about DTP software, but the sophistication and simplicity of InDesign is a joy. Its superiority to Quark saves me literally hours of work each week. On the rare occasions I need to open a legacy Quark file, I am mystified by the awfulness of the programme.

Like many other designers, I also swear by the other mainstays of Adobe’s Creative Suite – Illustrator and Photoshop.

The most time-consuming element of design surrounds the creation of graphs. No single software package I have come across manages to make perfect line graphs, bar charts, or pie charts (not that I like pie charts very much). As a result I have developed a circumperambulatory workaround. I wrangle the data in Excel (or Mac Numbers); I import the data into Delta Graph, where I make the bare-bones graph; I export an EPS from Delta Graph and open it in Illustrator, where I clean it up, sort out the fonts, and resize it, before importing it into InDesign. This four-software approach produces the most elegant results, but it takes eons.

Finally, fonts. All of my books, and much of my journalism, use two fonts: Adobe Garamond Pro and Monotype Old Style Bold Outline. Additionally I use a range of specialist fonts for dingbats here and there, and have rather fallen for Apple’s own rather splendid symbols font.

As a rule, I eschew bold and underline wherever possible.

I dislike Comic Sans as much as the next sane person, but I find the lower-case “y” of Eurostile especially hard to bear.