The plan was nothing short of genius.
I had waited all day for the British summer afternoon to yawn, stretch, and then finally slip away, until my father’s downstairs office was completely empty. Another hour passes, just in case, until I can’t wait any longer: a quick hop down the stairs, a mad dash across the hallway, and bang, zip, zoom—I’m standing in the office where my father had just installed AOL on a patchy dial-up network. Easy.
Amidst all the cables and office equipment, I fumble around in the dark beneath his desk. I find the power button and a whirlwind of noise bursts from the computer—startling me—and now my head is truly and thoroughly bumped. Internet rattling! Discs spinning! This was an ancient time before computers became wafer-thin mirrors of quiet glass, when every desktop was a furnace of hot air and clunking, monstrous parts. I had to be quick.
I tab my way through every website I can think of. And then, suddenly, illuminated by the glow of a pure and unfiltered Internet, I can’t stop smiling. At last!
I had found it.
I hit “Print” and continue to buzz in my seat whilst page after page unfurls before me. Five minutes—then ten—and now the room is nothing but the smell of hot ink and the clunk of each page taking shape in the printer. The whole time I keep one eye on the door, waiting for someone to walk in and discover a ten year old boy printing secrets in the middle of the night.
The room now silent, the spell cast. I burst out of my seat, gathering the vast chunk of pages before me, and hurry quietly into the back office—a subterranean space and a little room with enough junk in each corner to touch the ceiling. But I’m looking for special junk.
In the dark it takes me a second before I find it: the comb binding machine! The one I had seen my father make small booklets with; all you had to do was punch the paper and, with a hefty pull on the handle, wind a black spiral of plastic through the holes in the paper. Remembering all this, a transparent plastic sheet is added to the top as a cover, I punch the tome before me, and pull the lever with an extremely satisfying clunk. Within a few minutes I had bound a loose gathering of scattered pages into a somewhat-almost-book.
Footsteps above me; the ceiling creaks.
The room now compressed, as if it was being crushed beneath the footsteps of the stranger above, all the air being pumped out through the cracks until I couldn’t breathe. Each noise amplified in the dark. Three, five, ten years pass and the office is silent once again. No more footsteps. It feels safe enough to clamber back through the office but—just as I was leaving—I stop transfixed. In the front office by the window, in the sleepiest of orange-hinted streetlight, I could finally see my work; my very first book.
Well, if we want to get technical, it wasn’t really mine. Okay, I had literally stolen all the words from the Internet. But this book was special to me, it was important. I turn the plastic cover over in the dark, and there it is. I can still remember the way the paper felt, the smell. And of course, I could not forget the giant, towering ASCII art letters that took up every last inch of the cover, too:
Let me explain.
The thing about Final Fantasy VII is that to a ten year old kid with nothing but one endless summer on his hands, it’s a sprawling world—no, a universe—bursting with life. This videogame has so many songs, and enemies, and cutscenes that it couldn’t be bound up in one disc alone. It had to be spread across three.
And yet as much as I adored this game, it was the first story that I couldn’t finish by myself. It was so tough that I got stuck. But I needed more—I had to finish it. I couldn’t let this giant blue something-or-other wipe out my entire team with a wave of its hand. Yet I had no idea what to do next because in the late 90’s, video games had no tutorials, and save points were as rare as diamonds. Game designers would throw you into their worlds and expect you to figure out everything for yourself, which was all part of the fun.
Except I was stuck and I was stubborn and I refused to quit.
But now with this giant bound FAQ in my hands I could finally finish the game. I could beat the tall anime gentleman with his absurdly big sword and I would know how to pronounce all the enemy names correctly. I would find every hidden treasure, and gather every sneaky secret.
And I did.
Today, looking back on all this, I see what this moment is—the one where I’m sweating profusely in the dark and holding out the book in my hands, reading the cover and shaking with excitement—this is why publishing is magic. It’s this beautiful, technical, and clandestine act that I want to relive over and over again.
This is what publishing feels like.
I’m reminded of all this because earlier in the week Chris Coyier and Dave Rupert redesigned the website for their podcast, ShopTalk Show. I love the design because it doesn’t look like any website I’ve seen lately and also because it’s highly inspired by ASCII art—borders are made up out of typographic elements like stars, dashes, and equal signs.
I know, right? There’s so many little details here that makes it impossible to avoid smiling until it hurts. And that’s because it’s so rare to find a website that looks as if it was a joy to make. From my experience, surfing the high seas of the net all day, the vast majority of websites take themselves so gosh darn seriously. It’s the law! All headings must be centered! All fonts must be boring! Get that weird pixel font outta here!
Isn’t this just so much fun? I especially adore the italics of Unibody that have this lovely condensed thing going on. I’m not sure if condensed italic is a subgenre but there’s a few typefaces I’ve spotted lately like this and I love them so very much:
I’m so very fond of this ASCII art-inspired, lo-fi design because it reminds me of the absolute wonder that is hypertext, publishing, and the web.
And it reminds me what a damn fine italic can really do.