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In Designer's Placeholder 'Lorem Ipsum,' A Sense Of Poetry

Lyndsay Knecht
Lynne Yun hand-letters 'Lorem Ipsum' in its original Latin alongside a rough English translation by Jaspreet Singh Boparai, a postgraduate at Cambridge. The display was part of the 'London Review Of Books'' display at Book Expo America last week.

Many pages you’ve looked at today in books, magazines and online have a secret in common: before the words were placed on that page, LoremIpsum was there. It’s a passage of Latin filler text used by printers and typesetters since the 16th century to prepare a publication’s design before copy is ready. 

Last week at Book Expo America, Lorem Ipsum was being treated like verse with a homage to its rough English translation. 

Aaron Leis looks at a lot of words. He’s a freelance book designer for publishers like Denton's Resurrection House, a rare-book slinger at Recycled Books, and a poetry editor for the literary journal Farrago's Wainscot.

“Placeholders like Lorem Ipsum give you a chunk of text to start playing with so you can start swapping out the typefaces, and sizes, the placement of text, raised or dropped caps at the start of a chapter," he says. "The good thing about a gibberish passage is that it has the bonus of being undistracting. You’re not going to be drawn to a certain word or phrase and you can just look at the text for what it is on its own.”

What Leis finds romantic about Lorem Ipsum - a messy chop-up of Cicero’s ‘De finibus bonorum et malorum’that's still a dummy text option in some desktop publishing programs  -  is its lack of meaning, its purpose to disappear.  

“You can’t go back like they’ve done with radiography on oil paintings to see that a peasant is now a king, or that the artist had gone back and painted a smile over what had once been a frown – it’s always just fresh ink on a blank page," he says. "Even in the old days of printing, once a book was done, and the plates were taken apart, then the book just kind of went back to being letters.”

The London Review of Books, however, made Lorem Ipsum appear last week - not on a page, but on a ten-by-ten-foot wall. 

At the journal’s Book Expo America booth in New York City, artist Lynne Yun is hand-lettering a rough, fettered English translation of Lorem Ipsum alongside its original Latin.

"Right now I’m just using a sable brush, a brush that has a snap because it’s crucial that I keep my thicks and thins consistent," she explains, relieved to be at eye-level after a first round painting on a ladder.

"Because the left side is right aligned, and the right side, is left-aligned, so it looks kind of like it’s supposed to be one piece, which it is," she says.

c/o Lynne Yun

Tim Johnson is advertising director for the London Review, which commissioned Yun to paint to words. He attempts to read the original Latin aloud, and then, much more comfortably, he explains two ideas about Lorem he's taken with: it’s an enabler of good modern design, in an ancient tongue.

"Lorem, in a way, is the original user experience, the user interaction – the whole thing is founded on being readable and making reading pleasurable," he says. "I think it’s fascinating that as we go further and further towards more digital reading platforms, type, and good type, and the principles of good type, have never been more pertinent."

He says a treatise exploring Lorem's English translation by the London Review’s Nick Richardson last year was wildly popular with the journal's readers. The Review is a hold-out of sorts for words, one of so few publications who shun a focus on word count. Andrew O'Hagan’s piece on Julian Assange, for example, famously cleared the20,000-word mark.

"Since the beginning of the magazine, in 1979, it’s always had its harvest with a serious literary endeavor, but also a serious writing endeavor based on the essay, the old idea of the essay," Johnson says. "You’re allowing writers to explore the ideas they have without any pressure to conform to space, or to illustration, or to commercial pressure – their ideas are the most important thing."

As Yun puts her brush to the wall at the Expo, lettering that  fragmented English interpretation, she is seeing a passage she sat with daily as a graphic designer.

"There’s something broken about it, like a shadow of something that could have been – and the text itself is like, 'let it be sorrow, let ‘em love it,' it has such a velour to it."

Leis, the Denton poet and designer, says the part of Lorem that stays out of our grasp is the compelling part.

" ... I will probably start trying to write a poem called Lorem Ipsum next weekend," he says. "I’d like to say something more poet-y than Latin feels old and beautiful and mysterious but those really are the first feelings that come to mind."

Lyndsay Knecht is assistant producer for Think.