39 Years Ago This Month…

…I attended my very first business meeting as a working adult in a conference room at Bantam Books in New York City. I had been hired to project manage the adaptation of two Choose Your Own Adventure books into games for the Atari game console. And the Bantam Editorial and Marketing departments wanted an update on our progress. 

By then the books had become bestsellers. Bantam was printing literally millions of copies per month. Within a year, series sales would break records. The atmosphere in the room was almost giddy with the pleasure of success.

The discussion turned to the CYOA logo and whether it should be changed for the packaging of the boxes that would carry the Atari game cartridges. The answer was an almost immediate and emphatic "no" from all quarters. Something about the logo was “magic.” Somehow, it “just worked." People loved the hot dog shape of it, they loved the red color (PMS #1795 in case you’re wondering). And most of all they loved the font.



This conversation was a revelation to me. Five months out of college, and there I am sitting among a group of publishing heavyweights digging into the arcane components of what made a font successful. They talked of the importance of the width of a font’s uprights and cross strokes. I learned then that Benguiat Bold was a serif font, serifs being those little squibs attached to the corners of letters. It turns out that serifs are critical to leading your eye along a line of text and making a typeface easier to read. I learned how the font’s name was pronounced “ben-ghat,” and that it was a “new font” that was not yet widely used. Despite having serifs, Benguiat Bold was also great for titles. San-serif fonts grab the eye and were thus often the first choice for posters and logos.  (Think all those Russian fascists!) But Benguiat was an exception. 

I became a lifelong student of the power of a great font on that day. And I became wistful when I read of the death of Ed Benguiat this past Friday, at age 92. I was fascinated to learn that he had started out life as a distinguished jazz drummer, playing on the road with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, before turning to graphic design when his first child was born. There’s something about writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book that’s a lot like playing jazz. You try it one way and come to an end. Then circle back and try it another. Everything gets included and sometimes you’re brilliant. It took Ed Benguiat over a year to design the font. And it was the only one that he named after himself.

In the twenty years following that meeting in New York, there were four CYOA cover redesigns. The original “red hot dog” and its amazing Benguiat Bold hung in there almost to the end. But in 1996, even that went. The old CYOA design was completely scrapped in favor of a pulp-magazine riff on Raiders of the Lost Arc - another baby born in 1981 -  and Choose Your Own Adventure sales fell off a cliff. No one recognized us anymore. And shortly thereafter, Bantam ceased publishing new titles.

As the rights reverted to my husband R. A. Montgomery in the early 2000s, and after it became clear that the best path forward was to start our own publishing house to reintroduce Choose Your Own Adventure, our first design decision was to return to the original logo. Fifteen years and fifteen million books later, it’s the thing people still mention most when they thank one of us at Chooseco for relaunching the series. Some things it seems  Benguiat Bold, PMS #1795, and Choose Your Own Adventure – turn out to be indivisible.

Thank you Ed Benguiat.

Leave a comment