If you've found your way to this page, you're most likely a member of Generation X.

By Gary Priester

Maybe the last of the boomers. It's not likely that you have gray hair, or many gray hairs yet. Your memory is undoubtedly sharper than mine. You probably believe:

  • That type has always been set on computers.
  • That two of the most dated typefaces around are Helvetica and Times Roman.
  • You might even view type as decoration, mere window dressing.

I maintain that type was meant to be read.

Back in the sixties when hippies were running around in garishly decorated VW vans, wearing peace symbols and love beads, experiencing sex without condoms and without fear, taking drugs, taking trips, and protesting the war in Viet Nam, I was an advertising design student at The Art Center School in Los Angeles. The school would soon to change its name to Art Center College of Design--the better to convince concerned parents of the credibility of the school and its curriculum. Unlike Chouinard across town, where being a hippie and being a student were one in the same for the most part, Art Center was almost military like in its rules and discipline. Shoes were to be worn at all times, preferably with socks. (Life drawing models were exempt of course). No beards. Mustaches and side-burns were tolerated. Barely.

In drawing classes we sat in orderly semi circular rows on "donkeys" (a bench sort of affair with a high front to support the standard sized drawing board) using the same conte crayons, drawing on the same sized sheets of newsprint, producing more or less (less in my case) the same drawings.

It was in my early advertising design classes that I first became aware of the allure of type. Teachers--professional art directors not professional teachers--some but a few years older, some in their thirties and forties--spoke with reverence and a kind of rapture about the beautiful lines and proportions of the classic faces, Bodoni, Caslon, Garamond, Bembo, Baskerville, Times Roman. They admired the clean, elegant use of Helvetica by the Europeans.

In lettering class, we would become intimately familiar with each subtle line and curve as we trained our eyes to guide our unpracticed hands in an attempt to reproduce the shape of the classic typefaces. One instructor's eyes would glaze over as he spoke of the sensuous negative images that appeared between different pairs of letters. Though I wasn't particularly skilled in hand lettering, I did manage to get a pretty fair knowledge of and appreciation for the classics. We argued about which one typeface we'd take with us to that mythical desert island, never coming to agreement on one single font, although at the time Helvetica came close, as did Caslon and Bodoni.

A dying art

Ironically, one instructor who was also one of the best lettering men in Los Angeles, and who earned a damn good living by hand lettering headlines for ads and brochures, told us that photographic type, which was just beginning to make its appearance, would never replace good hand lettered type. I often think about him and what he's doing for a living now.

About the same time art directors were switching from pastel chalks to magic markers for producing advertising layouts and comprehensives, photographic or photo type came on to the scene. Used initially to set the same headlines that my instructor had deemed untouchable, photo type employed photographic negatives of each letter and character and came in a variety of sizes from around 16 point up to a "horsy" 72 point. (Another instructor of mine once criticized a classmate for using a bold, punchy and large Futura Extra Bold headline on an ad layout, he said it was horsy. By the time I graduated from Art Center, horsy headlines were all the fashion and still are to this day. Every time I run into this instructor, I always reminded him of his indictment, much to his chagrin.) Unlike today's PostScript fonts where one outline is used for all sizes, (with the exception of a few of Adobe's Multiple Master series) photo type, like its hot type cousins, was "cut" differently depending upon size. The smaller sizes were softer and more open to allow for clarity at smaller sizes. The larger "display" sizes were cut sharper with thinner strokes, sharper serifs and to my mind, more elegance and style.

Whereas newspapers had been using Linotype machines to set "hot type" in lead slugs, type setters specializing in setting body copy for ads and brochures, which required a greater degree of artistic skill, used individual letters and characters produced by the famous type foundries in both the old and new world. These individual pieces of type along with a variety of letter spacers and leading lines, were arranged in drawers that were divided up like a Modrian painting into areas where each letter or character resided. The larger areas were occupied with letters like S and T, while letters like Y and Z were relegated to the smaller confines. None of these areas was labeled. The typesetters just knew where each letter was. Typesetters were skilled crafts people who had worked they way up the ranks. They could look at one or two letters and tell you the exact type family it came from. Individual letters were picked out of the drawer and arranged on a "type stick" in reverse order, since the type proof would be made by inking this type and printing it on special proofing paper. Type that was set justified would be word spaced and often letter spaced painstakingly by hand. A far cry from computer method we're familiar with today.

Cold type

Many of these typesetters made the transition to photo type or cold type as it was also know as. They worked the typositors in darkened rooms where headlines were set a letter at a time directly onto film negatives. Through a process that remains a mystery to me today, soft images of the previous letter or two remained in the red lit window which the type setter would use to space out the type. The film would then be developed, proof read and contacted to photographic paper. These headlines were then sent to the advertising agencies and graphic design studios where mechanical artists, or quite often the designers and art directors themselves, would cut apart and respace the letters until they were satisfied with the "color" of the type.

Around the late sixties, when I began my career as an advertising art director, cold type had completely replaced hot type. Type was now being set on computer driven type machines, although headlines were still set by hand, letter by letter on typositors. The typesetters now not only had to keep up with the ever increasing number of typefaces, both old and new, they now had to lean the particular tastes of the art directors and designers. Setting copy, a marked up page containing the advertising copy, would be marked up by the art director or designer specifying type face, point size, leading, justification and often accompanied by a layout with illustrations that the type would be set to "run around". Headlines would often be accompanied with words like, "tight but not touching" or "very tight" or "space for best color". A good typesetter knew the particular tastes of their better clients and would set their type accordingly. Agencies had definite styles. In the seventies you could look at an ad and in many cases know the agency by the style of the type. Chiat/Day for instance used a lot of Futura Extra Bold Condensed headlines along with a very clean cut of Century Old Style for the body copy which was generally set in sizes above 14 point. Chiat/Day also used a lot of captions set in Century Old Style Italic. This look was widely imitated at the time and is still being used today by the hot creative shops of the late eighties and nineties, Goodby Berlin & Silverstein in San Francisco, Fallon McElligot in Minneapolis.

Today the professional type setters have gone the way of hot type. The type houses have morphed into service bureaus. The age of the specialist has been replaced by the age of generalist. Armed with computers, art directors and designers who once were free to employ the skills of the best crafts people in the country while they concentrated on concepts and fine tuning are now expected to be the embodiment of all these vanished people. Not only have the type setters disappeared, but their knowledge, skill and sensitivity to type has disappeared with them. And it's not likely we'll see that degree of skill again any time soon.

Gary Priester -- themook@well.com . While it's not exactly known what "the mook" means, Gary (with his illustrator-wife Mary Carter), are partners in the Black Point Group, a graphic design firm in Sausalito, California. They are two-time Grand-Prize category winners in the CorelDraw World Design Contest. Being Windows-users (and happy about it--though not happy about it when they're discriminated against by ignorant Mac art directors) they are living proof that it's the artist, not the tools, that determine the end result.

1996 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com.