20 September 2008

What photocomposition meant for type



Here are some images from my presentation 'Absolutely no type’ at this year’s ATypI conference.

Books produced by early phototypesetting systems publicized the fact that they were produced with ‘absolutely no type’. What letterforms were chosen for these new systems? How did they relate to existing type designs? What opportunities were taken (or missed) in the creation of new founts? How did the new typefaces for new machines affect the designers and typesetters who used them? By looking at the earliest phototypeset books, manufacturers’ and printers’ type specimens, and printers’ archives 1950-1970 we can find out more about the time when the certainties of metal typography began to dissolve into the new world of film.

All phototypesetting devices broke the link that existed in metal type between character width and escapement, that is the horizontal space in which a character sits. The latter could now be varied independently of character width, allowing any amount of under- or over-spacing of letters. This point is seized upon in this specimen for the Bawtree machine of the 1920s.


The Intertype Fotosetter promoted the new freedom of type design. Its hot-metal faces were constrained in two ways: characters could not kern (that is the top stroke of f could not hang over the following character), and character widths for roman and italic had to be equal, to allow for duplex matrices (which carried both fonts). Garamond seems to have been the first typeface adapted for the new machine, and the revised designs show how both constraints have been thrown aside.


Economy and efficiency were always te selling points for the new machines. The weight of the pieces of film used for a job was compared with the weight of the lead type that would previously have been necessary:


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28 August 2008

New types for old

This beautiful cover image is from a booklet describing the Rotofoto process, a photomechanical composition system developed in the late 1930s by George Westover, who had worked for Monotype.* Rotofoto, Uhertype (a Hungarian–German system), and the American Intertype Fotosetter are interesting because they show hot-metal type designs being adapted for photocomposition, and setting a high standard right at the start of commercially viable photocomposition.

The Uhertype, whose types are comprehensively discussed by Christopher Burke in his book Active literature: Jan Tschichold and the New Typography, had a comprehensive programme of type design, including versions of Monotype’s Gill Sans and Deberny & Peignot’s ‘French Roman’. The Fotosetter’s first typeface seems to have been Garamond, chosen no doubt because it showed off the phototypesetter’s ability to handle kerning.

The Rotofoto, reflecting its roots within the Monotype Corporation, offered Times New Roman and Monotype Old Style series 2. It’s not clear whether these were redrawn to any degree, or simply photographed from pulls of Monotype-set metal type. The Monotype connection was necessary: the keyboard for the Rotofoto was a Monotype one, and the unit widths of Rotofoto designs would have had to match those of the parent Monotype font.

I’ll be talking more about these and other early phototypesetting machines and the types they used at the ATypI conference in St Petersburg in September.

* See Boag, Andrew, ‘Monotype and phototypesetting’, Journal of the Printing historical Society, new series, 2, p. 58

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08 August 2008

Some readers like footnotes (2)

There is certainly a trade-off between convenience of access and simplicity of appearance in deciding whether to place notes on the page or at the end of the book – especially if the book started life as a non-academic text and explanatory notes have been added later. In the early days of phototypesetting, when pages were made up by hand using (literally) cut and paste, footnotes became an additional cost, and were avoided where possible by many publishers. Large-scale, automated page make-up systems such as Miles and Penta made the position of notes irrelevant, as the pagination process could deal with foot-of-page, end-of-chapter, or end-of-book notes equally well; but these systems could not compete on cost with simpler Mac-based applications such as Quark XPress, which had nothing like the functionality. Footnotes in XPress used to be a real pain.

InDesign’s relatively competent handling of footnotes means that there is no reason for foot-of-page notes to be avoided any more, but I wonder if there is still a folk-memory that footnotes are ‘difficult’? I was pleased to see that some readers are still in favour of footnotes, as evidenced by this blog – but note the rueful ‘I guess footnotes have been done away with in this day and age’, as if publishers have persuaded readers that ‘there’s no call for them now, sir.’

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28 July 2008

The men in white coats


In films and tv dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, the scientist (usually male) was instantly recognizable by his white coat. As the printing industry began to move to photo-typesetting and computer-aided composition in the same period, the image of the printer in a white coat was part of the message to customers that here was a new, less inky age, with highly trained technicians producing perfect results from finely calibrated equipment. The printer was seen with the new tools of his trade: a light-table, film, and a scalpel. All that was missing was the stethoscope. Even when the machinery was not so different (Monotype used the same basic keyboard for its Monophoto machines as for its hot-metal system) the operator was duly dressed up in a white coat for the publicity photo, eschewing the traditional printer's brown garb.

This attempt to rebrand the printer went alongside calls for designers to re-think themselves: ‘Print designers … should be trained not in art schools, but in schools of engineering print design.’ Thus John Duncan in 1964. ‘There is still too much woolly thinking in out training programmes for designers. Too often the basic disciplines of draughtsmanship and the cardinal responsibility of communicating an idea or message are overlooked or neglected and issues are clouded by the striving for the vague goals of so-called originality and aestheticism,’ wrote Lawrence Wallis in 1965. ‘This is an age of specification writing,’ continued Duncan, accurately describing the role of the designer for computer-controlled composition as someone who had thought out all the issues beforehand, so the the machines could run at maximum speed, with little need for time-wasting corrections. ‘What other industry,’ wondered Wallis, ‘would put up with the specification being altered half way through the production of a job, or even worse with no specification at all, or with an inaccurate one.’

Alongside the elevation of the specification was the development of work-flow diagrams: the one below even schematizes the operations with labels such as ‘intellectual–manual’ and ‘automatic–electronic’.


What was this a reaction against? Perhaps the best example I can find from the early post-war years of a designer being determinedly anti-scientific (if you take scientific as meaning a method involving measurable, repeatable things) is Jan van Krimpen, whom Robin Kinross called 'the principal bearer of tradition in Dutch typography’. Here is is talking of how he would ‘specify’ amendments to a typeface design:

‘I meant to offer … to have them put in order, under my own eyes, by my own punch-cutter. … When we talk of punches cut by hand we use terms like “a hair or even less” or “the tiniest little trifle” &c. I am sure they could not convey or mean anything to the people of the [Monotype works who] talk of “tens” and “thous[ands of an inch]”.’

Sources: Penrose Annual, 1964; The Monotype Recorder, 43, 2, Summer 1965; OUP archives

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