Designing Type Is Still an Art, Computerization Notwithstanding

Now there is a computer program said to be capable of producing a typeface, the implication being that the complexities of type design are accessible through computer programming. To back up that claim, the promoters of the system, Metafont, availed upon Hermann Zapf, best known of present-day type designers, for comment. Zapf is quoted to the effect that the program rivals in importance the contributions of Johann Gutenberg’s concept of movable type, in the 15th century.

It’s a surprising statement, coming from as traditional a designer as Zapf.

We had, in fact, recently collaborated with Professor Archie Provan at Rochester Institute of Technology on a letter to Gutenberg, published in broadside. One paragraph reads:

“Keeping typography in the form you invented will always be vital to this changed craft. We’re sure that it will continue to be fundamental to the training of future typographers, enabling them to fully understand and appreciate those qualities of good typographic design which you so ably gave to the world over 500 years ago.”

We didn’t mean that Gutenberg’s methods have to prevail forever, but to suggest that the ideals of early craftsmanship will be remembered in a period when they appear in danger. I was encouraged to learn that Mr. Zapf was quoted out of context concerning the efficacy of the Metafont system. I haven’t seen anything composed in these types.

The press release announcing the mid-January publication of the first book in Metafont states, among other things, that the computer “enables the user to spell out his own design for each letter or symbol. Writing a program for a particular alphabet design provides a discipline according to which the principles of a particular alphabet design are stated explicitly–the underlying intelligence does not remain hidden in the mind of the designer, it is clearly expressed in the program.”

This is a forthright claim, which may be justified. All of which prompts me to wonder about the present and future of type design. The craft has never been crowded, and even its most successful practitioners have seldom influenced anyone beyond the circle of typophiles.

For instance, I can’t recall another printer of similar recognition to Ben Franklin, and when it comes to type designers, there isn’t one that comes to mind. There’s a question about the ability of so anonymous a craft in attracting talent in the future.

Historically, the designers were printers who used manuscripts or other types as models. But within the first century after Gutenberg, specialists in the cutting of punches were either employed by printers or commissioned to cut typefaces. By the close of the 16th century, all of the ancillary operations of type founding—punchcutting, matrix driving, casting–were brought together in a separate establishment, and to the present.

Until the 19th century, the making of book types dominated typefounding. A number of punchcutters made notable contributions as printers, but the great majority labored unacknowledged. John Baskerville and Giambatista Bodoni are still remembered by types that remain in universal use. It was their reputations as printers that obtained them their niches.

During the 19th century, the explosive growth of commercial printing fostered enormous expansion in the number of typefounders. Types were needed to advertise and promote the sale of manufactured wares. Impact of the type itself became paramount, and typefaces assumed characteristics far removed from those used for continuous reading purposes. This new function of typography attracted a new breed of punchcutters.

Despite the countless new types that appeared in the last century, the punchcutters, by and large, remained nameless. Wider public recognition did not come until the return of the classic typography engendered by the efforts of William Morris in England, the arts and crafts movement, and similar esthetic crusades that made the design of printing types an important field for individualized craftsmanship.

After 1900, these craftsmen were called type “designers” and almost earn their livelihoods producing types. There began a period when designers’ names became important in the marketing of printing types, and international reputations were secured. Printers everywhere became familiar with Frederic Goudy, Lucien Bernhard, S.H. De Roos, Rudolf Koch, Eric Gill and others.

But for steady income from their work, type designers remained attached to typefoundries, or the drawing departments of composing machine manufacturers. This, however, exacted a stiff cost of lost identity.

In the United States, for example, Morris Benton, at American Type Founders Co.; R. Hunter Middleton, at Ludlow Typography Co.; and Edwin Shaar, at Intertype Corp., have produced many solid designs, but remained obscure within the corporate structure and little known even to the trade.

Most of the recognized type designers of our time produced their types on a freelance basis, pursuing, as well, other activities such as book design, lettering, and advertising typography. Apparently, such will be the state of the art in the future, even under the impact of the new technology in typesetting.

There have been many designers in this century who have achieved considerable reputations, and who have had lasting impact on the appearance of the printed word. With the multiplication of composing devices that too frequently simply adapt existing types, it becomes more important than ever to attract talented craftsmen of letterforms.

The best of these should be thoroughly familiar with electronic principles of typesetting machines and their adaptability to the creation of new forms. It is hoped that the manufacturers—many of whom are not aware of the printer’s tradition—never decide that any system can, in itself, readily adapt to the formation of letters without the guidance of a skilled type designer, thoroughly familiar with the long history of his craft.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the May 1982 issue of Printing Impressions. A note attached to this article reads “this column was cut by the editor to fit on one page of the magazine.”

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