July 21

“Dear RR,” wrote a distinguished designer of printer’s typefaces on this day in 1937 to an equally distinguished graphic artist who was then working upon his first type design: “the way I work at present is to draw an alphabet 10 times 12-point size, with a pen or brush, the letters carefully finished.”

The type designer was William Addison Dwiggins, long-time resident of Hingham, Massachusetts, one of America’s finest craftsmen in all aspects of the production of print. RR was Rudolph Ruzicka, then pondering the design which resulted two years later in the splendid book type known as Fairfield. WAD was, as always, friendly and completely undogmatic concerning his own approach to the problems of creating a new type. Unlike many type designers who necessarily have to work closely with the technicians who are concerned with the purely mechanical problems of transfer from drawing to matrix, Dwiggins was always ready to redraw his letters to conform to the standards set up by the manufacturer. He was a practical man in all things.

The designer of a new type which is to be primarily useful for the printing of books must of course submerge any desire he might have to create a distinctively different roman letter. His task is not unlike that of the composer of music to accompany a motion picture; it must set the mood for the photoplay, and anything else is interference. Dwiggins’ realization—and acceptance—of the type designer’s role in this endeavor is evident in a paragraph of his letter to Ruzicka:

“Fitting is the process of working out the exactly right amount of space to go between letters. Each type-letter, wherever it goes, carries along with it two fixed blank spaces, one on each side. And of course, each of the 26 is likely to be placed alongside any of the other 25 with their fixed blank spaces. So the odds against you in the fitting game would seem to be 2704 to 1. (Would it be that, or 2500 to (?)”

Never jealous of his artistic prerogatives, Dwiggins had no complaints to offer concerning the French curves and straight edges used by Linotype’s staff. “They do a surprisingly careful job,” he said. The inherent rightness of the Dwiggins’ method is discernible in his achievement in the design of Electra and Caledonia, both of them currently among the most widely used book types. His dictum of sublimating his own personality to that of his designs is readily apparent in both of these types. There are no tricks or unusual characteristics. Indeed, the embryo typographer who relies on such features has a great deal of trouble in trying to remember either type and must learn to recognize them by the effect they have when combined into words upon the printed page. There could really be no more fitting tribute to pay to a type with the necessary qualifications for subtly transferring an author’s mind to that of the reader.

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