Selection of Type Faces Offers Wide Possibilities

  • An embarrassment of riches makes choice of type a difficult matter
  • Trends and folks of specialized type usage fluctuate rather quickly
  • One type user claimed even the gods do not know which type to use

Few subjects are as controversial among printers as the selection of type faces. Perhaps it is rash even to bring the matter up, but composing room people love to talk shop, even when there is disagreement.

In the present discussion, it might be appropriate to steer clear of one phase of the type selection business, and that is–what type to use on a particular job. Since the factors involved in type use are extremely varied, it is impossible to be dogmatic. My own favorite answer to this question is to quote William Addison Dwiggins, one of the foremost living typographic designers, who is said, “What type shall I use? The gods refuse an answer. They refuse (sacrilege though it be to say it) because they do not know.”

Type Choices Need Discretion

Choice of types for the shop is a somewhat different matter. First of all, it can be a very personal thing. We have a super abundance of type from which to choose. Foundries, American and foreign, and composing machine manufacturers are all eager to help us in our selection. With this embarrassment of riches, it is necessary to exercise some discretion in any selective process.

A discussion of type choice is further hampered by the continuing trend of specialization in the printing industry. Even the ordinary commercial plant is leaving its type problems unresolved and is giving the trait compositor a free hand in type selection. Economically, this is fast becoming a wise decision, as the trait, can more easily keep abreast of typographic trends. But it does take some of the fun out of the job. The small commercial plant loses an opportunity to be creative and becomes involved only in the number of impressions rolling off in the pressroom.

A still further consideration concerns the use to which the type is to be put. Is it going to be used in jobs actually on the press, or for reproduction proofing or electrotyping? The selection of a type is frequently based upon the answers to these questions.

The availability of the face raises additional factors. If it is a foundry type, is it American or foreign? If the shop has slug-casting machines or single-diecasting machines, the problem is complicated to a greater degree, as it often happens that a type design has features which, even in the same general style, vary a great deal in the different machines. Even the location of the source of supply can influence somewhat the printer’s choice.

If we assume the shop is an ordinary commercial establishments producing a variety of printing, from envelope corners to periodicals, this might be a good starting point for study of type requirements.

Excluding the possibility of person now works in bias in type selection, and effort must be made to analyze the kind of printing to be done, the preferences of potential customers, if any, and at least some thought given to current trends in type use. Naturally, a customer’s choice of a type must be given due consideration, although it is the printer’s task to make every attempt to align it with his own thinking.

Many printers will disagree with the idea of allowing a customer to select a type. Even Daniel Berkeley Updike, during his career, was reticent about this practice. He would show a customer three or four faces and ask him to choose. In this way, the customer, according to Updike, exercised the choice, but only a choice of the three or four best kinds of the same thing.

Printer Has Best Knowledge

He further stated that he didn’t think it fair to fool the customer, but that it was equally unfair for the customer to fool himself. He should get only what he is paying for: the best knowledge the printer possesses.

It must be recognized that pressures will be constant to add to the type list for special jobs. This practice will eventually strain storage facilities and contribute to the expansion of overhead costs. Keeping up with trends and type faces is a losing battle for almost every reasonably progressive printer. It is frequently impossible to predict just how long a particular type, especially a display case, will remain in popular demand. Many specialized types have become obsolete rather quickly.

A general rule can never be formulated concerning additions and deletions. Should a customer demand a particular face and back up his demand by getting the printer a particular value my work using it, the economics are quickly solved, as the customer will have purchased the type. However, unless the printer is engaged in advertising typography, requests for every new type will not be extreme, in spite of the efforts of type foundries to contact buyers of printing when new designs are about to be offered.

The vast output of types from boundaries and machine companies makes it difficult for the printer to realize that he can get along with relatively few. His range of choice is such a broad one that the very riches themselves are confusing. While many printers decry this prolific production, just as many more are captured by its appeal.

Collector’s Passion a Danger

It is easy to acquire the collector’s passion, even when it comes to expensive types, since once we have the “bug” we simply must have this exotic new type or the charming one. All well and good, of course, but it is not conducive to cold planning. However, we should not frowned too much on the practice, as an doozy as and for the product is a necessary attribute in a printer.

That this situation is not exactly new to the printing industry is apparent upon reading the statistics concerning printing in Venice in the years 1470–1500, when some 1,700 different type faces and sizes were designed in cast—a nice production rate for one town.

Nevertheless, the profusion of types is often a hindrance to good typographic design. We have such a variety of every style of type readily available that we often lose the opportunity to do the best creative typography with a few, and to extract from those few the best possible use. The printer completely familiar with but a few good types can, by subtle changes of size and leading, achieve effects unobtainable by the designer with dozens of faces on hand.

More and more it is becoming difficult to practice restraint in type use, dominated as we are by the so-called modern communications techniques of shock. In typography, these same techniques have long been assailed by J.L. Frazier in his “Specimen Review” department.

The question, then, “what type for the shop?” Is predicated by a long look around and a great deal of sound thinking before concrete steps are to be taken. In a following article, I hope to explore the actual type selection for an average commercial plant, along with the reasoning behind the selection.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the December 1956 issue of The Inland Printer.


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