Type Specimen Book Challenge

Possibly the most disagreeable task faced by any printer or typesetter is the production of a new typesetting book. It’s production is such a chore that is put off until even the copies of the old book in the plant are dog-earred and marked-up beyond recognition, and the customers’ demands become incessant and perhaps incoherent.

Yet specimen book is the catalog of the printer’s wares, so to speak, and should represent fully his typographic resources and his ability to be of service to his clients. There are of course numerous reasons for this reluctance to do the bang-up job of merchandising required if the volume is to be a first-rate type specimen book.

Most of the troubles revolve around costs. There would appear to be no way to get around this important factor, other than to realize that the specimen book is one of the most essential items in maintaining suitable customer relationships. If it does it’s job, it will turn out to be a sound financial investment both in holding on to old customers and in attracting new ones. Unfortunately, few printers apply the same hardheaded thinking to such details as they do to most other aspects of their business.

It is axiomatic that printers, as a group, represent the least public-relations-conscious industry in the republic. Possibly they are so busy presenting a good public image for most of the other industries that they have lost sight of their own. The fact remains that there exists a real opportunity for most firms to do a positive job of selling their product by means of a type catalog and in most instances they neglect the challenge.

Having examined scores of type specimen books issued by printers and typesetters during the last few years, I feel quite safe in stating that most of them are goal, badly organized, and completely unimaginative. Relatively few printers, apparently, realize that the “wares” shown upon the pages of type catalogs are common to all; that is, each book contains simply a selection of types from various type foundries, domestic and foreign, and those from the composing machine manufacturers.

So the catalog receives the “ho-hum” treatment, showing types alphabetically or arranged under such headings as “Foundry,” “Linotype,” “Monotype,” etc. Perhaps all the sizes of the given font may be shown, with one line given to each, spelling out the same sentence throughout the value, or simply listing letters of the alphabet. This means that in the larger sizes very few characters are represented. The more affluent printers exhibit every size and full alphabet, both caps and lower case, but such opulent specimen books are rare. Should the title page in most books be removed the customer would know which printer he was doing business with.

The Printer’s Catalog Can Inform and Inspire.

But this have to be this way? This discussion was touched off in the first place by couple of dozen hours with must be the most splendid type specimen book ever issued by an American printer, Theodore L. De Vinne. Types of the De Vinne Press was issued in 1907, and contains some 450 pages. This volume not only shows types–it informs, amuses and inspires its readers. While it was written by the foremost typographic historian of his time, and represents the possibilities open to contemporary printers to stimulate their clients in a similar fashion.

One of the wonderful features of De Vinne’s book is that while he shows all of his types, he doesn’t necessarily agree that they are all good letters. He utilizes his text to instruct his readers in their discriminate use. The page showing Washington Text uses five sizes to state: “graceful as an ox of one horn on the left side of it said as if determined not to make any inclination to righteousness of appearance. How Albert Durer and Geoffey Tory would have stared at this ‛artistic’ variation of the blacklister capital. Select this face of Washington Text only when it has been specially requested. It is not an improvement ox on into any print.”

For the showing of Oxonian, De Vinne writes: “Largely to demonstrate the skill and ingenuity of the designer, who produces these eccentric types to meet the incessant demand printers and advertisers. The types are supposed to be helpful in attempts at the production of what is called ‛artistic printing.’”

Such candor is indeed refreshing, and there’s no reason why a printer cannot assume the responsibility of informing his customer about type selection. Certainly he should be in the best position to do so. The De Vinne book is therefore a model of construction throughout. Instead of a repeat of the same asinine quotation throughout, it becomes a continuing text on typographic history and in contemporary usage of standard typefaces. While there are few practical printers around today with the immense knowledge possessed by De Vinne, it is the approach which is important. The specimen book of the De Vinne Press merely presents some interesting guidelines.

The type catalog need not be a bland listing of characters. It can represent a provocative step, on the part of the printer, in demonstrating to his customer his desire to inform and instruct them to be of service. Certainly one of the most common complaints in our industry concerns the uninformed customer and the need to educate (and his employees). The type catalog would seem to represent the ideal platform from which the printer can take constructive steps in this direction.

The text used to show the various types is not necessarily have to contain typographic history. It can be of practical value in dispersing information concerning type use, production techniques, etc. Primarily what is needed in the preparation of contemporary type showing is an awareness that they represent an opportunity to depart from state convention and to display individuality, thus proving that the customer’s demands may be served in like manner.

The results may not be a handbook for the ages, as in the De Vinne volume, I can very well represent the highest standards at definite contribution on the part of the printer who wishes to make the effort to improve his services to his customers and to the industry.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column in the August 1966 issue of Printing Impressions.


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