Typographer’s View of Phototypesetting

Typographers who are apprehensive about the future of the conventionally-style letters which we call roman types may take some degree of comfort from the fact that most of the current crop of phototypesetting devices are producing the same types as the “hand comp” of an earlier era, albeit somewhat swifter, if not so skillful.

The Print 68 exhibition in Chicago last June unfolded a be will during array of phototypesetting machines offering every degree of complexity (and price range) imaginable. While not wishing to acquiesce in the “lead is dead” theme, the thoughtful typographer could at least concede the hot metal was really receiving some strong competition.

Time of Transition

Unquestionably typesetting is in a period of transition, the length of which no one can accurately predict, no matter how well-informed he may be about the new technology. Important consideration, to the typographer, is that the product of the regenerated typesetters be superior to that of their predecessors, although he may settle for “as good as.”

Many of the firms now investing in this booming market are in the entrepreneur stage, Lord, perhaps, by the inescapable fact that a relative handful of manufacturers have enjoyed, over the last half-century, what almost amounts to monopoly rights in the servicing of an important segment of the nation’s sixth largest industry.

Demand for the Familiar

When the Mergenthaler Linotype Company and the Lanston Monotype Company became the first successful producers of automated typesetting machines some 80 years ago, they necessarily had to provide printers with types which were familiar. This of course meant that some of the popular types of that period, available only in type founder’s versions, were offered with the early Linotype and Monotype machines.

While this was a satisfactory solution for several years, it became evident that the composing machine manufacturers would have to supply original type designs if they were to remain competitive and if they were expected to charm printers away from dependence upon hand-set foundry type.

The significant point to remember is that both firms make every effort to provide types which were aesthetically pleasing to their customers, rather than adopting the alternative of supplying funds which were instructed by the technical considerations of matrix manufacturing, or the mechanical production of the machines themselves.

Contributions to the Art

Since then the Linotype and Monotype firm, along with Intertype and Ludlow, have made notable contributions to the typographical art with the many excellent types made available. The finest type designers of our times have produced new styles for the composing machines. There have been many splendid revival of classic and historic types, without which present-day typography would pour indeed.

In all of this development there has been some “pirating” of competitors’ designs. But among the vast production of types over the last 50 years, it is surprising how little plagiarism has occurred. Far less, in truth, than that practiced by the typefounders in the 19th century following the development of manufacturing matrices by electrolysis.

As the machines were utilized primarily for straight-matter composition, the foundries became more and more concerned with production of display types, being freed from the dependence upon large volume orders for small sizes. Obviously, the printer benefited by the multiplicity of new styles which were marketed under these conditions.

Arrival of Phototypesetting

In the immediate postwar period, the producers of the hot-metal typesetters became involved with the introduction of machines to set type photographically. Since these new machines were built for customers who were already using traditional models, there was no need to develop new type styles. Therefore, the filmsetters used types already available. In fact, this factor was pointed out with some pride in the advertising for the new devices.

Of all the manufacturers of phototypesetters, Photon was the only one which do not have a comfortable backlog of corporate type styles to rely on and consequently had to resort to “adapting” it’s competitors’ fonts whenever it strayed away from the classic standards such as Bodoni, Caslon, Baskerville, etc. The ethics of this approach was much debated at the time. The firm lost much of its early support from printers interested in the new typesetting techniques, difficulty from which it has since recovered.

An examination of the names of those firms now engaged in the development of phototypesetting machines reveals that except for such household names as IBM, RCA, most of these companies are, to our industry at least, relatively obscure. They are for the most part electronic firms which have been enticed into this market by the comparatively small number of major suppliers in the lucrative possibilities inherent in a huge industry upon the threshold of the technological breakthrough.

Room for Adaptation

Of all the areas of specialization in the printing industry, typesetting is the most adaptable to update an improvement by the computer techniques which have been developed in the last two years. Therefore it is the most desirable for exploitation.

After the scramble for tension has peaked, presumably a few new firms will be left the suppliers of the equipment which will eventually revolutionize that ancient craft of setting printer’s types. These will have survived by having most carefully investigated the market to determine the kind of machines with printers really need, and even more born, they will have a complete understanding and sympathy with the product of the typesetters.

It is not enough to wait printers with dodos and to deprecate their reliance upon factors which Marshall McLuhan refers to as the Gutenberg Syndrome. There exists plenty of evidence that contemporary typographers are not only going to settle for less than the best fit with the new machines to work. Electronic engineer may call a type an alphanumeric symbol, but it had better be a well-proportioned character, too, he expects to sell it to a typographer.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the March 1969 issue of Printing Impressions.


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