A paradigm does come to mind that puts into relief technological issues. It is typography or more specifically the design ...

by Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl
Date: 1988
Posted in News

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A paradigm does come to mind that puts into relief technological issues. It is typography or more specifically the design of letterforms. The design of letterforms is part of a long humanistic tradition stretching back to the Romans. At least one author attributes the rise of western civilization with its codified laws and spirit of scientific inquiry to the invention of the phonetic alphabet. Letterforms are frequently quite beautiful but they are largely out of the public's awareness.

Let me begin in the forties. Letterforms were designed for an industrial manufacturing process, either Linotype or monotype, which cast either lines or type or individual characters in hot metal from a master mold. The development of type font was a slow and costly design and craft process. The physical nature of the typography was a system - it was difficult to beat the system - a tradition grew up around the system's very real physical constraints.

The development of phototypography in the late fifties simplified the intensive craft and manufacturing aspects of type design and production. Analog letterforms could be developed more quickly and economically using a photomaster to generate a range of sizes. Better inter-letter fit (kerning) was possible and the traditional visual system of font and letterforms were now open to optical/photographic manipulation and distortion. Typographic traditionalists were horrified.

Typographic innovators were thrilled. Now came a flowering of byzzare type faces. Milton Glaser designed Baby Teeth and Houdini and there was Fat cat, Fat Chance, Fat Face, Bubble, and Buxom to name a few. Amateur typographers came out of the closet and shared their vision. It was a riot of display letterforms.

In the late sixties, the IBM Selectric Cmposer, a better than ordinary typewriter, was the precursor of the digital revolution in typography. It still had analog letterforms but it also had a more developed character to variable unit space relationship plus an early if limited memory.

At this point some interesting experimentation was going on how to adapt the letterforms to be machine readable. Evans and Epps designed a set of characters that were based on a square grid with no diagonals and no curves. Wim Crowel and Jay Doblin also tackled this task. The concept was to design characters that were machine readable and readable (even if strange looking) y ordinary people.

The mid-seventies saw the beginnings of the dot matrix and digital typography. Today, typography does not exist in a physical form at all until it is called up on a screen or printout. It exists only as a series of numerical relationships and a set of instructions. The design of letterforms has been changed analog to digital. Type designers today are trying to design appropriate letterforms for the new technology, but while this is in process, old hot metal and photofaces are being digitized often with poor results.

Originally Published in the Society of Typographic Arts Journal, 1988


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