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Typography: The Art of Printing with Type

Updated on May 8, 2010

Typography is defined as the "art of printing with type." The dictionary continues: "also, the style, arrangement, or appearance of printed matter." This has become the current concept of typography, with emphasis on those important characteristics that affect the planning of the printed product. These call for a series of related selections among type faces, varieties of papers and inks, and the many processes of printing. Each selection must be fitted to the entire project, a procedure that requires sound training in design and broad technical knowledge of the graphic arts. This is the prime requirement of the typographer, whose work in the creation and production of printed products has become a recognized specialty.

Every visual expression of words, with or without accompanying pictures or decoration, becomes an optical image. That general term includes the result of printing by any process on any material and also any representation that may be formed by light or by chemical action, as in photography. Whatever the field or medium, however, the visual impact of images embodying words is definitely affected by their "style, arrangement, or appearance." The influence of typography extends far beyond "printing with type.

The Function of Typography

In the procedures of planning and producing the many different kinds of printing, the work of the typographer resembles that of the architect. Each must design to fulfill a defined purpose; each must select from many different materials; each must specify the techniques that will unite his selected materials into a finished product. Finally, both typographer and architect are equally responsible for a very important quality: the appearance of their completed projects.

Through the centuries of printing that are usually dated from Johann Gutenberg and his famous Bible, the master printer was often responsible for the selection of all the types and materials for the project in hand, generally a book. Occasionally printers designed and cast the type themselves, as did such practitioners as Gutenberg, William Caslon, Giambattista Bodoni, and Frederic W. Goudy. The printer's demands often influenced the papermaker.

In more modern times, the planning and setting of such routine items as letterheads and cards have become part of a typesetter's apprenticeship, contributing to his understanding of the rudiments of typographic design. In smaller "job shops" the owner or his modest crew necessarily achieve such style as they can, but in larger plants it is customary to have every detail of type composition specified by a typographer. His instructions are often based on a comprehensive creative plan for the finished work. While the typesetter is expected to know and practice the technical niceties that include such fundamentals as good spacing, he is often instructed strictly to follow copy and to attempt no personal expressions of style. The older practitioners of the art today complain that their younger successors have become "prescription fillers.'

Book and periodical publishers and advertising agencies frequently use the printing and typesetting facilities of several plants, which makes central control by the "home office" typographer essential. Depending on the nature of the field and the amount of illustrative material to be handled, the typographer may be called on to assume the added functions of an art director.

For every project, the typographer is governed by factors of cost, utility, durability, and appearance. These may be dominated by the primary need for readability or legibility—those qualities of the printed page that are vital in conveying its message. Reading ease and quick perception of the printed message are facilitated by selection of type and paper, but are affected especially by their proper handling in design.

Other important considerations appear in the planning stage. The size and weight of the printed piece may enhance convenient handling or reduce postage costs. Durability is a prime requirement of textbooks. Resistance to fading and to effects of weather may modify the design of such outdoor items as posters. All are typical questions affecting the adoption of the final design. Such utilitarian qualities may often modify the desire for pleasing appearance, adding complexities to the choice of materials and methods. For a better understanding of the many factors under the control of the typographer, see color; composing machines; graphic arts; paper; and printing.

The Mathematics of Typography

This is simple, but imperative. To avoid costly experiment and resetting of type, the words of the manuscript or "copy" must fit into the planned space when they are composed as specified. For that advance computation the typographer employs copyfitting, a term of obvious meaning.

While the number of words is generally used as the measure in writing and publishing, it is only a vague approach to copyfitting. In and indefatigable are both words; obviously, word lengths are variable. But the total number of letters, word spaces, and punctuation points in a piece of copy bears a close relationship to the sum of the type lines that results when that copy is set in any normal size and face of type. Thus, character count of the individual letters and spaces has become the reliable basis for copy-fitting.

It is important to appreciate the fundamental difference between typewritten copy and type composed in normal roman faces. On the conventional typewriter all the letters, figures, and marks have the same set width as the space unit. If the typewriter uses an elite face, there are 12 characters to an inch; if the face is pica there are 10 characters to an inch. By measuring in inches all the line lengths in a piece of copy, adding them, and multiplying by 12 or 10 (for elite or pica), the total number of characters and spaces is the result.

In normal type faces, regardless of type sizes, there are many different set widths for letters, spaces, figures, and punctuation points. However, the average use of language in average copy results in an average number of repetitions of wide and narrow letters such as m and i. When the widths of all the lower-case letters (a to z) are added, the total becomes the alphabet length of that type face in that size. For the various copyfitting systems and for slide rules for quick convenience, alphabet length and character count are the two basic factors.

While the new phototypesetting machines may use other units of measurement, most typography is still handled with the printers' traditional units of picas and points. There are 12 points to 1 pica, which is approximately 0.166 inch. Thus copyfitting tables, based on alphabet length and character count, are widely used, and the necessary type data are supplied in specimen books issued by type manufacturers and the larger typesetting shops. To determine character count, line-by-line counting (with either 12 or 10 characters per inch) is the most accurate, but an average count per page of manuscript often suffices.

The typographer may also encounter the calculation of paper sizes and weights and the capacities of tjlant equipment. All of these matters are typical of "on-the-job" training and are sometimes available in planned courses of instruction offered through industry associations or school extension courses.

Design in Typography

This controls the general spirit and concept of the project. For the types themselves, type design determines the actual forms of the type images, but type style covers the many details of composition, such as spacing between words, with punctuation points, and the like. Typographic design includes the entire operation of creative planning.

Many of the principles in use today are older than typefounding. The characteristics of books were established by manuscript writers long before the time of Gutenberg. The shaping of pages, the use of color for emphasis and decoration, variations of size and style in quill-written letters... these had formed the principles which the first printers with movable type carried on as a recognized style. After five centuries, much of this style survives. In the early development of printing, book production dominated the design of types and their use by the master printers whose works have endured as an inspiration to present-day designers.

As a practical matter in modern publishing, design has been vigorously revived after a dreary period in the 19th century when standards fell to a low level. The annual exhibitions of "Fifty Books of the Year," selected from hundreds of entries, are conducted by the American Institute of Graphic Arts and shown by libraries and museums across the country. Public taste, recovering from the low ebb of the Victorian era, has been stimulated by the growing uses of color and illustration, not only in books, but in the many phases of the modern arts of advertising and commercial printing. For books and for miscellaneous printing the typographic designer is often affected by contemporary philosophies. There is evident a further parallel with architecture: the designer may have been trained in tradition, but he must be prepared to "go modern" on demand.

By contrast, the design of so prosaic a product as a newspaper may seem uninspiring, but here the typographic designer must be prepared to cope with every detail that enters into the soaring costs of production. The first among the few men to enter this field was Benjamin Sherbow, a free-lance typesetter and designer. In 1918 he planned a new format for the New York Tribune, with a heading "schedule" in Bodoni Bold types that was a revolutionary innovation. Publishers gradually became aware of the significance of appearance. Papers planned for sensational appeal achieved it with spectacular type and picture treatments that echoed their handling of editorial content. More conservative publishers found that readability, in both headings and body matter, was a business asset worthy of careful planning.

Advertising, which often comprises half of the total content of a newspaper, is a separate typographic activity, although it is often produced in the same composing room as the editorial content. It uses the full order of possible effects with type and illustrations, ranging from carefully designed, conservative type messages to the blackest, largest, and most blatant exploitations of products and services.

Advertising Typography

This has become a special service industry, with typesetting facilities devoted to the production of copy created by advertising agencies and the advertising departments of the larger retail stores, mail-order companies, and important industries. These advertisements, completed for later publication in newspapers and magazines, are not delivered in type forms. They are duplicated in reproduction proofs, carefully printed on special paper to be duplicated; in paper-pulp matrices to be cast as stereotypes; or in metal or plastic plates. Type shops often employ their own staff typographers to review specifications as received; shop hours are too costly to permit miscalculations of type sizes.

The Procedures of Typography

These vary widely within the many fields of printing and publishing. When a fixed format prevails, as for a newspaper, the "mark-up" man uses abbreviated code marks for type. News matter requires little specification, but the constant flow of advertising demands carefully systematized typographic handling. In commercial printing and book publishing, as well as in the varieties of design characteristic of magazines, type treatments and individual page layouts with illustrations are the prime factors in production.

For dummy needs, printers and typesetters supply proofs of type samples, but the use of phototypesetting and the employment of composing typewriters involve additional steps to demonstrate final printed effects. To meet these needs and to supply duplicate proofs, type matter composed on film or paper often must go through preliminary printing on a duplicating press. Photocopying machines are also used. In addition, beyond the conventional instructions to the typesetters when metal types are to be set, the several phototypesetting machines require more detailed specifications and advance planning.

The Materials of Typography

These comprise word masses, ranging from the few lines of a business card to the millions of words in an encyclopedia. To compose them in planned areas of type images, the typographer may call for (1) foundry-cast metal types set by hand composition; (2) machine-composed metal types cast from matrices hand-assembled or controlled by a keyboard, or more recently by a computer; (3) camera-composed type images on film or paper for photomechanical uses; (4) hand-assembled type characters on film or paper for photomechanical reproduction; or (5) direct-impression or impact composition produced by conventional elaborations thereof.

In his selection among these varying methods of type composition the typographer must consider differing costs, relative quality of product, and the availability and suitability of the many hundreds of type designs, some of which may be had in their original perfection or in approximate duplication. He must also bear constantly in mind the final printing paper and the process to be adopted.

In the relationship of type to paper there must be some consideration of the "weight" or comparative blackness of the printed page. The effectiveness of some types is enhanced when they are printed by letterpress on papers having perceptibly rough textures; other faces need a more precise impression on smooth paper surfaces. The definite thickening of the type image in printing by gravure or flexography imposes that limitation on type selection.

Books of specimens of type faces and samples of paper are basic equipment for this first step in planning. It is impossible for any shop to stock the many hundreds of type designs now current and the number of sizes available in each. The typographer has on hand lists or specimen sheets of die types carried by the plants he uses, and he will also be familiar with the productions of type founders and composing-machine manufacturers. A very important project sometimes requires the design and manufacture of a completely new type face. Similarly, the selection of papers and binding materials is normally restricted to varieties and dealer stocks conveniently available. Again, however, a substantial printing project may call for making special paper, sometimes by a foreign mill.

Within the established routines of periodical publishing, variations of materials seldom occur, but the creative phases of individual projects often require the development of a "dummy." Both the customer and the production plant often demand this approach. Using selected papers, bits of proposed type, and illustrative treatments, the designer thus visualizes his ideas.

An unprinted dummy for a book may be made to show the proposed paper and binding. Into it may be inserted proof pages to demonstrate the proposed type treatment of the important elements of the book. The title page, an opening chapter page, a typical page of text matter, the proposed handling of illustrations, diagrams, and tables, and a sketch of the binding design, these become a demonstration of appearance that is difficult to visualize only from specifications.


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