Archives for category: Typesetting

Is it depressing that a Google search for papyrus will return a page filled with links to the chain of stationery stores, Papyrus? Maybe not; after all what right do we have to assume that the internet isn’t all about business and retailing stuff?

Papyrus is of course the precursor of paper (and indeed the word’s origin).  Cyperus papyrus is an aquatic plant native to Africa. Its pith, cut into strips, would be woven into flat flexible sheets by ancient Egyptians (and others more recent) on which one could write. After the woven sheet had dried out under a weight it would be burnished with a stone to make it smoother. As you can see from this video, the stem has a triangular cross section which almost demands this sort of treatment.

Papyrus “books” were formed of several sheets of papyrus, joined together and rolled up to form a book roll. Writing on papyrus, which although its surface is pretty smooth (the lady in the video tells us its derivation is from the word for baby’s skin), demands different techniques than writing on paper — brush rather than pen. The Wikipedia article is comprehensive. Oddly, papyrus was called wadj, tjufy, or djet in the ancient Egyptian language. I guess this means the Greeks named the paper after the plant.

Papyrus is also a rather over-ornamental typeface designed in 1982 by Chris Costello. It’s the typeface, used, as Ryan Gosling’s character in this Saturday Night Live video is unable to get over, for the title sequence of the film Avatar.

(Link thanks to Lois Billig.)


In response to a comment to the post Mind games in June I wondered why nobody had capitalized on the fact that we are able to read text using only the top half of letters — the space saving would be huge. I thought I was making a joke, but here comes word from Jeff Peachey’s blog that The Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette had announced on September 30, 1843 that someone had taken out a patent on this very idea.






I quote the issue date of The Mechanics’ Magazine carefully, because one might be forgiven for thinking that it really came out on April 1st.

It’s probably reassuring that there really isn’t anything new under the sun, though it would seem that nothing came of this patent — or are there condensed books lurking unread in the basements of deposit libraries awaiting discovery?

The following note appears in the Playbill for the Mostly Mozart Festival’s production of The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise , an orchestrated version of Schubert’s Winterreise with a lot of dramatic black and white projected images and film, sung by Ian Bostridge.

A note on the projected typeface

In projecting text for live performance, font or typeface becomes a storytelling tool. In The Dark Mirror, we are projecting English translations of a German poem. Typeface in German is fraught with politics and subjectivity more than in most other languages, where medieval blackletter typefaces like the German Fraktur were replaced by the much more legible Antiqua typefaces as early as the 16th century. In Germany, the gothic script Fraktur coexisted with Antiqua fonts until the second world war. For some, the ornate Fraktur lettering was the only truly national typeface. “Grotesque,” or early sans-serif typefaces, emerged in the early 19th century and quickly became popular as easy to read, specifically at a distance. Two Grotesque fonts have become embedded into the design of The Dark Mirror: Akzidenz-Grotesk, a typeface released by the Berthold Type Foundry in Berlin in 1896, and Grotesque No. 9, the typeface employed by the iconoclastic British Vorticist magazine BLAST, published only twice, in 1914 and 1915.

Well, it’s nice to see type being taken so seriously, though the story we’re given here is so soft-focussed as to be almost meaningless. I dare say two faces were used, though I only noticed one. The justification for dragging in the Grotesk, is rather lost by the omission of the more interesting synonym for sans serif — Gothic — which ties back more dramatically to the Fraktur story. Fraktur did survive longer in Germany than elsewhere, but it was by no means an exclusively German phenomenon. Look at Caxton’s work. To describe Antiqua faces (the general descriptive name we give to what we’d think of as ordinary typefaces) as “much more legible” demands the comeback “Yes, more legible to Antiqua readers, but not to black letter readers I’m sure”. It’s a bit reminiscent of those primate researchers who’d use human faces in testing chimpanzee facial recognition abilities, because human faces differ so much.

As to whether sans serif type is really easier to read, whether from close to or from a distance, the jury’s still out. The texts at this concert were undeniably easy to read, though I suspect that this was because they were nicely large, rather than because they were set in Akidenz-Grotesk.

Here’s a trailer from the earlier London performance.

If you don’t see any video here, just click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

from Chicago Tribune

Walker Rumble’s The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races (University of Virginia Press, 2003) is an odd publication. Its main focus is on the weird phenomenon of races between hand typesetters. (Rapid typesetters were apparently referred to a swifts.) These races were put on in the sort of place, commoner in the second half of the nineteenth century, now represented by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or Madame Tussaud’s, and appear to have drawn large crowds. Betting on the speed of a hand typesetter had long been a feature of in-house work-time entertainment in print shops: this development pulled it out into a public forum and naturally did nothing to reduce the betting.

Speed of setting was obviously an important factor in the efficiency of a newspaper. Getting pages printed was no problem on their power presses, but you had to have type to print there: and there were limits to the number of people you could hire. Not only was there a limited number of journeymen out there, but training, all via apprenticeship, was controlled by the union. In a ten-hour day the average journeyman would set (and correct) about 7,000 ems, 700 an hour. At a rate of 1,500 ems an hour, which most compositors would achieve in spurts, their hand would be reaching into the typecase at a rate of 4,000 times per hour. Very fast workers might reach back and forth from case to stick seven or eight times every five seconds. William C. Barnes, one of the last of the champion racers before technology took over and hand setting was superseded, managed 2000 ems an hour in the heats for the 1886 national typesetting championship in Chicago. He would also set blindfold and with his type cases reversed (i.e. upper case below lower case).

The workers naturally had an interest in not allowing the speed in the composing room to get too high: 700 ems an hour was just fine by them. One of the workers’ beefs about the attempt to bring women into the business in the years following the Civil War was that they would work too fast, no doubt to indicate how viable an alternative workforce they were. This represented a delicate balancing act for the macho typesetting unions who needed to demonstrate that men were better, and yet keep work rates down (thus pay rates up). This tension could be partially resolved by these typesetting races which seemed to show that men really could set type faster than women. This was almost certainly not the case, but naturally head-to-head races were not arranged. A comp could easily claim that it wasn’t possible to sprint all day: their competitive speed bursts were never allowed to become the norm. Of course the union, and all its members also faced the looming challenge of machine typesetting, a challenge which overwhelmed them all in the end.

Public hand typesetting races were a short lived phenomenon. They couldn’t get going till printing became industrialized in the 1830s and 40s, so that there were large groups of comps who could compete with one another in in-house competitions, and the races couldn’t survive when hand setting was superseded by machines and the contestants all lost their jobs (or retrained). Thus the “sport” only lasted for about 15 to 20 years from around 1870 when the first public events were arranged.

from Learn about Type at Monotype Imaging Inc.


Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford states “Unless instructions are given to the contrary, capitals, small capitals, numerals, and punctuation in displayed lines should be letter-spaced.” The lines above, in Sabon Initial cap & small cap, show the difference — which non-designers among you may consider pretty minor. I might argue with the third line and want even more space between the two Ts, but I do think the overall color of the two sets of lines shows how beneficial letter-spacing caps and small caps can be. That cap W in the second line really sticks out, but your letter-spacing can’t do too much about that.

Caps extend from the base line (a few typefaces have one or two descend below) up to the top of the ascenders. Small caps are designed to be the same height as the x-height of the face.

Hart’s Rules calls for small caps (which I cannot generate in this blog’s typeface) to be used for abbreviations like AD, AM, BC, and tells us that they should be set without letter spacing in these instances.

Quaintly they command “Text references to capital symbols in plates and line-blocks to be in small caps, except in scientific work, where capitals are used.” It is true that (to me at least) small caps tend to have a humanistic, as opposed to scientific, look — no doubt because that’s where one tends to meet them. In scientific setting symbols have so much significance that using a small cap for aesthetic reasons runs the risk of having readers stopping to ponder if there’s some meaningful distinction being made between upper case C and small cap C. For analogous reasons one will be unlikely to meet old style figures in scientific or mathematical setting.

Cambridge practice, as codified by Judith Butcher in her Copy-editing, is perhaps best just directly quoted:

Use of small capitals

Small capitals are often used for AD, BC, except with lining figures where small capitals would look too small: AD 1990. [I cannot make my AD small, so the point is lost. These are lining figures though.] In the USA they are used for a.m. and p.m. Small capitals are also used for quoted words originally in capitals and for most capitalized roman numbers, e.g. vol. XII [again I can go smaller], though full capitals are always used in titles such as Henry VII and for LXX (Septuagint). Some authors type lower-case roman numbers to indicate small capitals rather than full capitals; ask the author if you are not sure what is required.

I love typography has a detailed examination of small caps, demonstrating that small caps are not just scaled-down caps, but separately designed characters. If you are one of those who think the letter-spacing in the example at the top is not discernible or irrelevant, you might probably think it a waste of time to design small caps separately when you could just scale down the caps. But the whole typesetting craft, bearing 5½ centuries of trial and error, knows what’s right.

We’ve never really managed to get a grip on signaling irony or sarcasm in written communication. Notoriously conveying tone of voice in an email, text message, or before that in a business memo, is almost impossible. If your readers can misunderstand you it seems almost certain that they will. Apparently we have formalized this problem as Poe’s law.

Obviously we’d benefit from some punctuation mark that said “I’m making a joke here”, “This is ironic”. One might have hoped the universe of emojis might have thrown up a contender, but these two attempts seem to fall short.




Apple’s version, the wry cat, doesn’t seem to convey “irony”: more like “I just eat something that disagreed with me”. I don’t really know why the upside-down face should be ironic rather than upsetting. Still I guess if Apple were to offer the cat every time you typed “irony” enough texters might adopt it, so that everyone might begin to think that that’s what the cat means. Thus far it doesn’t though. Perhaps those fluent in emoji-speak will be able to provide a more viable example. I suspect what we really need is software that detects when we are trying to be ironic and offers us the appropriate sign. But of course if people can’t detect irony, why would software do any better?

So the search continues. Here, courtesy of Shady Characters are a few of our attempts to fill this gap in our communications repertoire.

⸮ — the reversed question mark, called the percontation point, from the the six­teenth cen­tury

¡ — the in­ver­ted ex­clam­a­tion mark from the seventeenth century. Apparently this mark is in current use in this sense in some Ethiopic languages

‽ — the interrobang from 1962 by Martin K. Speck­ter. Remington even made a typewriter with an interrobang key. The name is a combination of its constituent elements, the interrogation mark, and the bang, which is a printer’s term for the exclamation mark.

~ — the tilde, pro­posed in the early 2000s

* — the asterisk, denoting sarcasm, a more re­cent entrant

   — reverse italic, invented by H. L. Mencken and pushed by Bernard Levin and Tom Driberg. Apparently Brooke Crutchley, former Printer to the University of Cambridge, once misattributed the original idea to Driberg in a letter to The Independent.


And then there is my per­sonal fa­vour­ite, the ironi­eteken as de­signed by Bas Jac­obs


Another recent applicant for the job, designed for indicating mild irony, is the jè (pronounced yeah) as here illustrated on a subtle T-shirt. Don’t know if the shirt can catch on though: The Beatles certainly weren’t dealing in irony. “And you know that can’t be bad” jumps into reverse with all that irony larded on. 

In an earlier post Mr Houston brings us this page from Hervé Bazin’s Plumons l’oiseau, di­ver­tisse­ment © Grasset & Fasquelle, 1967.

Lots of ideas, no progress. I guess it’s hard to get agreement on this sort of thing. Nobody thinks you’re serious.

Maybe the opening today of a Dallas bookstore called Interabang Books, will boost public acceptance of the need for an irony marker in our lives. Clearly we’re going to have to sort out the spelling once we adopt the concept.

Photo from Shelf Awareness

Not much seen anymore, a catchword is a word printed at the bottom right hand corner of a recto page just below the last line of text. It duplicates the word at the start of the next page, and was placed there to enable someone reading the book out loud to turn the page without any hesitation in the flow of their recitation. Now that we all read our books silently we don’t need to care about performance values.

This example comes from La congiura del conte Giovanni Luigi de Fieschi printed in the 1620s in Antwerp.

Folger 197208. From the Folger blog The Collation.















I wonder if catchwords are ever found in children’s books, the one category of book which does still regularly get read aloud. I wouldn’t be surprised if catchwords featured in lectern Bibles, but I can’t find a photograph confirming this, and it’s been almost 60 years since I last had to read the lesson.

The term can also refer to a heading in a text, a catch line. It can also substitute for catch phrase with the meaning of a briefly popular expression. In the sense of a desirable attainment, a “catch”, Sir Walter Scott refers in St Ronan’s Well to a catch-match “She made out her catch-match, and she was miserable”.


We are all aware, aren’t we, that the mind is capable of making sense of a partial view of a line of type? Apparently it’s the bottom half we can do without.

I had never considered the question of whether this trick works in scripts other than our Roman/Italic versions. Israeli designer Liron Levi Turkenich did, and found that with Hebrew letters this works when we can see the bottom half of a word, while in Arabic the opposite is true. So she’s worked up a combo which one might hope would be readable by readers of either script. WNYC’s Shumita Basu had a story about this on 31 May. There’s a subtitled video at that link too.

I wonder about other scripts. What about Cyrillic? To be certain I’d need to be a more fluent reader than my couple of years in night school fifty years ago have left me, but I doubt it. Greek? Probably not. Certainly not Hangul. With Chinese, would a comparable test involve covering up the left half or the right half, rather than top or bottom? Either way I can’t imagine it would work.

Maybe this is a way forward for translations though? Ms Turkenich does suggest using the 638 new characters of her “Aravrit” combo typeface on road signs and government buildings.

Apparently this isn’t the only trick our minds can pull on us:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

From the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge.

The first thing that struck me about Keith Houston’s The Book (W. W. Norton, 2016, $29.95) was the deconstructed binding. It’s like a three-piece binding without the sides. The only bit of cloth is the red spine. The bare binders board is exposed front and back, teaching by showing how a book’s case is constructed. I don’t think you can make it out in this photo, but the only thing on the back board which isn’t printed black on the raw board is the barcode. In order that the barcode should be scannable (i.e. have sufficient definition and clarity) they have had to print it on a white label and stick it (very straight and accurately) onto the board. It’s wonderful what these Chinese book manufacturers can (still) do.

You can see the braces down the side of the copy identifying the different elements. This technique (again, teaching by showing) continues inside the book, as can be seen from this photo of page 1.

Every Chinese schoolchild can (allegedly) tell you that Cai Lun invented paper, and Mr Houston tells the story, with narrative aplomb. Mark Kurlansky doesn’t beat about that bush “Cai Lun did not invent paper” he states in his Prologue: after his account Mr Houston also reveals to us that records exist of paper being made in China long before Cai Lun’s time, but his story is the one that sticks in the mind.

Mr Houston is a reliable and entertaining narrator. I think it’s fair to say that in his 26 pages about paper making you will develop a better understanding of the procedure than you’d garner from the entire 336-page volume Paper by Mr Kurlansky.

The focus of the book is historical. We learn about the development of writing systems, the making of papyrus, the growing popularity of parchment and paper, the work of scribes, all the major figures in book history, plus how what we now expect in a book and its format came to evolve. It’s not that you won’t develop an understanding of today’s book manufacturing industry — you’ll just pick it up as it were along the way. And the author does end the book with a very detailed colophon telling us all about this particular book’s manufacture, in China where we seem to have to go nowadays to get anything done in the old-fashioned ways at an affordable price.

The book is generously annotated. There are 62 pages of endnotes, and a sprinkling of footnotes. There isn’t a complete bibliography; rather a 3-page list of Further Reading, which is I guess OK. You can dig anything special out of the endnotes. Many color illustrations are spread throughout, printed on the cream text stock: some of these are a bit flat and murky though.

This is a very good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Mr Houston, who is the man behind the Shady Characters blog, will be giving a talk on book history at The British Library on 3 July. I bet it’ll be worth the ten quid.


from Just My Type by Simon Garfield

What is it about the news that makes the use the use of black letter/ Old English/ Gothic type such a favorite for news-paper titles? No doubt once upon a time there was an element of reaching for an authoritative image when the earliest newspapers first proliferated, but nowadays it’s probably no more than a nod to tradition. Typo Face gives a number of international examples.

ABC for book collectors tells us that there were three forms of the “Gothic” typeface which was initially developed in imitation of northern European manuscript bookhands. The first, textura, pointed type, was used in the earliest printings of Gutenberg’s Bible, early liturgical printing, and the first printing of the King James Bible. It was called black letter in England. The second variety, rotunda, was more common in Italy and Spain. The third version, bastarda, an imitation of earlier versions, was used for example by Caxton, and survived longest, becoming the basis for German Fraktur which survived into the post-WWII period in Germany, and can still occasionally be encountered despite contamination by its enthusiastic use by the Nazis. When I first learned German, we were taught to read Fraktur: I guess that a decade after the end of the war a large proportion of German texts were still thus printed.

Fraktur and other “Gothic” fonts have no italic form. In order to indicate emphasis where in regular typesetting you would use italic, German typesetters evolved  the practice of indicating emphasis by letterspacing. I have seen this letterspacing emphasis carried over into German texts set in roman (non-Fraktur) types. They may have taken over this trick from setting in Greek, where emphasis is similarly signaled.

This illustration showing the three types, plus a fourth, Schwabacher, comes from Retinart and shows the evolution described above.

Gothic can still refer to these Germanic typefaces, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it became the term for sans-serif types. The reasons for this are not altogether obvious but it seems to have had something to do with the fact that early sans-serif designs were seen as a glance back to handwritten forms from the manuscript tradition. Nowadays the term is still to be found in the names of some typefaces where the name Grotesque/Grotesk also lives as a quasi-synonym. Wikipedia‘s article on Sans-serif gives a (possibly post hoc ergo propter hoc) explanation for the use of the terms. It all proved too much even for an enthusiast like me!







See also Serif.