Archives for category: Typesetting

A font for “these uncertain times” has been developed by The Third Street Attention Agency. You can download it here at their descriptive justification page. (Link thanks to David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.)

The font is a sort of fractured version of Times New Roman, and rejoices in admirable social distancing in its letter spacing. It includes only two punctuation marks, the question and exclamation marks — which somehow seems especially appropriate in these uncertain times when anxious questioning and raucous assertion have become our main modes of public debate! Despite this brave claim they appear to have allowed themselves to borrow a period for this example sentence.

This video, posted last week by David Crotty, takes us through these sympathetic adverts with which we are now being bombarded. The phrase “these uncertain times” has become a bit of a trope in the surge in new, rely-on-us-we-are-concerned-about-you TV ads. And there are a lot of them: we have a friend whose job is legal vetting of broadcast commercials, and she reports they’ve been really busy since they began working from home.

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

See also Times Roman, old and new.

One of the laws of composition (typesetting) back in the olden days was “follow the copy out of the window”. If the author misspells their own name on the title page of the manuscript you have to assume they meant to and set it that way. There was naturally a strong temptation not to follow that diktat — keyboarding apparent nonsense is not something a craftsman would be eager to become involved in. Still I imagine most experienced keyboarders would be able to protect their sanity by an ability to switch off their critical mode while focussing their attention on accuracy.

John Carter, in ABC for book collectors, describes the situation thus:


“The compositor’s watchword, and his defence against the illegibility, inconsequentiality, impenetrability or errors of the author’s text. But often he failed to follow its dictate, the itch to correct or normalise being too great. In extreme cases, however, he could take refuge in the full text of the adage, and ‘Follow copy out of the window’.”

Now of course there were a few situations where author and compositor almost became collaborators. There were comps at Cambridge University Press who, meeting manuscript or typescript from a local professor for the fifth or sixth time, would take it upon themselves to correct the author’s Greek or mathematics — after all anyone can make a slip of the pen or typewriter key, and even the most eminent professor can have a blind spot. Some even got acknowledged in the front matter of the final book.* But the key feature of this process was the requirement that authorial attention should be drawn to the changes. If the author hits the wrong key and asserts that 2 x 2 makes 5, your duty will tilt to the other side of the scale — but mark the change on a proof so that the Professor of Combinatorics can assess the situation. Of course just because you may not approve of this or that author’s views on what to you is revealed truth, you don’t have a God-given right or duty to silently amend the “blasphemy.” (Go far enough back and I suppose your prejudice would have been supported by force of law.)

This sort of thing, cleaning up errors, you may object, is exactly what editors and copyeditors are meant to be doing: and so it is. The same process of marking the correction in the manuscript, or using computer software which color codes corrections to allow approval by the original author, is pretty universally followed nowadays at this earlier stage of production. We are well organized on this front these days, but there were times, and types of manuscript, which were less thoroughly prepared before the compositor got hold of them, maybe journals and periodicals for example. Go back a century or even less, and no publisher employed people called copyeditor; such nuts and bolts were left to the printers.

When book publishers worked in manuscript or typescript rather than computer files the whole stack of paper would be wrapped up in a paper and string parcel and mailed back to the author after the copyeditor had gone through it and made all their alteration marks. Along the way the copyeditor would have discussed any thorny or contentious matters with the author in a phone call, or more likely in those days, an exchange of letters. When checking the copyedited manuscript, the author it was assumed would carefully consider each change, but of course reality breaks through and many an author, learning to trust the copyeditor after the first few pages, would make a short back and sides job of it.

Following a well-prepared manuscript out of the window would present minimal risk of damage. And there’s always the proofing to come.


* A positive reaction was not however universal. See Jeremy Mynott’s comment to the post Manufacturing defects telling of Professor A. E. Housman’s reaction to the proofs of one of his books.

Russell Maret, a New York artist and designer, has had the idea of creating a new Monotype typeface, the first for 40 years. Monotype went out of business in 1992, so unsurprisingly their output of new designs for hot-metal typesetting has been somewhat interrupted. The typeface he is creating is called Hungry Dutch. (Mr Maret worked by adapting a 17th century font cut by Peter de Walpergen for Bishop Fell, and called his version Hungry Dutch: de Walpergen was Dutch, and the font was originally intended for a book called Hungry Bibliophiles.)  Mr Maret’s website provides an introduction to the development of the typeface, one feature of which is that it’s not as mechanically perfect as Stanley Morison’s Monotype updates of classic type designs tended to be. At first sight it might seem a little odd that “imperfect” alignment might be a desirable feature, but the point being made is that the possibility of perfection does not necessitate our striving to produce perfection. Psychological studies of reading are notoriously thin on the ground, and we don’t really know whether perfect alignment is a good thing or not. The fact that handwriting bobs about quite a bit might be argued to favor a slight irregularity.

The site Books on Books provides a gallery of illustrations of Hungry Dutch, one of which is shown below.

The Type Archive is at the center of this initiative. The Type Archive, housed at 100 Hackford Road, Stockwell, SW9, in a building whose floors had once been reinforced to accommodate a pair of elephants imported from India by The Daily Mirror, holds the National Typefounding Collection consisting (largely) of

  1. the typefounding materials of the Sheffield typefounders, Stephenson Blake, dating from 16th century
  2. the hot-metal archive and plant of the Monotype Corporation from 1897 onwards
  3. the woodletter pattern collection and plant of Robert DeLittle in York from 1888, and in Lambeth from 1996.

Given that The Type Archive holds so much Monotype material, and has associated with it so many experts — including Parminder Kumar Rajput, the only man left in the world qualified to operate all the Monotype machines needed to produce a typeface from scratch — it was the ideal place for the creation of a new hot metal Monotype typeface. (One hopes they are making videos of 71-year old Mr Rajput at work.) One preliminary step in the design process — transferring a drawing onto a metal pattern by means of a glass plate, wax and electrolysis — had been completely forgotten. A 3-D printing solution was invented to get round the loss.

Just when, if ever, Mr Maret expects Hungry Dutch to be completed is not clear. To some extent the exercise is a research exercise and as such doesn’t require a complete font ready for production. We always need to record old technologies. Thatching is undergoing a revival as is house construction using hand cut wooden beams. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Much of my information is gleaned from The Economist‘s Christmas special article about Hungry Dutch.

Standard Generalized Markup Language was what we first became familiar with in the late nineties in order to enable us to “repurpose” our texts. SGML is not a document language, but a description of how to specify one. In the old days typescript would be marked up by the designer or copyeditor, in pretty general terms, for example CT next to a chapter title. The typesetter would mark it up in more detail so that the keyboard operator could fly through it without having to stop and figure out what type size and face was really called for here in the designer’s specifications. Thus we were familiar with the need for markup. But what we were familiar with was markup directed at creating a book, laid out in pages, not markup which would enable the text to be output in multiple ways on different platforms, including as a book. Up until then we were book publishers, and we published books.

In the nineties along came the idea that the text of a book (the content) might in fact need to be used in other ways, and the fact that we already had that content on a digital medium made it obvious that money could be saved by using the same digital storage for all and any reuses. The main difficulty here was the difficulty of getting people’s minds changed so they could countenance the idea. Prior to the invention of computer systems the different ways a book might be used amounted to a paperback edition or a hardback, with the occasional opportunity for an extract to be published in some periodical. Magazines would just reset the extract they were doing, and while we academic publishers would use the same typesetting for hardback and paperback, even if a mass market paperback required resetting, the cost of typesetting was fairly trivial when compared to paper, presswork and binding a huge number of copies being printed. Now we also had the opportunity to allow people to access our content online: this required a severe adjustment of focus.

SGML is ancestral kin to XML (Extensible Markup Language) and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) which are now the primary tools used for text markup. The theoretical background to all markup languages is that before it ever appears to the world the text of any work should have been described in such a non-specific way that any application in whatever form you can imagine can be run off on a computer without any intervention beyond the specification of what medium you are targeting. In the example below you can see the HTML codes enclosed in guillemets < >. Here <h1> denotes a first level heading, <p> a new paragraph, <i> italic, and <em> tells you that this is an emphasized word. (The green color is just there for pedagogical purposes. Markup doesn’t show in green in the real world.)

Given that when you use one of these meta-languages to describe your document you have in theory prepared it for any and all applications, it may be seen as perverse not to use the markup to facilitate certain outcomes. In order to make our ebooks fully accessible to print-disabled people, here’s Bill Kasdorf in Publishers Weekly encouraging us to take advantage of the powers provided by our HTML mark-up. This additional small step is pretty straight-forward if you are doing your markup thoroughly — and if you’re not, why bother?

Almost parenthetically I might note that the transition to digital text processing and SGML markup, like all changes, caused a good deal of low-level turmoil. Once people got on board and accepted that text markup “was a good thing” a kind of enthusiasm gripped those bosses with more power than knowledge. Why couldn’t we take all those digital resources which we’d been holding onto for a few years and magically get them SGML-ed? Well, I can’t imagine that at the end of the last century the digital storage system we had was much different from that at any other book publisher. It consisted of a cardboard box or two into which the disks of any book that had had disks were tossed. Rubber banding together the disks from a particular book was a good idea, but rubber bands give up the struggle after a couple of years. What you had therefore was a mess of disks of various sorts, sizes, and formats, some of which were unreadable because the machines they drove no longer existed, some of which had gotten one of their component disks lost, and all of which required time to assess. Publishers will staff their production departments on the basis of the volume of work going through at any time. The amount of work going though was calculated on the basis of the number of books due to be published in the next 12 months — not with regard to sorting out the disks for every book you’d published over the previous five or so years. Eventually, I suspect, all publishers either threw away their old disks (and tapes), or sent them off to an overseas supplier to sort out, but we all spent a considerable amount of time trying to solve the problem of “looking back”. It’s always easier to implement a new system going forward: you just start doing your new books in the new way. Trying to catch up with the old books which were done differently is a nightmare. (This of course is why lots of older books remain unavailable as ebooks.)

Readers of books should ideally be unaware of the thought processes of designers and layout people, so that nobody has to stop and wonder why this or that decision was made in setting the type in the book they’re reading. The mission of design is to facilitate the smooth transmission of the message from author to reader: not to shout out, look what a beautiful job I’ve done. For design and layout people beautiful ought to be synonymous with invisible. But of course because we remain unaware of these thought processes, when we might wish to consider them we find that we remain unaware of them.

To me, the knowledge contained in the head of a book compositor was amazing. A seven-year apprenticeship can’t have been enough to internalize everything. Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers* Oxford University Press’ guide for workers in its printing plant (which closed in 1989) contains the following instructions on word-breaks.


Avoid division if at all possible, having regard for the requirements of good typography. [Which basically means don’t set the line with too much letterspacing — i.e. don’t set the line t o o  l o o s e just to avoid a word-break at the end.] Where word-breaks are necessary, however, the following rules apply:

(a) A minimum of two characters may be left behind and a minimum of three characters carried over at a word-break.

(b) Two successive hyphens only are allowed at the ends of lines.

(c) A divided word should not end a right-hand page.

(d) If the right-hand page is a full-page illustration or table, the facing left-hand page should not end with a hyphen.

And that’s it. Following these simple rules will avoid ugly and confusing word-breaking. Too many hyphens and your eye will begin to pick up the wrong line when flicking back and forth; too few characters and misunderstandings threaten. Turning the page is always an opportunity to loose the place, so don’t make the chances higher by breaking the word. (In this context see also Catchword.) Attention should be given to the structure of the word in making the decision to split it: don’t do pr-oductive or produc-tive. These sorts of rules are now incorporated into software, and will be applied without the benefit of human intervention. But as an overriding rule In Hart states “In borderline cases supervisors are to be consulted for a decision whether an exception is to be made.”

These rules are a distillation of 500 years of trial and error. Printers arrived at this sort of consensus by discovering that doing differently resulted in poor outcomes. Each compositor internalized the rules, which would be drummed into them when they were apprentices. Actually, the thinking about all this goes back more than 500 years, as scribes writing out manuscripts developed rules about all sorts of things, including word division.

There are some word-breaks which although they are by the rule should never be undertaken. The one that sticks in my mind is pre-gnant”


* “Readers” refers here not to you or me snuggling up in an armchair to consume an OUP book — it refers to the proofreaders employed by all printers back then. When the type had been set it would go to an internal proof room where it was read against copy and sent back to the composing room for correction before a proof was ever sent out to the customer. I was at one time involved with the books of W. Edwards Deming, who held the view that Cambridge University Press was the best typesetter in the world because they never made a mistake. For an efficiency expert this was a slightly odd view as the reason for the apparent perfection was that the proof he was seeing had always been read and corrected before it was sent to him — not really the world’s most efficient use of labor. As the Press had closed the proof room by the time we were doing his books, we would send the proof to a freelance proofreader first, get corrections made, and then send the “perfect” proof to the author. I’m sure he went to his grave convinced of Cambridge’s infallibility.

Proof readers and compositors, whether they started out that way or become so as a result of years of experience, were often considerable experts in arcana. From time to time eminent professors of Greek or Mathematics in Cambridge would send notes of thanks to the compositor for saving them from errors in the subject areas in which they were meant to be the experts.

Is this the ultimate in (worthwhile) fame? Uno Cup, Inc. has designed a typeface based upon Ms Thunberg’s handwriting.

Greta Grotesk Regular. © Uno

The font, which is based upon a sign Ms Thunberg deployed in front of the Swedish parliament, will no doubt be appearing in lots of upcoming demos. It’s available for free downloading.

Hyperallergic carries the story, and shows a few words set in Greta Grotesk Regular.

Uno is a startup aiming to provide us all with a single reusable cup which we will carry around with us. “Our vision is simple: we should all have one incredible cup of our own that can be easily filled with all the beverages we love. No more paper cups, plastic bottles or straws. We’re partnering with the most forward-thinking workplaces and merchants to enable Uno anywhere you get beverages.” You can reserve your cup in one of three sizes at their site. Seems to me the biggest problem might be persuading those vendors to accept the cups.

At Deviant Art Martin Silvertant tells you how to get started designing a typeface — something I know you have all been dying to do. For ultimate success you’ll need some sort of vector program. He recommends Fontlab Studio, though he doesn’t use it himself. He tells us that many designers do the job in Illustrator, a program lots of production people have access to, if only in the office. (Link via Erik Kwakkel.)

Here’s his typeface map:

There is also a second part to Mr Silvertant’s course which moves on to italic and bold. This can be found here.

The Digital Reader sends a link to Ugly Gerry’s font made up from congressional site outlines.

Lots of us live in congressional districts which are distinctly odd-shaped. There are often (occasionally, maybe) good reasons for these tricky outlines.

Though Ugly Gerry clearly wants us to raise some protest about gerrymandering, I think that in his alphabet D and O look about as basic and un-gerrymandered as could be — of course you’d have to be there to be sure. Maybe if they’d had a hole in the middle we might raise an eyebrow. The two New York City examples, L and M, are both reorientated through 90º — probably lots of the others are too. The top of the vertical stroke of the L is in Queens and the horizontal bar is Brooklyn as is the bottom of the vertical. The little knuckle at the join is a small bit of Manhattan! The District is currently represented in Washington by Nydia Velázquez (Dem).

I suppose everyone knows the derivation of the word: they almost never say the word on NPR without reference to Elbridge Gerry who as Governor of Massachusetts, signed a bill in 1812 which created a partisan district compared by critics to the shape of a winged salamander, as shown in this contemporary cartoon. Attitudes towards gerrymandering tend to be rather partisan: what we do is a sensible readjustment of districts; what you do is underhand vote-rigging. It is perhaps comforting in the context of these arguments that Elbridge Gerry, who went on to be America’s fifth Vice President, is described at Wikipedia as being a Democratic-Republican.

There appear to have been two or three biographies of Gerry. Amazon offers one of them at $14.24. Let us hope that the gentle trend towards making district redesign subject to independent rather than political party control is allowed to continue and even accelerate.

Europeans are more down-to-earth here: Germans call it fett, fat; the French say gras, also fat. The Italians have neretto (black) or grassetto, and Spaniards go for letra negra or just negrilla. The Oxford English Dictionary gives c.1871 as its earliest quotation for bold in the sense of boldface type. (The use of boldfaced as describing an impudent person goes back to 1692, not really all that much earlier.) What did we call boldface type before that? No trace.

The fact is that prior to the nineteenth century we didn’t call bold type anything because it simply didn’t exist. Paul Luna in Anniversary Essays on Johnson’s Dictionary edited by Jack Lynch and Anne McDermott (CUP, 2005) informs us “The use of bold type for headwords in English dictionaries seems not to have come about until the 1870s, some thirty years after the introduction of the first boldface types, called Clarendon, by a London type-foundry [Robert Thorne’s Fann Street Foundry]. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, black-letter had provided a color contrast analogous to the use of boldface with roman.” Originally bold types were cast in larger sizes since they were really intended for advertising and posters.

But why did we English speakers opt for a word meaning courageous rather than the more obvious fat, heavy or black?  Well, recall that as time passes the meaning of simple words can migrate. In earlier times bold also meant big, plump, well-filled. One example quoted by the OED from 1787 is “Being a bolder and better grain, weighed heavier”. Thorne’s original faces do seem to have been referred to as fat at the time. Maybe Victorian prudery took over and demanded a less physical term.

Nowadays we have semi-bold and bold, extra bold, heavy, grotesque, and yes, fat. There’s no reason why you can’t call that typeface you just designed whatever you want, and there are no hard and fast boundaries between these terms, but I list them roughly in ascending order of fatness. Fonts in use has a nice survey of fat faces, with lots of graphic examples.

I find this one a bit shocking actually.

If you are taking care of an architectural masterpiece, visited by thousands every hour as it seems, don’t you think you’d want to be careful with your renovations. Clearly the doors of the Duomo in Florence were rebuilt not that long ago. They called on some letter-carver to include on the lintels the “captions” for the art high above. Thereupon the clerk of works stopped paying attention. I can’t imagine how they allowed this mess to appear. “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”. Better; keep your eyes closed.

It’s almost as if the guy was told he had eight feet at his disposal and off he went, only to realize as he got got towards the end that he was running out of room. No problem thinks he, I’ll just scrunch up the last few letters and Roberto’s your uncle.

The inscription starts off quite nicely. ECCE is fine, though I might prefer a tiny bit less space between the second C and the E. We are already floundering a bit in ANCILLA where the C badly needs separating from the N. The I to L transition is clearly far too close especially if you’re going to allow extra space between the Ls and before that A which really looks like it’s an indefinite article — oops, but no, we’re not in English, this is Latin whence we came all our knowledge of the proper spacing of inscriptions, so maybe it looks more like a preposition. Our carver, obviously influenced by the luxurious spacing between that A and the L before it, starts DOMINI with similarly generous spacing between the D and the O. It’s at this point that he actually steps back and looks at what he’s doing and realizes he’s running out of room. MINI lives up to its name in terms of spacing, though our artist puts an extra twist on it with a flourish of even smaller space between the N and its neighbors that he allows after the M.

The little crosses are nice.

This door is the south door on the front of the church, facing the Baptistry. All the people who are going into the Duomo enter this way (those paying to go up the tower or into the dome enter elsewhere). We queued for an hour and chatted with a couple of students from Texas Tech who were in town doing their foreign study. They were business majors and had had half a dozen lectures on commercial law (American) while in town, though they appeared to have made side trips to rather more cities than that. Sending your students to Florence seems quite a common trick. We saw evidence of students from New York University, Kent State, and Pepperdine. And why not? Everyone wins; even the parents who pay, who can rest assured that someone over there is looking after their little treasure. Our Texan friend said she was sorry to be leaving town on the morrow. I suggested she could come back some time, but she allowed as how this would be the last time she could do so on her parents’ dime.