Archives for category: Typesetting

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.

We habitually refer to anything appearing at the top of the page, other than the folio, as a running head. Properly speaking, though, a running head is one that changes as we go through the book, giving a description of the material appearing on that page, or spread. Usually a running head will appear only on the recto, with the verso carrying the Part title, the Chapter title, or at a pinch the book’s title. This unchanging head should properly be termed a page head or headline.

We rarely use real running heads nowadays: they cost extra, since you can’t decide what they should say until the book has been paged, so they lead to an extra step in the proofing process. As a compromise we occasionally use the section titles as a sort of running head. Dictionaries usually have proper running heads, telling you the range of words covered on that page. Bibles also tend to have truly descriptive running heads, providing a sort of commentary on what appears on the page. A careful publisher will give you a running head in the endnotes section, providing the text page range for which notes can be found on each page of notes. This makes the endnotes much easier to use, and I wish it was always done.

As Judith Butcher points out in Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for editors, authors and publishers “Running heads are unnecessary unless they help the reader to find a particular part of the book”. Thus most novels will not have anything at the top of the page unless the publisher has wanted to waste space to make a short book seem more substantial. A page head giving you the book’s title only doesn’t provide you with any information — we can assume, I think, that the readers are aware what book it is they are reading! If that’s all you can think of to put up there, keep quiet. Innocent publishing novices may assume that a book needs to have running heads in order to look like a book: wrong — it will only need running heads if it needs running heads to provide navigational help to the reader. But try telling that to some enthusiasts.

See also my raised nose on the subject of running feet.

The trouble with music setting is that there is so much going on simultaneously. You have to have your staff lines, then on top of that you have bar lines, notes, time signatures, clefs, slurs accents and so on, with text below if it’s a song. If it has a base line and a treble line, or it’s an orchestral piece, with multiple parts, everything has to be in vertical alignment. In hot metal type, putting a note on top of five horizontal rules was an impossibility: the two elements had to be at the same level so that they’d both print. You can imagine having little bits of type showing a crotchet on or between the five lines of the staff I guess, but this would lead to some pretty intricate work. That it was done can be seen from this photograph of a relatively straight-forward job from

From the Museum of Turnhout

Prohibitively intricate; which is why the manual process of engraving, shown in the video below, lasted until computer setting was sophisticated enough to take over. Apparently early printers would operate with paper carrying preprinted rulings, but this obviously demanded a precise control of registration, always difficult but especially so when the paper has to be dampened before printing. They might alternatively rule in the staves after printing, which again would demand some pretty tight control. Engraving into metal plates, initially copper, was first used for music in 1581.

The Munich music publisher G. Henle Verlag’s website shows a couple of videos of the music engraving process. I think this one is the clearer of them, but if you visit their site you can enjoy a demonstration by their charming operative, Hans Kühner. The manual process, beating notation into soft lead plates using punches and a hammer, continued in operation till the 1990s, by which time an adequate computerized replacement had been developed.

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You can see that printing would be via the intaglio process: ink collects in the grooves punched into the plate, and is then transferred to the paper. This of course dictates that the engraver work in reverse images.

Printing music was always a demanding branch of the business. The size of sheet music (conventionally 9″ x 12″) is slightly larger than most presses are built to accommodate economically and the scores need to be bound so that they remain open without attention. Thus the work tended to be done by specialist printers, of whom there remain fewer and fewer. What about an e-reader now that we have crossed the computer barrier in creating scores? Well, of course they are all too small too. Here’s a solution: The Digital Reader sends a note about the Gvido Dual-Screen Music Reader. The Gvido website provides the following lyrical video, showing the device in operation.

When you’re in the middle of something, you obviously can’t see how it’ll all end up. We sort of knew that hot metal was looking a bit sick, but I don’t think any of us thought the disease was terminal. We tended to see hot metal as the norm: Monotype as the ideal and Linotype as an economic compromise on that ideal, used for newspapers. (Similarly we found it hard to see beyond letterpress printing as against offset lithography.) Photosetting was, in our mind, an inadequate effort to mimic the quality of Monotype setting with slightly better economics. We assumed the attempt was doomed to failure: after all the quality of a well-set Monotype job excellently printed by letterpress on a good paper was unambiguously good. What we didn’t recognize was that the excellent is always vulnerable to the acceptable when there are savings involved. We all thought, wrongly, that we were above that sort of crassness.

IMGP2164Here from the Deutsches Museum in Munich is the Intertype Fotosetter, in the 1960s the most used phototypesetting machine in the world. It looks rather like a Linotype hot-metal typecaster, which isn’t too surprising as it was just an adaptation of that very thing. In place of a pot of hot metal, it had an exposure unit which would create the image. The Linotype matrices, the “mats”, were adapted to contain a photographic negative rather than a real matrix, as you may see below. Justification might involve some letter spacing as well as word spacing — a big barrier to its use for book work.

Fotosetter (left), Linotype (right)








As you can tell from the video I posted recently, From Hot Metal to Cold Type (in which this machine briefly features: the photo of the mats comes from it) industry responses to the early moves to photo-typesetting were varied, somewhat Heath-Robinson-like, and rather panicky when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.

For a number of years hot metal typesetting and photosetting co-existed. There wasn’t a price differential: at least to the customer there wasn’t. If a printer had large sums invested in hot metal setting equipment he had no real option other than using it, even if that meant charging less per page than last year, and thus it went. Naturally however, when it came to reinvestment, the traffic was all in one direction. Gradually the price of typesetting went down and down and down — in the fifty years from 1965 to 2015 the price of typesetting went down by something like two thirds or three quarters, more if you factor in inflation.

In the early days phototypesetting worked by exposing light through a negative image of a character to place it on photosensitive paper or film. Then came a few months (!) when the image was created on a cathode ray tube and thus conveyed to a similar carrier. The biggest efficiency gain came however with the digitization of typesetting where the character was created as a series of raster lines (irregular around the edges if looked at under high magnification) which initially were output onto film or photosensitive paper, but eventually output directly to a printing plate, or now, via digital printing, directly onto the paper. Just saying it indicates how many steps, each involving workers, were thereby eliminated.

This is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen.

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It is a re-training film made in the mid-sixties by the International Typographical Union. It is amazing how quickly the process moved on from this early response to technological change. None of what you see here survives in today’s print industry (including the union itself. Founded in 1852, with a membership of about 100,000 at the time this film was made, the ITU finally withered away in 1986 and merged in 1987 with the Communications Workers of America.)

The tone of the film is optimistically up-beat, showing the way forward into the new world. In fact these guys were facing the elimination of most of their jobs. The union had an interest is portraying a labor-heavy process: see the guy carry one plate into the pressroom, turn around and walk back. Despite its optimistic front, the union was clearly aware of the writing on the wall. The stiff-upper-lip dodging and weaving in the face of the inevitable make for an almost tragic tale. Manning levels have plummeted since then, and while a few senior workers can remember the old ways, the number who successfully retrained was not immense. What workers do today has little connection with either the old, old ways shown at the start of the video or the initial responses to the new technology which follow.

The commentator proudly proclaims: “Printing in its many forms is the handmaiden of civilization and of progress . . . Since the days of Gutenberg the typesetter, in a real sense, has been the engineer of civilization . . . The printer has led mankind by the hand, so to speak, into the light of modern society.” Printing isn’t the only trade that has lost its pride. When it was a matter of coaxing huge piles of metal into doing ridiculously detailed things, the manual workers who accomplished this could bask in the romance of the struggle successfully won. Now there’s not too much pride to be taken in watching a computerized control system turn your lathe, grind your lens, cast your ingot, weave your cloth and so on. No wonder unhappy workers (or ex-workers) have become a troubled political force. We have moved our economics beyond manual work, but need still to come up with a psychological story transforming idle hands into — what? Proud consumers? Jolly vacationers? Self-improvement mavens? Life-time students? What about avid readers?

If we’d never had “these dark Satanic Mills” I think we wouldn’t have developed this stultifying hang-up about the nobility of work. We have bought this bill of goods, pushed at us as a means of distracting us from the realization that working in a mill was a nightmare, but a nightmare rather better than starvation. There’s no inherent nobility in being a wage-slave. Wake up guys — you’ve nothing to lose but your chains! Let’s divorce income from work by getting a universal basic income scheme going so that nobody has to be seen as “redundant” or “unemployed” — the village stocks of the modern day. People who wanted to keep working could do so. The underlying problem of automation is that robots are not workers, they are capital goods, and their arrival has accompanied and will only accelerate a switch from the proportion of the work product moving from labor to capital. Those who choose to work should become shareholders rather than salaried staff. If you don’t have to feel exploited, who knows how many people would choose to keep working.

Vimeo has lots of films generated as part of the process of putting together Linotype: The Film.

I didn’t realize there was a typeface called Fontana; I just thought it was a paperback imprint of Collins’.

However here it is, and HarperCollins historical website celebrating their 200th anniversary tells us about it in these terms :

“In 1936, Collins became the first major publishing house to create its own font. The publisher hired printer and typographer Dr. Hans Mardersteig to prepare a report on the business in which he included suggestions on design. As a result, Collins had him design a typeface that would create a unique visual identity for the company.

Building on the classic fonts of eighteenth-century Glasgow publishers Robert and Andrew Foulis, Mardersteig developed Collins’s iconic typeface: Fontana. It was used by Collins for three decades before the company released rights to the font.

After Collins developed the Fontana font, more company-specific fonts followed, including Lexicon, Fedra, Nexus (designed by Martin Majoor), Fresco, and Sansa (designed by Fred Smeijers).”

It’s hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in their type sample. If only all designers would attend to ease of reading. It reminds me a bit of Century Schoolbook, a no-nonsense communicator. I’m not sure just how available Fontana is today: according to Creative Pro, Monotype never digitized it.

So there you are. As the punch line of an old joke told by our crusty Latin master had it “Ye ken noo”.

This Ted Talk, shared at The Scholarly Kitchen by David Crotty, tells us about the origins of our numbering system.

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The representation of these digits in type can be done in two ways: old style and lining. Old style figures extend up and down from the x-height, unlike the lining figures shown in this typeface: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, which are of uniform height. I prefer old style (though they should never be used in mathematical setting), and find it slightly disconcerting that when I draft a piece in this WordPress blog the numerals show as old style, whereas they will actually be displayed in a different, sans serif font. Here’s the draft of this paragraph:screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-12-13-57-pm

As far as I am aware almost all sans serif fonts just have modern numbers. The only exceptions I can find are Maxima and ITC’s Goudy Sans which provide both modern and old style. Optima, a sort of serify* sans serif face also has both. Here are both sets in Goudy Sans.


Number: “The precise sum or aggregate of a collection of individual things or persons; the quantity or amount”

Numeral: “a word expressing or denoting a number”

Digit: “A whole number less than ten: any of the nine or (including zero) ten Arabic numerals representing these”

Natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . . all the way “to infinity and beyond”

Whole numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . . Like Natural but including zero

Integers: . . . -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . . Like Whole Numbers but including negative numbers too

Rational numbers: All of the above but including fractions, decimals which end, and decimals which repeat or have a pattern

Irrational numbers: Decimals which never end, like √37 and π

Perfect number: A number the sum of whose factors, excluding the number itself, is exactly equal to the number itself

Abundant number:  Same story, but with a total greater than the number itself (e.g. 18)

Deficient number: Same story, but totaling less than the number itself (e.g. 8)

Amicable numbers: If the sum of the factors of a = b, and the factors of b = a, the numbers are amicable (e.g. 220 and 284)

Cardinal number: “A number which answers the question ‘how many?” As opposed to

Ordinal number: Marking position in an order or series: first, second etc.

Nominal number: A number used to identify someone or thing (e.g. Social Security Number, or 10 on Harry Kane’s back)

Prime number: A natural number greater than 1 with no factors

Composite number: A natural number which has more than two factors

Directed number: A number which is either negative or positive. (Zero is neither negative nor positive)

Imaginary number: The square root of a negative number

Transfinite numbers: Cardinal numbers indicating the size of infinite sets

Real number: a number that can be located on a number line

Complex number: A member of the most general or inclusive set of numbers used in algebra: a number that can be expressed in the form a + bi, where a and b are real numbers and i = √-1

Number complex: the compulsion to list all these crazy definitions.


* Optima has swellings at the top and bottom of verticals which to my eye make it a sort of transitional face between serifed and sans serif, although it is really a sans serif face.


enschede-haarlem_type_foundry_in_1892Joh. Enschedé en Zonen was founded in Haarlem in 1703, and began making their own type in 1743 at a time when most other printers had abandoned foundry work and were buying their types from outside. The company continues as a security printer printing banknotes, postage stamps etc.  In the world of typography the company is perhaps best known as the place where Jan van Krimpen’s font were made.

This film showing Paul Helmuth Rädisch cutting punches by hand at Enschedé in 1957, is narrated by Matthew Carter who also provides a fascinating discussion following Carl Dair’s short film.

Carl Dair, a Canadian typographer, worked as in intern in Haarlem in 1956-7 and while he was there made this film of what was a dying craft. Dair’s Epistles to the Torontonians was reviewed in the TLS of 27 January 2017. The film, Gravers and Files is included in a CD accompanying the book, though it is also available on-line at YouTube (as here) and at Vimeo.