Archives for category: Typesetting

This is so obvious to anyone in the publishing business that we are liable to forget that the word stet may be opaque to some other. It’s Latin for “let it stand” and is used whenever, in checking proof or marking up a manuscript, you change your mind after deleting something before second thoughts tell you it should really remain. Write Stet in the margin and the typesetter knows that they should ignore the deletion and let it stand as previously written. To avoid any ambiguity about exactly what the stet refers to we usually put a series of dots under the words involved. We also tend to put marginal proof marks in a little circle to divide them off from any neighboring clutter.

Illustration from The Chicago Manual of Style. Stet is 7 lines down on right.

Quite what the stet means in this photo of a tattoo from BuzzFeed is a bit opaque to me: sort of like Noli me tangere perhaps. Maybe the nails suggest it’s a message about a decision to stick in a poker hand.

A couple of years ago I posted about rivers, those trails of white which can occasionally be found meandering down a page of type. There must be a name for the opposite — a meandering trail of dark wandering down a page, but I’ve either never heard it or have forgotten the word.

This dark river results from a chance proximity of double “g”s or other ink-heavy letter combinations occurring above and below one another. Get two or three of these together, and the eye picks up the blob and shapes it into a river. A funny effect is how, once you’ve noticed it the effect insists on being seen further up and down the page. In this page, from the excellent Anniversaries I by Uwe Johnson (New York Review Books, 2018*) you first pick it up in the center of the page just below half way down, where we find these words in the middle of the line one above the other, slanting a bit leftwards: right, going, approving, front, office, allowed, expert, through, Berlin. Notice also how entirely innocent words (innocent of any dark type clustering) get dragged in by their position in the line. For instance “going” and “expert”. Our eye just includes them in the row because they are there. And then it begins to extend the line upwards and downwards, implicating “disparagingly”, “locally”, and “though” in the line-up. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this is what we do.

This doesn’t do any harm, and isn’t a “bad” thing. Probably it’s only maniacs like me who latch onto such quirks of typesetting. It’s an artifact of computer-assisted typesetting — well actually of any typesetting. A Monotype compositor in the old days could have broken up such a river by tightening the word spacing here and loosening it there so that these doubled characters were no longer aligned in such a regular way. Of course many comps wouldn’t have bothered: in such things consisted the difference between a good type shop and an OK one. Desperate hot metal compositors seeking to balance their lines have been known to introduce or delete a little word here or there for the sake of aesthetic balance. Occasionally the author might notice.


* I’m about to start on Volume 2, having just reached 19 April 1968.

This blog format uses a line space to divide paragraphs from one another. In conventional text setting there’s no space between paragraphs and the first word of a paragraph starts indented a little to the right of the lines above and below, often 1-em. A hanging indent is the opposite: the second and subsequent lines start indented to the right of the first one, which sort of makes it look like the copy is hanging from the hook of the first line.

As this slightly crooked photograph of a page from the index from Hugh Williamson’s Methods of Book Design reminds us the hanging indent is often found in plays, short notes, lists and bibliographies. And of course indexes.

Erica Van Horn, self-described as half of Coracle Press, tweets this picture of a sign in County Tipperary with the comment “Old sand-cast aluminum letters, hence the spacing.” Equal space between all the letters works out more or less OK here.

So maybe we need to force all public signage back to sand casting, because the letterspacing of the first line is really all one could ask: even and steady — maybe we could do with a bit more between the I and the R at the end. The second line suffers from a bit too much space either side of the A but is otherwise pretty good.

This picture of a French sign for a place south of Grenoble, not sand cast I think, comes from the same source, and is pretty well letterspaced. I believe it shows the other half of Coracle Press, a poet himself, perhaps waiting for lightning to strike.

British road signs tend to be Cap & lower case, as are US ones. Readability is what road signs should be all about, and Cap & lc tends to achieve that end best. Letterspacing lower case type leads to the exact opposite, which is why in German it is used to draw attention to a word, to emphasize it by making you take a little longer reading it.* Road signs need to be read quickly and accurately. No fancy typography here please. With caps, letterspacing does enhance readability.

This sign at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge has obviously been hit by a bus at some point. It shows rather luxurious spacing for G and W but because they are different words this looks fine. The SOUTH at the top is a bit of a mess. Rather than Cap & small cap it’s a Cap S from one size of type, and the rest of the word in a smaller type size, which is reflected in the thickness of the letters as well as their height. There’s precious little spacing going on in that word. If you’re going to put letterspacing in the Cap & lower case Bridge, why skimp on it between i and d? Urban myth holds that road signs are made by prisoners, so perhaps one should not expect too much typographical nicety.

Conclusion: if you are going to letterspace your Caps, ideally use a variable letterspace between different combinations of letters, depending on the amount of apparent space they each bring because of their shape. But variable letterspacing takes time, judgement and thus money, so a constant letterspacing is likely to be much more common. With a constant letterspace, a wider space is likely to cover up more problems than a tighter one will.


* This is because Fraktur/Black letter had no italic form, so that option wasn’t available. Of course printing from movable types originated in Germany, and to begin with no type faces had an italic form until 1501 when the first one was cut in Italy.

LATER: Here’s an interesting street sign from Queen’s New York, set up to commemorate the invention of Scrabble, which took place on this block in 1938. Image thanks to Atlas Obscura.

Dave Addey, interviewed recently on The Kindle Chronicles, is the author of Typeset in the Future: Typography and Design in Science Fiction Movies, (published by Abrams in December 2018) a copy of which he proudly displays to us in this picture from the podcast webpage.

Maybe the subliminal message is meant to be that the future is all about careless typography!* The slight haziness of this photo helps us see how different the first three letters of TYPESET appear from the next three, which huddle together while their predecessors relax in reasonable space provided solely by their shape. Clearly no designer wasted any time thinking about their comfort. In the next line, the built-in spaces at the bottoms of F and T make URE look cramped. Adding a bit of letterspacing would cure these problems and the rest of them and improve things immeasurably. You’d hope someone who is interested enough in typography to write a book about it would notice these things, though I guess the cover was designed by the same person who did the “modern” interior. (You can “Look Inside” the book at the Amazon link above.)

The typeface which drove the creation of this book is Eurostile Bold Extended which Mr Addey noticed was the face used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then picked up in many other sci-fi films. It obviously has a futuristic look about it, but I suspect its use in sci-fi movies is more because of imitation of a successful predecessor than it is about any inherent sci-fi-ness of the font. On the other hand I do have to confess to a tendency to want to use Garamond or Bembo for a book about Renaissance culture. Sans serif is “modern”; space travel is modern: QED? Letterspacing may have to be seen as old fashioned: I hope not.


* Confirmed perhaps by Marvel Studios’ logo?

You’ve probably noticed that sort of antiquing effect of using a V instead of a U in typesetting. It’s sort of analogous to those “Ye Olde Tea-Shoppe” signs.

Here’s a pretty extravagant example from an early Culver City studio sign. The underlined O is another antiquing device harking back to medieval scribal practice. Did early Hollywood feel the need for a tradition-boost? I guess so. It was a new business, seeking legitimacy. MGM used the same V in their old sign too — see Letterspacing 2.

The reason it has this antiquing effect is that it actually is antique. It wasn’t until 1629 (or maybe it was 1619) that capital U became an accepted letter when Lazare Zetzner started using it in his print shop in Strasbourg. Zetner also introduced cap J, but that’s another story. See Job case for confirmatory evidence and evidence of the dogged adherence by the print industry to the way-we’ve-always-done-things philosophy. (Louis Elzévier of Leiden is credited with the introduction of the distinction between lower case i and j and u and v in 1518.) They needed introducing because Latin had had no place in its alphabet for j or u, so neither did the early printers.* Scribes had actually evolved a system of distinguishing between u and v, treating them differently at the start of a word and in the middle. V stayed the form used at the beginning by printers — thus the long-term absence of such a sort in printing houses.


* As they had no u early printers obviously didn’t have a double-u either, w, which they would make up by putting two v-s together — v-s in their role as u-s of course, which is why we, unlike the more logical French, thus name the character.
















The Boston printer of this 1693 book obviously had Ws in his Roman and Italic fonts, but not in his black letter typeface where two elaborate V-s are deployed in the word Witches — showing that readers were still somewhat used to the convention. Actually I suppose they might really be Us, mightn’t they? This showing of the typeface Old English suggests that it may in fact have been the old English V which was added later, with the U shown here jumping from sounding as both V and U to just U.

See also Why n, m not v, w? which has a movie poster featuring VV in place of W.

Jeremy asked in a comment on my previous letterspacing post that I do more letterspacing analyses. So here’s goes.




He suggested the Hollywood sign, but I think that’s a bit unfair. Just getting the damn thing up there was hard enough: demanding good lettersapcing from the crew would be just too much. Besides the “letterspacing” changes depending on where you’re standing when you look at it. See how the H and the D behave in these pictures. But Hollywood, in its metonymic sense, is open to letterspacing criticism: for an industry which spends so much money on the look of their films it seems odd to me that they seem to care little about the appearance of lines of caps. Take for example the poster for the archetypical “That’s Entertainment”.

Quite apart from the awfulness of the typeface used in this poster — the best one can say is that maybe someone thought it was entertaining — there’s a feeling of their trying to cram the title into that ugly box while keeping it as big as possible. Come on MGM, make the box bigger, and let the title breathe. It’s not like they always lacked typographical taste. Their old sign was nicely letterspaced, and even had that affected old-style feature of the V in place of the vulgar U.


The fact is that certain letters carry their own built-in spacing. The “A”s in the movie poster need to be further from the letters preceding them than from the ones after: that bend to the left appears to push the character away from what’s following. The half-closed-eyes test will show you that the color of the line clumps into black areas and white areas. The aim should be to make for as even a color as possible. Spacing helps this. Of course, with a quirky face like this, letterspacing the line may draw undue attention to the letterforms themselves. Let’s try an experiment.

Here’s a slightly letterspaced version of the word ENTERTAINMENT. I think it looks a lot better, and might be even better if I’d done a more thorough job with my trusty Xacto knife. Somewhat lazily I left the two NT combinations alone, and allowed that to govern the amount of letterspacing I introduced. I think the thing would benefit from a little more letterspace overall. If I’d added a bit of space between the N and the T — this looks especially necessary at the beginning of the word — that would have helped everywhere else. A little extra spacing between the E and the R and on both sides of the M would help too. The spaces before and after the N ought to be the same. Still, all in all, preferable to the MGM version — to me anyway.

The title cards used in the movie use a different typeface.

Can you imagine any less Fred-Astaire-appropriate face than this clunky grotesque? Well, yes, maybe the one used on the poster. But again the letters are smashed together as much as possible: it’s almost like the designers were on bonus for fitting the most type into the smallest space. All of Liza Minnelli needs letterspacing, Most obviously MI but also, slightly surprisingly the LLI at the end. It’s almost as if the designer realized that the shape of the Ls provided their own spacing, so tried to balance the tight spacing elsewhere by reducing the space following L. The letters touch now! Type-blind in Hollywood.

This Vimeo video — a little odd perhaps, but thought-provoking, takes you on a tour through some modern approaches to graphic design. The openness of New York encourages experimentation, the connective thread throughout this international journey from the theory of glitches, via computer aided graphics (“it’s hand drawn by a machine”), to manipulations of the typeface Bembo (“the sort of typeface you’d want to print every f-ing book in”) to printing the output at Kallemeyn Press, a letterpress shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

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

Originally typecases would all be locally designed. Each printer would bang up a typecase out of bits of wood to suit his own preferences. A different case would be made for different type sizes and different typefaces. Their layout would of course be the same. As time went by layouts would doubtless tend to converge: here’s an 18th century English layout from John Smith: The Printer’s Grammar (1755).

The two cases would be arranged one above and behind the other. The upper case contained Caps and Small Caps and other less frequently used sorts, and this arrangement gave rise of course to our common parlance distinction between upper and lower case letters. Whether the layout of this double frame of typecases from Oxford is the same as Mr Smith’s example or not, we cannot tell.

A composing frame from Oxford

The point of the two part arrangement was to cut down on arm movement in order to increase the speed of typesetting. The size of the space allowed for each sort was determined by the letter’s frequency of use. The most commonly used letters would be placed together in the middle, for the same reason. The upper case tended to be left in alphabetical order. But, lovers of tradition as printers must ever be, Cap J and Cap U followed Z, because in the earliest days of printing J and U were not used by English printers, and were only added on later!

The California job case, which originated in San Francisco, swept America in the mid nineteenth century and got rid of the upper/lower arrangement, putting caps on the right. It was alleged that it cut down ½ mile’s worth of arm travel a day as compared to its predecessor the Italic case layout. I guess experienced compositors had gotten used to having their Js and Us next to Z by then.

Note the spaces, Quad, Em quad and En quad almost next to the Caps, and the 3-em space nearer the middle of the lower case sorts, as it would be what was most frequently used as word space. A 3-em space is, confusingly, not 3 ems wide: three of them together will make up one em.

A visit to the Mackenzie & Harris typefoundery, from which this layout is a keepsake is highly recommended. It is housed in the same building in The Presidio in San Francisco as Arion Press, whose future, consequent upon the retirement of Andrew Hoyem, is we all hope in the safe hands of the Grabhorn Institute.

The concept of typesetting is pretty easily understandable to us, born into an alphabetic culture. There’s such fit between the two that one might almost imagine that the alphabet was invented with hot metal hand setting in mind. But Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, so you kind of need a bit of type for every word in the dictionary, or at least every word in the work in hand. So you end up with a whole lot of sorts and a terrible navigation task to find the one you need next. As Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China tells us (Vol. 5, Pt.1) “Because a set of metal type might comprise two to four hundred thousand characters, we can readily comprehend the magnitude of the work and cost involved in printing with movable type. Very often two sets of type, large and small, had to be made to print, for example, text and commentaries . . . The tin types of Foushan even included three sets.”  “The principle of assembling individual characters to compose a piece of text can be traced back many centuries before Christ, as inscriptions on bronze vessels, pottery objects and cast metal seals have made evident, but the use of movable type for printing was not begun until the middle of the +11th century.” [NB: Gutenberg “invented” all this in the middle of the +15th century.]

Although typesetting from individual pieces of type was invented in China, woodblock printing remained the commonest method of print reproduction until the introduction of offset lithography in the late 19th century. Chinese script has always been an artistic as well as a communication medium, and the ability simply to photograph a page of handsome brush-drawn characters and print from that, rather than dizzyingly trying to reproduce their sense in individual types, must have seemed like a liberation to Chinese printers. Wikipedia tells us that to typeset his agricultural gazetteers around the turn of the 13th/14th centuries, Wang Zhen “used revolving tables about 2m in diameter in which the [individual wooden] characters were divided according to the five tones and the rhyme sections according to the official book of rhymes. The characters were all numbered and one man holding the list called out the number to another who would fetch the type.”

An improvement on simple chaos perhaps but not exactly a model of efficiency. Another strike against movable Chinese type was that if a reprint was called for the types (often wooden) would have to be reassembled with the same lengthy process, whereas a book printed by woodblocks could be reprinted just by taking out the blocks and mounting them on the press. There’s a Chinese Blockprinting Museum in Yangzhou, where they run demonstrations of woodblock carving and printing.

Here is a video of members of the Wang clan who still use movable wooden types for their genealogy printing. They still use a rhyming chant to select the individual types. This print survival seems in the process of being moved into a museum setting where it will be preserved in some form. Luckily the commentary is supplemented by subtitles.

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Here’s a Flickr post with lots of pictures of Rixing Type Foundry in Taipei. (I am, I admit, making an assumption that the pictures all come from the same foundry: I can’t read Chinese.) Atlas ObsuraTyperoom and NeoCha also show some good pictures.

See also Chinese typewriter