The History of Type Design

At Ardent, we’re not just passionate about point-of-purchase displays. We have enthusiasts on our staff about every conceivable design field. Two of our designers, for example, are photography buffs. Our president loves rebuilding his ’61 Fiat. And my design niche is fonts and typography.

Mr. Mueller type-set my name, Crista. Notice how all of the letters had to be both backwards and upside-down to print correctly.

In order to learn more about where the standards of typography come from, I recently met with Mr. Herman Mueller. Mr. Mueller was born in Germany, where he apprenticed as a typesetter in the mid 1950s and worked as a compositor at a local newspaper. In other words, Mr. Mueller was responsible for setting the text of every newspaper page, every single day. Even he admits that it’s hard to fathom putting a paper together like that each day. The process went a little something like this:

  1. Each compositor had a case like the one below, where each drawer was filled with the numbers and letters of a particular font at a particular point size, e.g. 12-pt Garamond. Without looking–memorizing the drawer layout was a part of the apprenticeship– a compositor would pick out the letters and order, upside-down and backwards, and place them in a composite stick. 
  2. The composite sticks (like the one in the first picture), were used to create newspaper headlines. Once all of the type was spaced correctly in the stick, a compositor would carefully take the text and place it onto a form and organize it so that everything was packed tightly enough to stay put. 
  3. The longer newspaper stories were set using a Linotype machine. Linotype machines were similar to modern keyboards, but they produced “slugs” out of molten metal. These slugs, like the ones below, were individual lines of type that had to be organized around the hand-set headlines on a press form. 
  4. Once the page form was complete, it would be sent through an automated letterpress that would ink the surface of the form and press it onto a roll of paper that would then be cut into distinct pages.

It’s incredible to think that only a few generations ago, every single periodical was put together by craftsmen like Mr. Mueller. He also showed me an old catalog of typesetting equipment:

This section is where you would purchase sets of fonts for your collection. Mr. Mueller admitted he preferred sans-serif fonts like Helvetica; because all the lines were straight up and down, it was much easier to space text in that font than, say, Monotype Corsiva.

Of course, there is more to publishing periodicals than letters and punctuation. Look out for a new post coming soon about some of the other machines and processes involved in traditional printing!

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