With tens of thousands of typefaces to choose from, where do you begin? Fonts are like people. They come in a million different shapes and sizes, and all have their own personality. From the equally loved AND loathed Comic Sans (mainly loathed to be fair) to the utilitarian Arial there’s a time and a place for all of them – well, a good lot of them at least!
As a graphic design student in the late 80s, I remember my early struggles with typography. As first years, we pulled all-nighters to get through a gruelling six-week block of ‘hand lettering’ every form and style of lettering and application. It was quite a sight: a small army of design students all attempting to un-clog 0.18mm Rotring Technical pen nibs in the early hours while trying to avoid scratching the bleed-proof Letraset marker pads we were replicating our designs on. Getting to know every tiny detail of the different fonts and their characteristics, the negative space, the kerning, leading and multiple decisions that needed to be made for selecting and applying fonts seemed utterly painful…
However, the concentrated, analytical nature of the tasks made us look at letter forms in far more detail than any other ‘normal’ person would – or should. It made me appreciate tiny details that suit a font’s application – the flourish of a lowercase ‘g’ or a particularly exquisite ampersand, for example.
Being on the cusp of what was known as ‘Desktop Publishing’ (DTP) while still learning traditional linotype typesetting was indeed a great time to be a graphic design student. Thinking back to what it took to create a single page of a brochure, for example, is almost unbelievable. Characters were counted to copyfit a typed (on a typewriter) manuscript, calculating the number of characters that would fit on a line of a specific width, with a specific font at a specific size on a specific leading… This was maths formulas combined with a bit of guesswork and referenced against thick volumes of Type specimen books. We would have to create a spec that was then sent to the typesetters and coded in with no visual representation of what would come out – you would just hope the formula was correct, as this was an expensive, manual process.
What came back was a bromide sheet of paragraphs, headlines and folios that had to be carefully cut and pasted on to CS10 board, with individual lines and characters having to be positioned manually if we were attempting anything as elaborate as running text around a cut out of an image on the page.
We had no access to scanners, so images had to be placed under a Grant Enlarger, which was basically a lightbox and a lens that would project your chosen image onto glass that could then be drawn onto tracing paper at the size required. This was then photocopied and pasted onto the CS10 board as a positional guide for the repro house to do the actual high-res scanning (of the tranny – no digital cameras at this stage!). The artwork on the board was overlayed with a sheet of trace with all the spec information marked up – “Headline prints C50/M75/Y15/K0” – for every single bit of colour or spot UV, emboss – everything as all the artwork was black and white. All the artwork boards (same process for every spread of a magazine/book) then went off to the repro house with fingers firmly crossed before expensive Cromalin or wet proofs returned several days later for checking. AC’s (author’s corrections) were charged individually, so people really, really, REALLY checked things carefully back then as errors hit you in the pocket, and that focused the proofreading. There were no ‘FINAL_FINAL_FINAL ARTWORK VERSION_16’ files in the old days!
Reading that back now it’s hard to believe – we were working with type that we weren’t sure would look how we hoped it would, colours that were all black and white and rudimentary positional drawings of images. It was time-consuming and expensive at every stage. Errors, or just trying a different colour because the red you specified looked a bit orange in reality, were a real nightmare.
So, you can imagine the joy and how quickly we embraced the sudden creative freedom that DTP presented for designers. No more maths. No more relying on typesetters and no more pasting up and marking up. We got to control everything. We could try out however many fonts we had managed to ‘acquire’ in as many sizes, spacing, and leading as we wanted. We could even scan photos and trannies – even if they were only positionals. We were still working in B&W at this stage on screens the size of a large iPhone, so not entirely a picnic, but just phenomenal in contrast to where we were we had been.
This newfound freedom coincided with graphic design suddenly becoming cool. Neville Brody released The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, and it changed the landscape of graphic design overnight. It was suddenly in our hands. The centuries of rules and restrictions were suddenly ripped up and the revolution began. We could stretch and twist type, mess with leading and spacing, break the grid, and experiment. Far more terrible things happened in terms of typography than good things, but it was just the initial overexcitement of being free! There were excesses of stretching and distorting and mixing typefaces!
It’s really quite cathartic to look back and remember where the graphic design industry came from and the invaluable lessons those painful early years taught.
The technology and processes have changed beyond recognition, but what is at the heart of good design remains the same and what I have always loved. The ideas, concepts, the thought process – the spark of creativity. 30-odd years into the business, and I’m still excited and anxious in equal measure about each new project and not knowing what might come next keeps me in the same mindset as I was as a student – still curious, still trying to come up with the visual hook, the idea, the certain something that you just ‘know’ when hits the mark. That’s what keeps us all hungry and loving what we do at The Agency. It’s not just a job – it’s a way of life, and we never switch off – which is a good thing – mostly!