My Type or True to Type – Alan Powell – 6th July 2015

Alan was Editor of the Star and re-launched the Sheffield Telegraph in 1989.

There is evidence of early forms of type in ancient China and possibly Korea but in Europe it is Johannes Gutenberg who is credited with ‘inventing’ type. He wanted to make reusable letters and produced 300 letter forms, including upper and lower case letters, punctuation and spaces. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention, books were hand-written and illustrated and the value of a major book was equal to the value of an average-sized farm.  Most books were the property of monasteries or the very rich.

Printing then took off and in the next 20 years many major cities built print works. Venice became the main European printing centre and by the late 14th Century had over 50 print works. Gutenberg’s type was later refined by Aldeus Minutius, who produced new type faces and was supposed to have invented the semi-colon and pocket-sizes books. Suddenly there was a prolific increase in the number of books and the most popular were ‘lustful’ books!  Type was regarded as being the fount of all knowledge and this is possibly where the word ‘font’ to describe a type-face, comes from.

In England William Caxton set up a print works in Westminster in 1476.  The first book produced was “The History of Troy”.  Type led to the standardisation of English and, as Caxton imported much of his type from Bruges, possibly led to the introduction of ‘silent’ letters into English, like the ‘h’ in ‘Ghent’ and in ‘naught’. Certainly type caused a vast increase in communication and education as books became    more available and cheaper.

At this time, type was the exclusive property of the printers and designers, but nowadays we all have access to a large range of fonts on our computers.  We all carry many different fonts if we have credit cards, driving licences and other documents.

Alan introduced some Giants of Type.

Beatrice Ward, who had posters in all her printing works that stated:
 “This is a Printing Office,  the Crossroads of Civilisation.”
and after some explanation of the theme; at the bottom of the poster it said:
“Friend, you stand on Sacred Ground.”

This gives some idea of how some printers regarded the power of type.

Steve Jobs, the founder of the Apple company.

For use in his computers he chose a wide range of fonts and invented some that he called after cities, like Chicago, Venice, Los Angeles.

Microsoft and IBM followed suit.

Conn Aire designed the Comic Sans font. This is the most loved and most hated font ever. He designed it for comics in speech bubbles and it was used in Windows 95 and cards and posters.  Later there was a strong campaign to ban it.

Fonts fall into two types.  Serifs, which have ‘strokes’ on the ends of the upper case letters and at bases of the letters and Sans Serifs that are plain (like this font).

The descriptions ‘Upper case’ and  ‘Lower case’ come from the print works where metal type was used to print.  After a print run the apprentices had to break down the ‘page’ and return the metal type, in alphabetical order, to the ‘case’ (a vertical partitioned box that had the large letters in the upper section and the small letters in the lower section). This is thought to be the the origin of “Mind your p’s and q’s” because the type was mirror images of the actual letters and these two were easily confused.

20th Century Fonts: 

Gill Sans was developed by Eric Gill and used on Penguin book covers but disliked by many  because he had a sexually dubious past.  He also developed ‘Perpetua’ that was used on the poster “Keep calm and carry on”.
Underground Sans, used on Underground signs is copyright of the Tube.
Helvetica is used on fabric care labels, and food packaging. Research shows that it is the easiest to read and there is even a film about it.
Transport is used on road signs and research suggests that lower case is easier to read at speed.
Albertus is used in the City of London on signs (and on Faber and Faber book covers).

Alan gave a brief paragraph on print sizes (points) and 72 point is 1 inch tall in UK but  font points are different sizes and many different names in other countries. He finished by mentioning the new 3D ‘printers’ which do not use inks but lay down layers of materials and build up a three-dimensional image of something that has been scanned in 3D. These are a million miles away from Gutenberg’s original idea.

A very enjoyable talk from an expert!