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Fun With Fonts

A pattern is starting to emerge. This post had its origin in an idle thought. “Okay. After we do book binding, let’s do a post on fonts.” Then, when the time comes, we start reading up on fonts—and the world expands, expands again, and soon appears to have no boundaries. Diving into a study of fonts takes you on a wild ride into a beautiful world of words and designs thickly layered in complexity, emotion, controversy, with a rich history stretching ever back into the dim past. Once again, we think, “Gosh, this is fascinating. We can’t even begin to cover this subject is a single post.”

So, we’ll start today with a quick look at how typesetting was done for many centuries before the advent of digital typesetting changed everything—again.

Until the creation of the Gutenberg Press around 1440, books were “typeset” by scribes writing by hand or craftsmen using blocks of wood or stone on each of which they’d carved the text of an entire page. They rolled ink over the block and pressed the block down on a sheet of vellum or paper. Books carried more than the value of their content: they reflected the long labor and slow art needed to make them. Just a dozen would constitute a library. Then came the invention of the printing press. It opened a new age. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with the creation of the first press that used movable type. It carries his name, the Gutenberg Press, and dates to the 1440s. Worth noting is the fact that some historians credit the Chinese with using movable type as early as the fourth century of the current era. In the ninth century, a Chinese alchemist named Pi Sheng used clay to create movable characters. The Gutenberg Press was the first machine to make use metal casts, or so-called punches. That word, by the way, once meant what we now call a “stamp,” not of the postage kind but of the bureaucratic variety. The early printers pictured themselves stamping out a whole page with a single stroke. Metal, of course, increased the life of these “punches” or “stamps.”

Characters in movable type are rectangular or prism-shaped  (tapered) objects. They are usually made of wood or metal and each has a raised letter, figure, punctuation mark on one end—so that, when inked and impressed on a surface, it will transfers the raised, inked imaged to paper. Individual “punches” are miniature versions of children’s blocks each bearing a raised image on one side. The opposite side the block carries the image painted to the wood or metal. The raised end is called the face—whence the term typeface originates. Here is the picture of a single old-fashioned letter. To see an image of a cluster of modern capitals, click this link to see a copyrighted image.

These small, discrete blocks could then be “set” next to each other to form words, sentences, and paragraphs—hence “typesetting.” That word once literally meant reaching into the right bin using the fingers, picking up a little block, and placing it in a frame. The frames were made so that the letters could be held together tightly after they had been laboriously arranged, as shown in the next illustration. The activity of printing itself consisted of (1) painting or rolling ink on the raised side, (2) pressing the frame ink-side down against a sheet of paper, (3) the removal of the sheet, (4) the placing the next sheet on the platen, (5) reinking, pressing again—and all this over and over again. Not surprisingly, this repetitious activity was tedious. Thus, quite rapidly, those engaged in printing automated the procedure—and the actual printing press was born.

But here it is the type itself—its style and its design—that is our topic: fonts. The style of type used in very early printing presses resembled the lettering style used in Europe at that time. This style of lettering is called Blackletter. Here is an example of a text printed with this type typeface.

Now, just to keep things separate and clear, a couple of definitions before we end this post and prepare for the next. As for when that shall appear… Well, that depends on some pressing deadlines, not least the preparation of some bids. Money first, pleasure next. The next post will be on the topic of fonts—up a little closer than we’ve managed to get today—and therefore more personal.

In modern usage the terms font and typeface are often used interchangeably. To compound the confusion, let us add our own obfuscations by way of trying to make things clear. (In truth one gets used to these things as one works in the trade—and after a while it all becomes crystal clear…)

Font: The term refers to an actual, you might say physically useable, set of characters—although “physically,” in the modern context, also includes electronic fonts one can never touch. The term comes from the French for casting or founding, fondre. It refers to a complete assortment of characters, including, of course, punctuation marks, symbols, and even spaces. Each single item shares the same typeface (see below) and is of the same height. An example is 11 point Garamond Pro Bold.

Typeface:  This term refers to a single design or a family of designs bearing a common pattern. To make this point more plain, fonts have a typeface as people have DNA; the DNA makes them like they are; typefaces are implemented as fonts; they are a pattern that must be physically realized. In the good old days typefaces were images on paper; they got formed into three-dimensional blocks of metal. These days the design is simply transmuted into fonts electronically—hence the confusion of the two. Characters and symbols belonging to a typeface share the same characteristics—stroke width, presence or absence of serifs, etc. Thus a “face” means type of a certain uniformity of shape, often named after its designer (e.g. Goudy Oldstyle).

One more attempt. Fonts are houses. Typefaces are the architect’s drawings and plans for the house. I think we got it, finally…

The photos shown are courtesy of Wikipedia here.


3 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John A. Magee. John A. Magee said: Interested in printing, publishing, typefaces, or fonts? Check out Dwarf Planet Press's blog the last couple weeks: http://bit.ly/982N41 […]

  2. Hi,
    I’m designing a membership directory for a midatlantic printers association and I was wondering if I could use your large image above on the cover design. I’d like to try to slightly modify it so that the displayed plates say the association name perhaps. Please let me know…


  3. […] Although sev­eral dif­fer­ent tech­niques existed before (they did not involve a print­ing press as such), Guten­berg’ press was the first machine to use casts, or so called punches, made of metal alloy (lead, tin and anti­mony) and not wood as was com­monly prac­ticed around the time. The nov­elty of the inven­tion lay in Guten­berg’ idea to split the text into sin­gle char­ac­ters such as lower and upper case let­ters, punc­tu­a­tion marks and abbre­vi­a­tions. These items were then cast in large num­bers as mir­ror images. […]

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