Typography II: Counterweights

As discussed in the previous post of this series, typography has history. Technological advance has changed the means of its production as well as its aesthetic form (fashion plays a part here as well). Hundreds of years of history have given typography an expansive lexicon, intricate classifications, and even anatomical terms. This complex world is perfect for people who like to dive deep into subjects. There’s always more to research and tease out.


The two counterweights of typographic production, efficiency and freedom, have create a centuries-long push and pull. The earliest printers had a world of possibilities at their disposal. In letterpress printing the type and layout were up to the printer and the creative palette was wide, but the process was tedious. If they could imagine an illustrated drop cap or exotic gold leaf, and their patrons had deep enough pockets, they could do the painstaking labor and make it happen. The beauty of the Gutenberg Bibles is an example of this craftsmanship. However, Gutenberg’s ruinous debt was also demonstrative of the expensive and difficult process.


Gutenberg Bible






Woodblock printed livestock sale posters.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the basic mechanics of typographic production took a major leap in efficiency. Machines like the Linotype, named for the lines of hot type that it would produce from the operators input on the keyboard, drastically reduced the amount of pre-press time from printing. The nature of this advancement in convenience naturally reduced the freedom available to the designer. The typographic palette was greatly reduced as it became necessary to work with what would fit on a usable keyboard, in many cases, interjecting illustrations and other glyphs into layouts would be seen as impractical. The efficiency of the keyboard would carry over into typewriters and modern computers, along with its inherent limitations.


The Linotype machine.


The next major evolution in typographic production arrived with the advent of photo lithography and widespread offset printing. As unlimited as the possibilities had seemed with letterpress, things were really cooking now. Photography could be reproduced in vivid color, typography could be placed in a layered manner that truly integrated it in design. However, like all the previous shifts the increased freedom again reduced the efficiency of production. Huge production departments cut transparent sheets of type from the foundry into their layouts, meticulously arranging them along with photography and illustration in a very precise form of collage. Imagine a whole floor of underpaid production artists taking Don Draper’s quippy line and somebody’s sketch and turning it into something that could actually be printed.


Muhammad Ali on the April 1968 cover of Esquire.

It wasn’t until the advent of the desktop publishing on personal computers that efficiency and freedom found equal footing. We have now arrived at typographic modernity and the possibilities are immense.