Where I found type - Breaking the cycle of identikit digital design

OPINION / 18th October 2017

How stepping away from the screen helped to break the cycle of identikit digital design

Working in digital you rarely give a thought as to where the typeface came from, which you’re using to mock up designs with. It just appears within Sketch in a dropdown field and with the click of a mouse a whole page is in a different typeface. It only takes a second, but it’s something we take for granted in 2017. I’ve had a love of typography for a while and so assumed a fair bit of knowledge about typography in general; that is, until we visited the Type Archive. There, what I thought I knew about typography was completely flipped and a whole new appreciation and enthusiasm appeared unexpectedly. I feel as though I was side swiped by a giant printing block and am still trying to come to grips with what I learnt.

The Type Archive, formerly the Type Museum, holds historic collections such as the Stephenson Blake Collection of English foundry type, the Monotype Collection and Robert DeLittle wood type manufactory pieces. It’s a huge collection and all of it is irreplaceable with some of the machines and pieces being the only ones left in the world. Currently the Type Archive is holding a month long exhibition displaying work of Berthold Wolpe which has been revived by Monotype. Wolpe was a German born typographer, illustrator and book designer. He worked for publishers Faber & Faber and designed the typeface Albertus for the Monotype Corporation. The Type Archive is opening it’s doors for the first time in a long time, showcasing original work from Wolpe and a digital reimagining of five Wolpe typefaces by Monotype Designer Toshi Omagari.

The Wolpe Exhibition showed beautifully detailed work and even had an Alan Kitching printed tribute to Wolpe: work in progress examples on display that had old design iteration marks across everything; White paint used to cover unwanted serifs; title possibilities in pencil rubbed out, all done by hand and part of the designers journey to create their finished pieces. There were perfectly preserved book covers using Wolpe's’ fonts, posters for BOAC by Abram Games and even Sainsbury's egg packaging! It was really interesting to see the differences between the original type designed by Wolpe and the digital specimens by Omagari. I learned that the reason why Wolpe’s designs has certain characteristics was because of the mechanical limitations in creating and producing the fonts. We don’t have the same limitations today and it’s nice to see Omagari honouring Wolpe by re-creating his fonts for a new era not limited by process.

After finishing the exhibition and curious for more, we ventured outside to see if there were any more to the museum. As we demonstrated curiosity, we were taken into the workshop and I was immediately stunned. The smells hit me like a brick from the first step on the Victorian cobbles – old machinery, paper and dust. There were just so many things everywhere, it was hard to take it all in. The lady that brought us through (Sue), unearthed old Japanese and Chinese typing machines, before darting in another direction to show us classic company logos like Boots and WHSmiths etched into bronze printing plates. In great detail she explained how much Monotype would charge for setting up a new font if a company wanted something different and how it was sold to them in these sort of showcases. There were rows of Monotype composition casters sitting atop and their rat-tail springs creating a beautiful pattern – it was all so interesting but I was finding it hard to keep up with the amount of information our host was sharing.

On exploring further rooms there were etched bronze plates of typefaces, labeled with Gill sans, Grotesque, Helvetica. We then arrived at the mighty old Monotype casting machines. These machines could set a justified four inch line of type in less than a minute – can you imagine! We were given a demo and seeing the liquid metal pump out one part into a pool was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Just watching this mammoth machine and thinking about the amount of engineering that went into it just to set a few lines of type; and I’m sitting here tapping away at my keyboard, I certainly feel inferior to these people.

We were then shown how they would hand cast letters: being shown a piece that was probably 200 years old or more and is still as crisp as the day is was cut by hand. The skill of the typefounder and the method they used of tempering the blocks to withstand such pressures of casting the letters – this sort of quality just isn’t around anymore. My Mac wouldn’t last three years after being used everyday and we throw away our iPhones as soon as the next new one comes out, but here is this letter ‘X’ still as crisp as the day it was cast and from two centuries ago. These metal letters apparently scan perfectly and can be easily made into vectors, so watch out for more old fonts being digitised!

Sue then shared with us how type has so many uses and that she’d recently read a Jane Austen book published by Faber & Faber. She explained how the font used was so fitting for the book and made it so easy to read, describing how it’s interesting that even between different publishers of the same book, they use the same font. It shows that somewhere along the line, someone got it right for that book and their legacy is still being used today. It’s something that so many people disregard, but has such an influence on everyday life. Type really should be a window through which the words leap from the pages and connects with the reader. The best typography goes unnoticed.

Visiting the Type Archive was a great experience, but Sue was right when she said you can only take in so much at once. The skills these people have are a dying art and it’s sad to know that someday no one will know how to use any of these machines. The dedication and time they’re putting in is extraordinary and they’re working together to preserve a piece of history.

After having the rare chance to look around the workshops and gain a greater understanding of the processes, it gave me such an awareness of the digitised fonts by Omagari and how a designer's role has been made easier by the technology we use today. It so fitting that he’s created a selection based upon Wolpe’s original drawings and gives the font the chance to be as Wolpe always intended it to be.

Olivia Olivia Designer Olivia