Thursday 6 January 2011

Holiday Snaps: At the font of letters amiss

The baptism of the font

Being a veteran of desktop publishing when it was a technical feat requiring your read the manuals to know what you were doing, I think I have a good idea about typesetting.

This was a time when you only had three fonts, Times New Roman, Helvetica and Courier, you had various weights and learnt that you did not throw everything on the screen and print out on paper with the thought that you were some artistic genius.

Printers were expensive and memory was not cheap and when you got new fonts it took the best part of 8 hours or more to build the font tables for each weight – you appreciated the luxury of variety and with moderation applied what you had to differentiate your work from others.

Rue the fate of the guru

Serifs, san serifs, proportional spacing, kerning, ghosting, pitch were some of the many terms brought from the printing world into the domain of personal computer software.

What I was involved in was not typical of the cut and paste collages by Patrick & Pets Printing Press just down the street, this was legal publishing in volumes as much as 40 requiring thoroughness and consistency you had to be meticulous.

Along the way, you picked the flyer type of work knowing that you were encroaching on the turf of traditional printers who were loath to embrace technology or were afraid they would lose influence.

The part about influence was something I experienced when I interviewed for a job at the BBC Enterprises and I was told I was selling myself short, a euphemism for you are a threat to our cosy setup – I was being hired as a desktop publishing guru with pedigree and I was to report someone whose background was from the toil and graft of setting type – I moved on, but it was tough lesson in 1991.

Brewing tea from steak

In any case, desktop publishing is no more the exclusive technical field it once was; everyone can churn out that most impressive work or the downright rottenly bad thing thinking they have done a work of commendable art.

Another sign came into view just last night, very big type at a restaurant I might have dared to patronise, SILOIN STEAK it read, someone had dropped a letter - Arggh! And I wonder how rare it would have become if a few more letters were dropped to allow for larger type whilst fitting the words to the width of the A2 size poster.

The tricks of desktop publishing, language, correctness and fitting all reaching for some consensus like if the STEAK lost the S and the K, the meat of the meal would have metamorphosed into Ceylon Tea – the rumpus of forgetting to spell check signs and the trouble that ensues.

Even Es are good

However, the economic situation in Spain was brought into stark relief when I noticed that name tag on one of the waiters in the hotel restaurant had lost a letter, he said it was due to the cuts – it was centred to create excite the animosity between the Catalans and the Castellans, the former preferring to drop the E on the end and the latter keeping it.

Which brings me to a memory of childhood – songs on the Children’s Television Workshop about how the E on the end can make all the difference between a tub and a tube; a scar and a scare and when driving a car, do it with care – English suddenly takes on a modicum of difficulty requiring everyone just make sure the letters are all in place, in the right order and check against a basic English dictionary.

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