The House That Burns Built

Posted inArticle
Thumbnail for The House That Burns Built

Editor’s Note: This article was originally featured in the marvelous February 2015 issue of Print Magazine, which explores the history and evolution of typography.


Type Visionary Aaron Burns didn’t like the way the typographic world worked.So, he created his own.

by Allan Haley

When Aaron Burns was a young design student, he mailed off a letter to American Type Founders company requesting information on their typefaces. In truth, he didn’t expect to receive much back from the conglomerate, as it would be years before he would be able to purchase or use type professionally.

How wrong he was! Surprisingly soon, a mail carrier delivered a parcel to Burns’ front door containing over five pounds of specimen sheets, typeface release announcements, historical information and other educational materials—accompanied by a personal letter from ATF’s vice president of sales. The note offered Burns encouragement in his studies, and additional literature for the asking.

Burns never forgot that gesture of kindness, enthusiasm and support. He told the story countless times in the course of his 40-year career as a typographic entrepreneur. In a sense, ATF’s act of unexpected generosity was a harbinger of Burns’ life in type.

Like many young men of his generation, Burns’ education was interrupted by his military service in World War II. He studied at the Newark Evening School of Fine and Industrial Arts before entering the U.S. Army, and completed his education after the war, as an apprentice graphic designer in New York City. Before long, in 1952 he was offered a post as director of design and typography at the Composing Room, an important typesetting house in the city. Burns was on his typographic way.

At various points a businessman, salesman and typographer, Burns was foremost an educator and champion of the typographic arts. This narrative tells the tale of only a few examples of Burns’ advocacy for both the local and the global design community. Ultimately, all of Burns’ contributions were directed toward type designers and those who used their products.


Aaron Burns and Herb Lubalin’s specimen booklets and letter announcing Lubalin, Burns & Co. Limited to fewer than 100 copies.


For the 500 years since Gutenberg thought up the idea of the adjustable mold, the process of making fonts remained complicated, costly and time-consuming. For five centuries, type foundries specialized in making and selling metal and wood fonts; and for the last 100 or so years, they also made matrices for line-casting machines like the Linotype and Monotype. Foundries were manufacturing companies made up of type designers, letter-drawing technicians, pantograph operators, engineers, factory workers, sales staff—and the complex machines required to cut or cast type. In the 1960s, with the advent of phototypesetting, fonts became much easier and much less expensive to produce. In tandem, type piracy became equally convenient.

The pirating of typefaces had been a reality since Gutenberg imitated the work of scribes, but the practice had been somewhat contained by the difficulty of producing wood and metal fonts. In contrast, all that was required to duplicate a phototype font was a camera and a little technical skill. Because font manufacturers refused to license their designs to other companies, typeface pirating flourished.

In the 20th century, most typeface designers, especially those who worked independently, received their compensation in the form of royalties. Each time a font of one of their designs was sold, a portion of the revenues would come back to them. This was an equitable system for generations of typeface designers—until type designs could be copied and made into fonts quickly and easily through photographic means. It did not take long for type designers to realize what was happening, and they began to seek other ways to earn a living. Freelance designers simply stopped creating typefaces for typesetting equipment manufacturers. For several years, no new typefaces appeared from the likes of Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger.

Burns quickly realized the danger of letting a creative community cease to create new products. He also knew that one person acting alone could not reverse the trend. It would require the help and financial support that only large and successful companies could provide.

Burns’ first attempts at encouraging new type designs came about through the aid of Visual Graphics Corporation. In the ’60s, he conceived and managed the first of two typeface design competitions for VGC, which manufactured production cameras and display typesetting equipment. VGC’s goal was to gain exposure for its products and to acquire a few new designs for its type library. Burns’ goal, in his role as marketing consultant to VGC, was the same, but his personal motivation was to reignite the creative spark within the type design community. He hoped the competition would encourage designers to once again create new type styles.

The endeavor succeeded beyond Burns’ greatest hopes. VGC received thousands of design submissions, many of them good— and a few of them exceptional. The winning typefaces were added to the VGC type library and went on to become some of the most popular designs the company offered. A second competition was held three years later, in 1967. It was just as successful as the first—and yielded easily as many popular designs.

Thus, Burns achieved both his goals: Type designers and lettering artists began to create new designs, and were assured fair compensation for them. At VGC, he pioneered the concept of once again paying meaningful fees and royalties for typeface designs.

Burns championed those who drew letters, and those who used type for a living. He was also a dreamer. The organizations he founded over the years and the events he produced were manifestations of his aspiration to lay a foundation, to make something that was his. Yet, most of his early undertakings turned out to be short-lived, more fantasy than reality. The International Center for the Typographic Arts, which he had created in 1960 with Swiss typographer Emil Ruder, closed its doors before long, and it became increasingly difficult to fill seats in the type conferences Burns organized.


Aaron Burns, Hermann Zapf and Ed Rondthaler shortly after ITC was formed.


ITC typeface specimen booklets. Early books were 6-by-12 inches, narrow format; beginning in 1987, the booklets were the more conventional 8.5-by-11 inch size.


In the 1960s, Burns decided to start a business dedicated to the typographic arts.

His first endeavor, Aaron Burns & Co., was actually a division of one of New York’s then-largest and most successful typesetting houses, Rapid Typographers. Work sent to Aaron Burns & Co. received special attention under the watchful typographic eye of Burns himself—and jobs were billed at a premium for the privilege. But while Aaron Burns & Co. was successful, Burns still longed to run his own truly independent company.

In 1970, Burns joined forces with Herb Lubalin—for whom he had briefly worked earlier in his career—to sell typesetting, lettering and typographic design services to New York advertising agencies and design studios. Their company, Lubalin, Burns & Co., was billed as “the first Typo-Graphics agency.” Lubalin, Burns & Co. also offered custom lettering services and typesetting in exclusive typeface designs created by Lubalin and his staff. Work poured into the company.

Burns—the consummate promoter—figured that if his exclusive typesetting company could be successful in New York, it would be equally so in other large cities. His idea was to identify an “affiliate” of Lubalin, Burns & Co. in each American city large enough to support a typesetting community. The affiliate would be an existing typesetting house, to be provided with an ongoing stream of new and exclusive typeface designs. The typesetting house would then pay a fixed monthly fee for the fonts—and for the association with Burns and Lubalin. Only one obstacle stood in the way of this great idea: Fonts were proprietary to each manufacturer’s typesetting machines, and Burns and Lubalin did not have the capabilities to make fonts.

In an attempt to provide a solution to the dilemma, Burns approached his good friend Mike Parker, then-director of typographic development at Linotype. At the time, Linotype was one of the major providers of typesetting machines and fonts to typesetting companies servicing the advertising and graphic design markets. Burns’ pitch to Parker was that Linotype manufacture fonts of his and Lubalin’s exclusive typefaces and provide them to one Linotype typesetting shop in each major American city.

Parker hated the idea. He wisely saw that if Linotype provided exclusive fonts to just one client in a city, every other Linotype customer would be justifiably more than a little upset. Parker counseled, instead, that Burns take his idea to the next step. “Why not license your designs to every manufacturer of phototypesetting equipment,” he suggested, “and have them pay you a royalty on every font they sell that has one of your designs?”

The famous International Typeface Corporation would be born out of this conversation—but Burns and Lubalin still faced the problem of not being able to manufacture fonts. While Lubalin and his studio and staff of lettering artists in New York City could provide new typeface designs, these needed to be supplied to font manufacturers in a form that they could use to produce new fonts. Simple renderings of the alphabet would not do. ITC’s designs could not be productized into fonts unless the process was close to seamless. ITC would have to provide production drawings of sufficient quality, complete with detailed metrics, to ensure that its designs would become part of a product offering.


Part of a six-page 1970 ad in Print magazine announcing Lubalin, Burns & Co., the ITC and the typeface Avant Garde.


Ed Rondthaler was a natural-born engineer and tinkerer, and a pioneer in phototypesetting technology. In 1936, he and a colleague had invented the Rutherford photolettering machine, one of the earliest photographic typesetting devices. The machine, however, was an amalgamation of gears, cams, solenoids—and problems. At $5,000 (in 1936), it was also very expensive. And it was not a financial success.

But Rondthaler was a determined optimist and a savvy businessman. If he could not sell the Rutherford photolettering machine, he would use it to make money in a different way. According to him, “Slowly it began to dawn on me that perhaps the whole future of photolettering would be better served if, instead of trying to sell the machines to reluctant buyers, I set up a first-class service to sell what the machine produced.” And thus Photo-Lettering Inc. was formed.

By the 1960s, Photo-Lettering Inc. was the biggest, most important and most influential display typesetting service in North America. And because Rondthaler’s Rutherford machine required phototype fonts, he knew how to make them.

The New York typographic community was small, and Burns and Rondthaler were, at times, head-to- head competitors; Burns was a salesman for typesetting services, and Rondthaler the owner of a competing typesetting house. The gap was further widened because Rondthaler barely tolerated salespeople. To him, they were little more than a necessary evil. Yet Burns and Rondthaler were both businessmen, and understood that together they might make a very successful little company.

ITC was officially founded with Burns as president, visionary and front man. Lubalin’s studio provided design services, most notably many of the new typefaces for the fledgling firm. Rondthaler was responsible for turning lettering artists’ renderings into something that manufacturers of typesetting equipment could use to make fonts. Within three years, virtually every manufacturer of phototypesetting equipment was offering ITC fonts to their customers.


Three of six booklets for a special marketing package published in 1983. The package was aimed at companies like IBM and Xerox, and extolled the value of typographic fonts over traditional monospaced “typewriter” designs. By 1985, Adobe, IBM and Xerox had contractual relationships with ITC to license its typefaces.


While ITC released some terrific typefaces in its early years, this was not the only reason the company thrived. ITC became the epicenter of typographic fashion because its typefaces pr
ovided cachet and credibility, and Burns himself provided marketing savvy.

With phototypesetting technology came a bevy of companies that manufactured the new typesetting machines—and the fonts to go with them. One of the hurdles these new companies faced was typeface availability. To compete with the stalwarts like Linotype and Monotype, the companies needed to be able to offer the important faces of the day—such as the Helvetica,

Three of six booklets for a special marketing package published in 1983. The package was aimed at companies like IBM and Xerox, and extolled the value of typographic fonts over traditional monospaced “typewriter” designs. By 1985, Adobe, IBM and Xerox had contractual relationships with ITC to license its typefaces.

Times New Roman and Palatino families, to name a few. But neither Linotype, Monotype, nor any of the other manufacturers of traditional typesetting equipment were about to license the rights to their most important typefaces to the competition. The ultimate result was that typographic newcomers made their own versions of the required typefaces, changing the names to avoid trademark issues. For the most part, their designs were poor substitutes for the originals. While they could offer “replacements,” they were still at a disadvantage. Again, ITC did not make typesetting machines, and would provide its designs to any company that agreed to the terms of its license agreement. The licensee in turn paid ITC a royalty on fonts sold. The “upstarts” may not have been able to offer true Helvetica or Times New Roman fonts, but they could offer ITC Avant Garde Gothic, ITC Souvenir and all their other popular faces. The result was instant credibility.

In an era before social media, persona marketing and messaging platforms, Burns was a guerilla marketing genius. He understood that fonts and typefaces themselves were not the end product designers were looking for. He also knew that the typesetting houses that purchased fonts were not the customers who drove sales. The product was typographic design, and the customers who generated font sales were graphic designers. The typesetting houses were merely a conduit between the providers of fonts and the designers ordering proofs set with them.

During ITC’s early years, the industry’s standard approach to marketing products and services to the graphic design community consisted of an intensive, targeted advertising campaign supported by a dedicated sales force. With less than a dozen employees, ITC was too small to take this approach. To further complicate things, ITC was not selling directly to end users, or even creating a tangible product.

Burns and Lubalin decided to bypass the typographic services and font providers and, instead, reach out directly to graphic designers. They had an inspired idea to achieve this goal: Publish a magazine that would appeal to the graphic design community. Their concept was to create a publication that spoke authoritatively, innovatively and irresistibly about type, typography and the graphic arts.

By 1973, a man had landed on the moon, Paul McCartney had quit the Beatles and ITC had begun to publish U&lc: The International Journal of Typographics. Issued quarterly and designed by Lubalin, U&lc found an instant audience of graphic designers eager to see—and emulate—Lubalin’s work. U&lc showcased ITC typefaces in every article, proving that they could be as enjoyable to look at as they were to read. There were no sales pitches—just a few pages set aside for new typeface announcements. Known as “What’s New From ITC,” these announcements profiled ITC releases and their designers. U&lc soon developed a cult-like following of readers who treasured, reread many times over, and ultimately collected the news- print magazine.

Over the years, the editors of U&lc continued to add new ongoing features to the editorial mix: the For Your (Typographic) Information series, the Tech Talk column and the Typographic Milestones articles. In addition to presenting ITC designs and reporting typographic news of the day, U&lc became a showcase for illustrators, photographers and calligraphers. Innovatively, the magazine did not limit itself to photo or digital type—its pages were filled with typography set in antique metal and wood type. U&lc became such an important marketplace for new typefaces that the companies that licensed ITC’s designs also placed their own typeface announcements in the magazine.


Burns lived a life of typography. He organized lectures at the New York Type Directors Club that heightened awareness of typographic design and brought attention to the work of typographic innovators around the world. He planned conferences and fostered organizations dedicated to the typographic arts and exploring the future of the typographic community. He taught at Pratt Institute and wrote extensively about type and typographic design.

Burns’ overall vision was to carry on the tradition of the company that sent him a box so long ago: to provide typefaces to an eager community that would use them to create beautiful, powerful and memorable graphic communication. Many of ITC’s first typefaces were, in fact, revivals of ATF designs. Typefaces like the ITC Bookman, ITC Franklin Gothic, ITC Century and ITC Garamond families became the “go-to” versions of the earlier designs.

Unfortunately, this was all to change when Burns became ill in the late 1980s. He stepped down from the day-to-day running of ITC, and passed away in 1991. ITC’s business is currently owned by Monotype. Today, new typefaces continue to be added to the ITC Library and the legacy of Burns lives on in a typographic community that celebrates the work of—and champions the rights of—typeface designers everywhere.