When Type Was Dry
Those of a certain age. My age and a few before and a bunch after were devotees of dry transfer lettering/type as well as benday, continuous line and other screens, backgrounds and patterns. Letraset was the most well-know producer, but there were others that called it “press-down” or “rub-down” type. My fave brand was Normatype (simply because it was easier to get at the time). But Letraset was always nearby in the tray-drawers they provided for avid users.
Four years in the making, Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution, edited by Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook of Unit Editions, is a gem. It’s the first comprehensive history of Letraset, the rubdown lettering system “that revolutionized typographic expression.” I asked Shaughnessy what was at the bottom and top of that revolution.
Letraset. Why a book on Letraset?As someone once said, why a duck? Tony Brook, my publishing partner, and I had Letraset on a long list of subjects we thought might make a book. We also noticed that one or two influential designers like Michael C Place and Erik Brandt were talking about Letraset in interviews—and even using some of the classic Letraset typefaces in their work. We also discovered that a few of the giants of mid-century graphic design—Herb Lubalin, Armin Hoffman and Roger Excoffon—had been responsible for choosing typefaces for the upmarket Letragraphica range in the 1970s. By chance, we were approached by Colin Brignall and Dave Farey, two of the key figures of the Letraset studio in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. They had a wonderful collection of Letraset artifacts—catalogs, flyers and even some of the original drawings for key typefaces. So when we put all that together, we realized we had a book.
Okay, it meant a lot to you and me and a generation who were introduced to type and typography through dry transfer. But didn’t you really want a Typositor or Addressograph machine instead? Letraset was usually a lifesaver. It rescued me many times, mostly late at night when typesetters were closed and I needed to apply urgent surgery to some text. I can’t say I loved using it—I wasn’t good at applying it. I knew people who used it with precision—but I was a messy user. So, yes, I’d mostly prefer to use phototypesetting—but sometimes a sheet of dried-out, crumbling Letraset, always with most of the vowels missing, was my only option. And my salvation.
What was your favorite Lettraset face? One of the big discoveries we made through doing this book was that the quality of Letraset letterforms was top notch. Dan Rhatigan, a Letraset fan and collector, and someone we interviewed for the book, says that the Letraset cut of Helvetica is one of the best in existence. And I think it’s true of most of the Letraset renderings of classic typefaces—the quality is usually excellent. My own taste is for the more exotic Letragraphica range. I like Block Up (designed by Sally Ann Grover), Sinaloa (by Rosmarie Tissi) and Quicksilver (Dean Morris). I have a soft spot for the ultra-kitsch face Davida Bold (Louis Minott). In the U.K. in the 1970s it was impossible to pass a hairdressing salon without seeing Davida on the fascia.
What was the best Letraset experience you had? Oddly for me, it was the catalogs. Looking back at the catalogs from the ’60s and ’70s, I regard them as brilliant examples of information design. And as a non-art school trained designer, I learned a lot about typography from these ring-bound volumes. Back then, for instance, I didn’t know that typefaces were designed by actual people. I thought they just appeared! But the designers were often listed next to the type specimens.
And the worst? Running out of letters late at night and having to make new letters out of existing letters—Frankenstein typography!
What did Lettraset do for your design that Phototype did not? Typesetting was very expensive—especially corrections, and sometimes it was cheaper to buy a couple of sheets of Letraset and do my own typesetting. Some key typefaces were only available from Letraset. And I also liked controlling and experimenting with the spacing and overlapping of letters and words—things that were often done badly by phototypesetters who didn’t always follow instructions, or objected to on grounds of typographic protocols.
I still have a stack of half empty sheets. What about you? The day the first Apple Macintosh came into the studio—a wardrobe-sized monitor with a mono screen—all the Letraset sheets (used and unused) were dumped. I didn’t shed a tear then, but now I wish I’d kept them—and the catalogs.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →