(This article originally ran in February of this past year. Dan Blanchette is taking December off. New articles will appear in January 2019.)
Back in the day when computers went beyond having dot matrix printing, “desktop publishing” came into being. Apple, with its Laserwriter printer, and Aldus, with its PageMaker software for page layout, set the stage for the advent of an entirely new way to print on a small business scale. This was in the mid-to-late 80s, and almost without notice typesetting houses across the country were on the ropes.
Now, all of a sudden, we were the typesetters. Typesetting had its own set of rules: flush-left, flush-right and justified—of course. But things like hanging punctuation and drop caps? How do you set those? We had to learn. But step one…
PageMaker, and applications such as Microsoft Word, came equipped with a standard set of typefaces (known in computerese as “fonts”) to give documents a professional look. Usually the limited set numbered close to 12 or 15 fonts, and included roman sans-serif typefaces like Helvetica, maybe one italic, a few monospaced styles like Monaco or Geneva, maybe a calligraphic face such as Apple Chancery, and a few serif faces like Palatino or Times. Designers already knew things like kerning and proper letterspacing, but non-designers stepping into this new realm took things as they came out of the box.
And one of the obvious things everyone had to deal with was the limitations imposed by those packaged fonts because initially they were the only ones available. Soon fonts of all styles and weights became available, at a price.
Adobe came out with scalable PostScript fonts, which had to be downloaded and installed into the printers’ ROM (read-only memory). But that made everything work, and we were able to have the luxury of things like WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) menus of those fonts. All this is now ancient history, the way computers “talk” to printers to print exactly what you see on the monitor’s screen. But back then, it was a revelation.
The reason I bring all this up today is that there’s a ton of those desktop publishers still out there who haven’t yet moved beyond using the basic set of fonts that came with their computer’s software. Of course, designers know better. But this column is for everyone who may want to enrich his/her knowledge and scope of seeing design and how things work in a graphic manner. One of the tools of design is typography. And knowing when to use a specific font for a specific design feel is the beginning of good graphic design thinking.
I came across one such circumstance just a few weeks ago: I agreed to help out a relative with a choral publication, which had been done for years by a non-designer who no longer wanted to tackle it. Last year’s booklet was done entirely with that basic set of fonts from around 1994.
I once worked for a company in 2005 whose entire type collection amounted to maybe thirty fonts. It was all I could do to try to expand that.
Type as a tool in design makes for messages in copy to become expressive through the good and varied choices we have in fonts. We have all kinds of fonts—thousands of them—to choose from in making those messages come to life on the printed page and in websites. Just go on the web and search for them. There are many free just for the download.
If you do that, be careful, because some of those free fonts are not complete fonts, meaning that they do not contain all of the symbols and characters with diacritical marks that a standard font should have. But you may find, for your personal use, a few really good fonts that can make your documents come alive, be it for announcements for friends and family, anniversaries, wedding and birth announcements, Christmas cards, what have you.
The thing I’m trying to say, non-designers, is take the extra step and become aware of what’s out there in fonts.