Listening to Type: Making Language Visible


Listening to Type: Making
Language Visible

By Alex W. White
Allworth Press, 272 pages, $29.99

We have seen the evolution of type from being professionally prepared and proofread to just another responsibility among many of the modern design professional. From 1450 through the early years of the 19th century, the printer was the typesetter and, quite often, the type designer as well. From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, the printer bought type from a foundry, a specialist who frequently developed his own technology for setting the characters. He thereby cornered the market on his particular typefaces, so if a printer wanted an additional size or weight or posture of type in a family, there was only the one place to get it.

As the 20th century progressed, offset lithography was improved to allow a printing plate to be made from a photographic negative. Because this didn’t require pieces of wood and metal to be organized on a wooden chase, offset printing enabled a great deal more flexibility in the placement of design elements. Some printers found they enjoyed and were skilled at the organization of materials in readiness for this new kind of reproduction. They evolved into “graphic designers,” a term that was invented in 1922 by William Addison Dwiggins. These new graphic designers began expanding the possibilities of printing and technology. Letterforms and their spacing became much more plastic: letterforms and type became flexible and permutable.

In the mid-1980s, the computer became a companion in designers’ offices. Throughout the 1990s, the definition of designer expanded to add the responsibilities of typesetter, proofreader, and photo retoucher. The computer has not yet proved to be our labor-saving device. But it also profoundly affected designers’ ability to make their own letterforms, typefaces, and fonts, which in a way takes us full circle back to the first few hundred years of printing.

The greatest recent technical changes in type have taken place in the online sphere. These changes happen so quickly it is unwise to put them in a book because the information becomes out of date almost immediately.

Typography cannot be faked. It is either clear, interpretive of the content, and appropriate to its message, or it is a random treatment that only superficially looks daring and current. I am certain there is no Photoshop filter for instant typographic excellence. Typography can only be mastered one hard lesson at a time. It is not for every designer because it requires a love for language and a gift for details. But there are a double handful of common sense guidelines that will immediately improve everyone’s use of type. I have tried to put them all in this book.

— Alex W. White

Excerpted with permission from Listening to Type: Making Language Visible by Alex W. White. Copyright 2016, Allworth Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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