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Design education – the delights and tribulations of typography

A key subject in the curriculum, and one that was to become particularly important to me, was typography. In the days before computers and desktop publishing, all text had to be set in type – either ‘cold type’, individual characters put together by hand to create words, sentences and lines of text, or set in ‘hot metal’ for newspapers – huge machines operated by keyboards to assemble tiny moulds from which were cast lines of type.

Part of our education in typography involved setting the text of our various projects by hand, using cold type. This was a tedious process for unpractised fingers. There was a technician in the type-room, a retired compositor whose fingers would fly across the trays of type, setting whole paragraphs in seconds, while we struggled to compose single lines. The astute (or most idle) amongst us soon learned that he could be persuaded to take pity on us and apply his deft fingers to our stalled projects. All that was required of us was to listen to his endless anecdotes and gems of knowledge, such as explaining that expressions like, ‘watching your “p”s and “q”s’, came from errors in putting type back in the trays.