The first whiffs of new technology were blowing through the world of typographic design. Display fonts were the typefaces that were available in large sizes to create headlines in designs and advertisements – such faces as Grotesque No.9, Gill Sans Ultra or Clarendon. In general the choice from typesetters was limited, and those available in our small college type room even more restricted. They also presented more issues with kerning: the inter-character spacing between letters. As these were printed from individual pieces of ‘cold-type’, there was a physical limitation on how close these could be set. Spacing between characters was always a compromise, and large gaps between, for example a capital ‘X’ and ‘Y’, while just about acceptable at small sizes, looked awful in large headlines. In addition there was a trend towards really tightly kerned typefaces, almost, and in some cases actually touching. Previously, the only solution had been to obtain a proof of the type, cut up the characters with a scalpel and paste them together to use as artwork for litho printing or to have a block made. This dealt with the kerning problems but not the paucity of available typefaces.
One solution came in the form of Letraset, pressure sensitive lettering. These sheets of characters had a light adhesive on the reverse and could be rubbed down individually to create artwork for headlines. There was a wide and growing range of fonts by the late sixties and at 7/6 a sheet were just within student budgets. Watching the press however, we began to notice unusual and decorative fonts appearing. Many of these had antique or Art Nouveau flavours that were in contrast to the austere sans-serif faces of the Swiss school and fitted the more eclectic hippy style that young designers were adopting. In Manchester we were puzzled as to where these fonts were coming from. This underlined the gap between what we and London-based designers were exposed to. While on a short work placement I discovered the source of these typefaces. On a desk was an A4 book with page after page of these exotic fonts – it was the T. J. Lyons collection and was available through the phototypesetting house, Conway’s in London’s West End.
Photosetting was a relatively new technology stimulated by the move from letterpress (printing with movable type and blocks which were coated with ink) to litho printing which depended upon a photographic image being transferred onto a flat printing plate. A strip of film with the characters in negative was placed in a giant photographic enlarger and then exposed, letter for letter on sensitised paper to create complete lines or blocks of text. Letter-spacing was infinitely variable. Conway’s were one of the pioneers of the commercial exploitation of the technique with Stan Conway recognising the appetite of the design and advertising industry for these exotic fonts.
For students, ordering photoset headlines was generally out of the question. It was too costly and few of our projects required artwork quality typesetting. Most of our projects were taken to the standard of mock-ups of printed jobs. The usual student techniques were either to use Letraset, or trace the lettering from type books, pages with complete alphabets supplied by typesetting houses. My work placement would not let me have their copy of the Lyons Collection type catalogue, but agreed to my photostatting the pages. For a while I was the envy of the other students as I created designs populated with decorative headlines employing such fonts as Davida, Bookman Swash, Ringlet, Aldine and Bank Gothic.