Letraset and Mute Records

Letraset user, 1978

Letraset user, 1978

Some products are inextricably infused with nostalgia. Letraset is one of them. Sheets of film that would be rubbed with the end of a pencil to give way to beautifully formed letters—as long as you had a steady hand and the patience of a saint.

Letraset launched its dry-transfer lettering system in 1961, and graphic designers and architects embraced it with gusto. But so did amateur bedroom publishers, where Letraset became de rigueur for music fanzines and school magazines.

Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts and an early adopter of the technology, writes, “The range included all the standard popular fonts, but there was a sort of anarchic freedom to the wilder designs, something indelibly linked to the 1960s and ’70s, and now much used in retro branding.”

Mute Records first release in 1978 by The Normal, T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette

Mute Records first release in 1978 by The Normal, T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette. Image courtesy Discogs.

With their DIY philosophy, young punk rockers embraced Letraset for their gig posters and record sleeves. One interesting example is the 1978 Mute Records logo, its “walking man” plucked from a Letraset sheet of architectural symbols. Daniel Miller formed Mute Records as a vehicle to release his own single, “T.V.O.D.”/”Warm Leatherette,” under the moniker The Normal. The label, once home to Depeche Mode and Erasure, continues today—with Mr. Miller as its executive chairman—under the EMI banner.

Letraset history courtesy BBC News
Mute Records history courtesy Ibiza Voice

7 type sins

7 typography sinsTypographic Hell. It’s not a pleasant place to be. Some of us are headed there, and we’re making others suffer along the way. But fear not: Redemption is here. In the July Issue of HOW, designer and typography junkie Jim Godfrey tells of 34 Typographic sins (download all now) and how to free yourself from their grip. Preview 7 of these unsightly sins.

01 Two spaces between sentences.
Your keyboarding teacher not only taught you how to type, but also how to sin. Once upon a time, typewriters used a monospaced typeface. Since all of the letters were the same width, it became customary to add an extra space at the end of a sentence to call attention to a new sentence. This was never the practice of professional typesetters, who always used one space. (If you’re a doubting Thomas, go find an old book and see for yourself.) Since most typefaces on our computers vary in width, unsightly gaps appear if two spaces are used. Repent of this sin by using only one space.

02 Failing to align baselines of type in adjacent columns of body text.
Baselines of all columns of text on a page should align. This creates a pleasing margin of pure white space.

03 Failing to tuck periods/commas inside quotes marks.
Admittedly, this is an American convention; Europeans may do it differently, but let’s go on a typographic crusade across the pond. It will keep unsightly negative space from drawing unnecessary attention to the period or comma. By the way, punctuation such as question marks and exclamation points belong either inside the quote if they are part of the quote, or outside the quote if they are not part of it. Semicolons and colons always appear outside quotation marks.

Immoral: “I love type so much”, she confessed.
Chaste: “I love type so much,” she testified.

04 Failing to kern display type.
Nothing bellows “I’m an amateur!” quite like display type that hasn’t been properly kerned. Unseemly gaps can impede readability by distracting the reader. The kerning tables of some typefaces are great, but the human eye is divine. Adjust the spacing between letters and assuage your guilt.

05 Indenting a paragraph too far.
The standard indent for a paragraph is 1 em (the point size of the type), not half an inch. Most software has default tabs set for half an inch, creating a big hole in the text. To hide your sins, make penance by adjusting the tabs.

06 Using process colors for body text.
It’s harder to read, but more important, it’s hell to register on press. Instead, use 100% cyan or magenta (yellow? never) or spec a Pantone color. Your pressman will sing praises to your name.

07 Faux italic/oblique, bold and small cap type.
Thanks to word processors everywhere, we see type that’s hypocritical: It kind of looks italic (or bold) but it’s not. Cast out the hypocrites: Select the italic or bold version from the font menu, and if a typeface doesn’t have genuine small caps, don’t use them (the weight of the letterforms will be inconsistent and, consequently, unattractive).

Courtesy Jim Godfrey, HOW Design

No double-space after periods!

Compare single-and double-spacingThere is no need to type two spaces following a period. Why? Simply put, typefaces used by modern computers are proportionally spaced rather than monospaced. Double spacing after periods was acceptable for typewriters, because the spacing between each character was of equal space. However, today if you type two spaces following a period, or any sentence-ending punctuation, a wide gulf of visually unappealing negative space is created. It looks amateurish.

Since the time described in the book of Genesis, those raised on primary school typewriting classes have been well-drilled to type two spaces.When designing for clients, I am often delivered text that was composed in a word processor rife with extra spaces. It is no bother for me to search and replace these with a single space—it is ingrained into my design process. However, experienced typographers know, for elegant copy in published work, single spaces are mandatory.

7 great typefaces

Type selection can be a daunting process for designers. As a result, many have at the ready a few Teflon choices. What follows is a list of seven such typefaces (sorry, paring down to five was too difficult) that most designers will agree may never go out of fashion.

The subject of a feature film documentary, Helvetica makes the list despite its ubiquity. Originally created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Meidinger, over the years a staggering array of variations (condensed, compressed, extended, expanded, etc.) have been added to the family. Excellent for conveying information clearly and quickly.

A slab, or square serif typeface, originally created 1845 by English designer Robert Besley, Clarendon was one of the first faces to be officially registered. Used extensively by the German Empire during World War I and more recently adopted by the U.S. National Park Service for its signage. Acclaimed for its uniform, heavy lines and legibility, Clarendon has proved its worth to designers everywhere.

Relatively new on the scene (1988) and designed by Adrian Frutiger, the name Avenir means “future” in French. With nods to Futura and Erbar, the typeface is decidedly humanist—casual yet elegant. Excellent in business applications for both display and text.

Gill Sans
Inspired by his early apprenticeship to London Underground typeface designer Edward Johnston, author and designer Eric Gill created his first typeface around 1926. It was adopted heavily by the London and North Eastern Railway system, appearing on signage and in advertising throughout Britain. In 1997, the BBC adopted Gill Sans as its corporate typeface. Gill Sans is equally at home in print or on computer screens.

Franklin Gothic
Versatile when set for body text, billboards or newspaper headlines, American designer Morris Fuller Benton’s Franklin Gothic became hugely popular in North America and Great Britain thanks to its strikingly solid appearance. Franklin Gothic is the official typeface of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Known primarily for Apple Computer’s widespread usage of it, Myriad was designed in the early 1990s by Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly for Adobe. Clean and legible, yet playful with an easy-going sophistication, Myriad adapts to a variety of environments and concerns.

Futura + Futura Extra Bold sample
Extremely simplistic with a geometric form, Futura was designed by Paul Renner and commercially released in 1927. The distinctive extra bold face was added in 1955. No doubt Renner took cues for Futura’s design from the German Bauhaus school of art and architecture who employed similar type styles. Today, logos by Adidas and Absolut Vodka take inspiration from Futura, and a commemorative plaque left on the Moon in July 1969 features text set in Futura.

Did I leave out your favorite? Leave a comment and let me know why.

5 terrible typefaces

There are various reasons for qualifying a typeface as terrible for use in professional design. Some are overused, illegible, ugly, excessively cute, or a combination thereof. The following are the five worst, painstakingly ranked (and sure to be avoided) by yours truly.

A monospaced slab-serifed typeface designed in 1955 and originally intended for electric typewriters, whenever I see Courier used in print, I imagine the designer or printer failed to provide the proper font and Courier was its replacement by default. Handy only for computer coders who need columns of aligned text.

Monotype Corsiva
The de facto choice when a lazy designer/printer wishes to add some “elegance” to a business card or invitation. Illegible and clunky. Must resist.

Brush Script
Designed in 1942 and it looks it. Illegible. Vulgar. For added fun, try using it in all caps.

Since the 1990s, Papyrus has been made available to just about every computer in the world. And its use has exploded. I am sure poor Papyrus designer Chris Costello never intended text to be set at 12 point size! Film director James Cameron damned the torpedoes by famously using a variation of the typeface for his Avatar movie poster. Unfortunate.

Comic Sans
The “best worst” typeface ever, and a product of Microsoft. This casual and “cute” typeface designed by Vincent Connare in 1995 is the ultimate in amateurishness. There is even a movement to ban Comic Sans. Avoid using it, even if designing a comic!

Runners up were Curlz MT, Lazybones, Times New Roman, and Arial. Did I leave out your favorite? Leave a comment and let me know why.