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The Anatomy of Printing

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

All printing, like Gaul, is divided into three parts: design, composition, and presswork. For five hundred years these principal ingredients have stood, defying successive generations to make a contribution startlingly new or revolutionary. To be sure, new surfaces have been employed, through the invention, and later the adaptation, of engraving and lithography. Type has come to be cut and cast mechanically, and presses have become larger and faster. But despite all this, there has been no signal contribution save speed. It must be remembered that printing began its life as an imitative process. Its purpose was to make books a commercial possibility by stepping up the production that hand copyists could achieve.

It was not the invention of printing which was important, it was the invention of movable type, Long before the time of Gutenberg, printing had been done from relief surfaces. There had been block books in which text and illustrations were cut on wood blocks. But it was the invention of movable type which made printing practicable. Scholars may argue about the man who first conceived the idea and put it into practice, but the question is an academic one and purely sentimental. The time was ripe, and if one had not done it, then another would have.

Since printed books were to take the place of their handwritten ancestors, it was natural that type derived its form from the most popular calligraphic hands. Scribes did not take to the machine that was to replace them with any greater kindliness than did the weavers, centuries later, when they, in their turn, were outmoded. In Paris the cal-ligraphers were so strong that they were able to stave off the introduction of the printing press for many years.

It may be said that there have been two major influences on type design—calligraphy and engraving (that is, if we exclude the T square and the compass, which have served to build modern constructed alphabets). Of these two influences, by far the stronger has been calligraphy, through which all the written forms have been tapped as they pass back to the original sources, notably the inscriptional Roman capitals.

Perhaps one may conclude that it is more by accident than by intention that we use the Roman alphabet today. The simple fact that Latin gives the Roman letter a finer setting is one proof. England was extremely slow in undertaking its own typefounding, and even in the middle of the eighteenth century, typecutters like Caslon borrowed excessively from popular Dutch designs of the Roman alphabet. Remember that expediency caused the y to be used as the “thorn” letter, thus setting in motion the widespread misreading of ye, as used on Ye Eat Shoppe, instead of the. However, despite the probability that the English language could be made to look finer with letter forms other than Roman, only a fool would undertake a change, for the continuity of centuries of reading habit is the strongest force in legibility.

To understand the Roman or any other alphabet it is necessary to have, or to assume, an attitude, and thus to have a basis for viewing the whole. The outstanding characteristic of Roman capitals, which are the letter sources for us, is their foundation in geometric forms. The circle and the square or cross may be taken as the principal features. These two symbols, which are old and have meant many things to many people, have always represented continuity and stability. Diagonal lines give energy and variety to the alphabet. Add to this the realization that Roman achieved its form as an incised letter, and you have the clue to its formality.

As symbols, the letters can be pure geometric forms: the O, a circle; the S, reversed semicircles; the A, an open triangle and crossbar; and so on. Regardless of the final weight, style, or shape of the capitals, they are finer and more decorative if the pure symbol may be found within them, serving as the skeleton of their construction.

In the time of Charlemagne, calligraphers had developed the Carolingian miniscule, which might be called the ancestor of our lower-case letters. Letter forms were constantly being adapted to the quill, and it is obvious that shapes of great formality, such as the capitals, would not lend themselves to being rapidly written with a chisel-shaped nib. Smaller straights and curves could be made in rhythmic strokes. Ligatures which would allow the quill to move from one letter to another without being lifted would remove one operation, and at the same time act as an aid in spacing. The miniscule, then, developed out of all these factors. This adaptation may be summed up in a simple way, thus:


The italic as we know it today was derived from the Italian semi-formal hand, the final answer to a more rapidly written letter. Speed was accomplished by giving a slight slant to the letters, and by a degree of standardization of widths which made spacing easier by giving it virtually a mechanical basis. The full possibilities of an italic for general text use have not to this day been properly explored.

At the outset of this article, it was stated that printing was made practicable through the invention of movable type. It might be well, therefore, to examine the method of making type in the simplest and most direct way, which is by hand. Although type has often sought to imitate lettering or calligraphy, it can in no sense be confused with either. Typecutting is in essence a sculptural process, and the desired letter-form is attained by cutting away rather than by building up.

To help explain the process, a diagram is used here for reference, We start with a square bar of steel about two inches long, finished at the end so that its surface is smooth and at right angles to the sides. This is the stock for the final type punch (1). It is customary to finish off the reverse end in such a way that the force, when the punch is struck, will pass directly through its center. One side is marked, usually with a filed line, to denote the bottom of the letter, and compares to the nick in a piece of type.

Using the letter A as an example, the next step is to prepare a smaller punch which may be hardened and struck into the bar of steel, forming the inner depression, or counter, of the letter. Even this smaller punch, called the counter-punch, is made in two stages, as there must be a trenchlike depression in it which will allow the metal to remain standing for the cross-bar of the A. A small wedge-shaped punch, driven into the counter-punch, provides such a depression (2). Next, a triangular shape is filed (3); as it is in process it may be tested from time to time in a block of lead. When a satisfactory shape is achieved, the counter-punch is hardened and struck into the two inch steel bar (4).

The metal that is thrown up in this process must be planed down. The final stage is the filing of a rim around the counter, and that rim is the letter A (5).

The punch is proved by being held in a flame, which allows a deposit of lampblack to form; this serves as ink in making an impression. On completion, the punch is hardened and struck into copper, thus making the mold from which the type will be cast.

This process has been described because it best illustrates the division between the drawn letter and the cut letter. Later punch-cutters turned to the use of engraving tools, digging out the metal around the image of the letter, and today the designs are usually cut by pantographs working from large pattern drawings. But in spite of modern refinements, the counter-punching method, in the hands of an able designer, will never be surpassed; it is the simplest and best solution of the problem.

The process of fitting is almost as delicate as the actual designing of the letter. It is in this phase of founding that the raised casting of the letter is related to the type body; thus normal spacing is determined. There has been an increasing tendency to take pride in extremely close fitting, but this is not in the best tradition. There is a fine dividing line between letters which stand separately on the page and letters which lose their identity through fusing. At such a dividing line, the proper spacing is to be found. If the white space within a given letter is greater than that between that character and the succeeding one, dark passages will appear in the mass, and it will be difficult to identify particular symbols.


These, then, are the principal tools of the typographer— an alphabet cast as individual letters in lead. Although the typefounder provides a normal spacing for the letters by the manner in which he places them on the type-bodies, letter spacing may always be increased, and to some degree it may be decreased by shaving the sides of the body. The width of the letter itself, however, is fixed. Though this last statement seems obvious enough, it is nevertheless true that often there seems to be a fiendish desire on the part of those specifying type to put in more characters to the line than is physically possible.

Naturally, a typographer should study and should try to understand all the work of the past that he can obtain. His attitude should not be worshipful; rather it should be that of a man who tries to save himself the time required to re-invent all that is his proper heritage. Such study teaches one the difference between copying a period like the Renaissance and knowing how to use it. Experience and method are great and useful factors, but they must never become the means by which a given problem is solved. The typographer must beware of preconceived notions, and a designer whose taste leads him to specialize in gray or effeminate typography should make a point of trying to solve successfully an arrangement of brutal blacks. In that solution he will better understand his own natural tendencies.





There are two methods by which the color, or value, of the page may be controlled: first, in the weight of the type chosen; and second, in the amount of line spacing which is used. Naturally, the greater the space between the lines, the grayer the general appearance of the page. As line spacing is increased, a change takes place in the pattern of the page. The decorative quality inherent in the letter forms shows up well as a solid mass. Such a page becomes an all-over texture of rich variety and movement, as shown in the illustration above. If we increase the space between the lines, the horizontals are emphasized and become the basis of the pattern:

live with your century/ but do not be its creature, give to your contempora-ries that which they need/ not that which they praise

The length of a line is determined by prescribed factors, such as a given page size or the character of the text which is to be set. Lacking such stipulations, the designer must decide the length of the line himself, basing his decision on legibility and design. In every type size, there is a point beyond which the eye finds it difficult to pick up the following line without the aid of extreme line spacing. There are times, of course, when extra long lines may be justified as pure decoration. But in most book work, where the type sizes are between 10 and 14 point (roughly one-sixth of an inch), it is seldom that a line of more than four inches is used.

It is in lines that are short for the type size used that a great problem of spacing arises, since so few words may be put on a single line. In such cases, if a large-sized letter must be employed, the use of lines of uneven length is the only way to achieve good results.

The principal problems of typography can usually be put in the category of space division. One begins with the proper space relationship of the letters, then the words, the lines, and last of all, the relationship of the mass of lines to the page on which it is printed. The type designer considers space in the above-mentioned order; the typographer, however, begins with the relationship of the mass to the page, and moves downward towards refinement through attention to the smaller elements.

The chief concern in dividing space is to give the elements variety, and at the same time establish a relationship which will make for unity. Let us take for example a simple title page for a book. In the order of their importance, there are the title, the author, and the publisher. These three units may be forced into one, and set as a solid block, with or without the use of capitals or italics for accent. Or a natural, symmetrical page may be designed with the title at the top, the publisher’s name at the bottom, and the author’s name either above or below the center, thus dividing the whole into two unequal, but well proportioned, space units. Again, the three elements may be arranged asymmetrically, perhaps in such a way that a vertical is suggested by the beginnings and endings of the type lines falling along a common controlling measure. It is to be noted that a symmetrical arrangement, or an asymmetrical one, is best when it is kept pure in its intention; a mixture of the two robs the page of its unity.

Imposition is the relation of the type mass to the shape of the page. Usually, this means the placing of one rectangle on another. The optical center of a page is, of course, above the actual center, and for this reason the type is placed high enough to avoid the unhappy appearance of sliding off* Custom has established the use of margins that increase in size, starting from the inside, or gutter, and moving up, out, and down. The two facing inside margins may be considered in this scheme to equal either of the outside ones. The solution, however, is not always to be arrived at so simply and systematically. In the end it is the judgment of the designer that must establish these spaces for each particular problem.

Where decorations are used, the typographer has an extra card to play for variety. He may use them to set up another space division, suggesting vertical movements against the horizontals of the lines of type. Or he may use them to introduce accents of color if the designs contain areas that will appear darker than the gray mass of type. This does not mean that decorations will necessarily improve the appearance of a printed page. To say that they perform their function properly in half the trials would be a high estimate. Rudolf Koch once said that it is easier to design an alphabet than to conceive a fine decoration to go with it.

It might be well to emphasize that all typography tends to reflect the period in which it is done. If such periods as the Gothic, Renaissance, or Baroque are studied, it will be found that art manifestations were not confined to any one form of expression. One form might lag behind or another might seem to anticipate the period, but it is safe to assume that even so-called revolutionary movements are, in their best expressions, highly derivative. They are natural eruptions of tradition coupled with change.

During the Baroque period an anonymous craftsman could produce decoration which would come from the ablest designers of today only as a tour de force. Often the decorative sense had its roots in a popular or folk art which served as a rich and fruitful source, ever refreshing itself. Today the so-called modern school represents itself as functional and in its zeal shears away all ornament. This is more probably the result of a lack of ornamental instinct rather than the discovery of any lasting virtue in oversimplification. Functionalism is not new; it has been an integral part of printing from the very beginning. Nothing could be less functional, and at the same time more dull, than the chromium lines used as decorations on cameras, dashboards, and dozens of other products that have been decorated by stylists and industrial designers. The fault can often be laid at the door of self-styled experts, who, with little knowledge and less art, know nothing more than the prigging of superficial effects.


Just as type was first influenced by calligraphy, when engraving became popular the elegance and delicacy of line characteristic of that medium in turn proved to be an influence. Bodoni is an example of such a type, an alphabet with wiry serifs and strong contrasts of thick and thin strokes. It is a “modern” letter as differentiated from an “old style” such as Caslon:

Giambattista Bodoni of Parma William Gaslon of London

By the time types began to be cut mechanically with pan-tographic engravers, contemporary influences of free design were lacking, so the work of old masters was resurrected and recut. But as the days of the handpress and dampened paper were past, there was no longer a tendency to “heavy up” through impression. In the process of recutting, the virtue of a light face was misinterpreted and the result is a lack of type alphabets of strong color, except for those which are obviously bold.

Out of the welter of influences on contemporary letter design (and not the least is the demand for display types by advertisers), there has come the Futura of Paul Renner. In principle it has been done before—the constructed sansserif—and at many different times. It remained, however, for Renner to give such an alphabet a classic background and significance, and to produce what might be called the constructed skeleton of an inscriptional Roman. But in spite of the fine proportions of Futura and the reasonableness of its conception, it is not as legible in mass as any number of poorer designs. Reading habit, which is the very cornerstone of legibility, is the reason for its failure. The familiar form is always more readily recognized, first as an individual letter, then as a word-picture, and last as phrase or sentence groups.

Typographic design and actual composition are so closely bound together that it is only through the presence of the non-craftsman designer that the division is made apparent. A layout is as unfinished as an architect’s plan. Only when the type is set and proved, or the building constructed, do such plans become a reality. When the typographic designer and the compositor are one, then the process of designing can be carried on into the typesetting, and minor adjustments may be made as the work progresses. Many of the finest printed pages have come into being in just this way.

To William Morris must go the credit for restimulating interest in typography after a long arid period. Although his own productions were highly mannered and overly derivative to the point of being anachronistic, the revival of art in typography and in manual craftsmanship too can be traced to him. Unfortunately the revival found many of its most ardent devotees among amateurs who never came to know the problems from actual experience, but solved them rather on the basis of better than average judgment and borrowings from a fair historical grab-bag.

A generation whose taste has been developed on the variety of presswork it encounters in most trade books and commercial printing can have but little appreciation for that final phase of the craft. In the trade, expressions of delight are heaped on the so-called “kiss impression” which is achieved by merely touching the paper with the type. The very nature of letterpress printing, that is, printing from a relief surface, calls for an actual depression in the paper, though it be ever so slight. Thus is the printed image made a part of the paper’s surface, and the three-dimensional effect has richness and texture.

The press is a simple engine. It consists of a bed, which serves as a base for the type; a tympan, which carries the overlay that adjusts slight irregularities in the height of the surface; and a platen, through which the pressure is exerted. In a cylinder press, the cylinder is the platen and the tympan is made one with it by stretching the tympan paper over the cylinder.

Three factors accounted for the superiority of the hand-press, which has served printing through most of its life. They were stiff ink, dampened paper, and a strong impression. It is the rare instance that finds any of the three employed today. For reasons of speed and expense, the ink used today is often little more than thick colored soup, and the make-ready is usually sketchy, resulting in a poor impression. Dampening the paper served to soften the sizing in it, and to give the surface a greater affinity for ink; a similar result may be obtained through the use of softer papers. Today, because of the increased use of offset lithography, paper manufacturers are tending to make an all-purpose surface, which means that it is unnecessarily sized for letterpress use.

Just as punch-cutting teaches lessons which a type designer cannot overlook, regardless of the method he employs, so the handpress has, in its inherent characteristics, a definite message for the typographer and pressman. The hand-press calls for balanced forms, with the high areas well distributed to form over-all bearing surfaces, thus evening the pressure. Though this might be considered a handicap, it was actually a fine governing force on the designer, and acted as a mechanical restraint on unbalanced enthusiasms. In the early woodcuts, this unwritten law of balance kept them open and light, with the solid blacks small in area and well distributed. The result went well with type because it printed well; in fact, it was difficult to print such a block too badly. Today, woodcuts have gone to the opposite extreme, and are often overly black, dismal and forbidding.

So far, we have referred to the three surfaces used in printing. Now to clarify the principles and advantages of each. Letterpress, the oldest and the commonest, is a relief surface. There is nothing in sight that suggests that this method may be eclipsed by any other for printing type. Its disadvantage lies in the fact that to reproduce a continuous tone such as a photograph, wash drawing, or painting, a relief plate must be made which translates the tones into a series of dots. These dots are so close together that the ink necessary to print on an antique or dull-finished paper would flood the plate, so a coated or polished surface must be used. Despite the fact that the best halftone is as good a reproduction of tones as may be had, the coated stock is none too pleasant as a surface.

Gravure is the child of engraving and is an intaglio surface. The lines or tones are etched into the plate and the ink is carried in these depressions, leaving the high field of the plate clean. Gravure is poor for the printing of type, even at best, and must stand on the depth and richness of its reproductions of pictures for its contribution.

Offset is a planographic surface and is a development of lithography. It may be described as printing by affinity: greasy ink adheres to the greasy image and is repelled by moisture on the plate, which has been isolated to those areas free of grease. The stone and stiff ink of lithography have given way to zinc and the impression is first offset onto a rubber blanket and then onto the paper. This procedure is necessary because of pull, the whole surface of the paper being in contact at one time. Although speed has been the result, offset does not yield the rich impressions of letterpress.

One disadvantage of both offset and gravure is the necessity of using photography, or transparent type-proofs, to put the type on the plate. The results are not consistently successful. Often the type has the appearance of floating on the page, or is heavied in spots, or broken. In gravure, delicate letter forms may become unrecognizable. Since the final printed page is the typographer’s ultimate consideration, he must take into account the method of printing, as well as the paper which will be used, for these are determining factors in the choice of type.


It is impossible in so short an exposition to do more than rough out the major elements that go into typographic design. One of the chief factors has had to remain untouched: the influence which the quality of the text, and the attitude of the typographer towards it, can have on the final result. It is not unreasonable to assume that one factor which helped the appearance of many of the early books was the nobility of the text. The typographer and printer need to be inspired just as does the illustrator.

The type designer and the typographer must not confuse the virtues of so-called originality with creative knowledge. Type which suggests its details, rather than the type which bears them, is the finer and longer-lasting face. The best typographic design is the least obvious; it is orderly and related, first within itself and then to the surface on which it is printed.

The past is a great storehouse of experiments and should be understood and used as such. There is no patentable scheme for designing anything; there is only the acquired individual method, which helps establish a basis for the working out of given problems.

The best typographer may be foiled by a poor compositor or an indifferent pressman. Praise for good work must run all along the line, and be shared by any who have taken a hand in it. Today the craftsman, with all his machines and equipment, differs from his brothers of other times principally in his need of even more brains to control the new tools at his disposal.

The printer knows, from looking at design about him, that he is living in an industrial age, and that his products, as well as others, must fit into contemporary manufacturing practice. He knows also that the cost of labor and marketing will of necessity reduce the time that can be spent on refinement and craftsmanlike details. However, through his knowledge of the past, he should be in a position to know where the machine is to take over, that is, just how far planning can go, before the grinding-out process begins. By using the past he can save himself five hundred years of inventive sweat and make his contribution a cumulative rather than an isolated one. Only by great effort, if he is worth his salt, will his results fail to be contemporary.

The printer should consider that although it is pleasant to look at a well printed page, it can be even more pleasant to produce one. If it is necessary for him to guard his time and wages through organized effort, it is even more necessary that he guard his happiness in his work, and this can only be achieved through an ever-deepening understanding of it. He must have schools where in three or more years of apprenticeship he can get a knowledge of calligraphy, layout, composition, and presswork. And these schools must be manned by able designers and craftsmen rather than by politicians. If scientists are going to make his body live longer, he himself must learn how to keep his mind alive.

Let us not assume that we are unable to produce fine work today. The cry that printing is on the down grade has been raised throughout most of its history. What should trouble us greatly, however, is the thought that the radio may, in time, atrophy the desire and capacity to read, just as the typewriter has spelled the doom of fine handwriting.


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