dot-font: Being a Typographer

dot-font was a collection of short articles written by editor and typographer John D. Barry (the former editor and publisher of the typographic journal U&lc) for CreativePro.  If you’d like to read more from this series, click here.

Eventually, John gathered a selection of these articles into two books, dot-font: Talking About Design and dot-font: Talking About Fonts, which are available free to download here.  You can find more from John at his website,

What does it mean to call someone a typographer? When I was working as a phototypesetter in the late 1970s, “typographer” tended to be taken—at least by phototypesetters of the time, in the United States—as just a fancy term for “typesetter.” It was more likely to be applied to someone setting type in an ad agency than to someone in a job shop pounding out text type for local weeklies, like us.

In Britain, the term had a longer history, and it tended to be used to describe a designer who worked with type—a book designer, principally, whose main job was arranging type on a page. (The British “printing journalist” James Moran even gave his history of the Society of Typographic Designers the title “Fit to Be Styled a Typographer.”) That’s the sense in which I took up using it, in the mid-1980s, when I found myself trying to describe what it was that I did. I was designing books (mostly pure text), but I was also designing ads and brochures and various kinds of printed ephemera, all the while paying very close attention to the exact placement of every bit of type.

It was all about shape and space, but always in the service of the words and their meaning. It seemed perfectly natural to me, as indeed it still does, to think about the verbal content and the visual form together, as aspects of the same thing.

Design and/or Production

The idea of a typographer emerged around the beginning of the 20th century, when it became possible technically and economically—to separate the role of designing the page from that of actually setting the type. One of the first to practice this new profession was the American book designer Bruce Rogers—who became famous for his elegant and careful book designs and even designed his own book typeface, the now-classic Centaur, but who never (as far as I know) actually set type. (Certainly, if Rogers ever did hold a composing stick in his hand, it was not part of his regular job. I doubt he ever sat down at the keyboard of a Monotype or a Linotype machine.)

Rogers’s work was very much in the long tradition of literary book design, but in the early 20th century there were others working in newer and more radical traditions. The young Jan Tschichold, for instance, although he wrote for the workmen who were actually producing the printed matter of Weimar Germany, designed pages in the asymmetrical style of the New Typography, and proselytized for that new, revolutionary approach to putting words on the page. Tschichold himself did not set his own type, but he became a master of specifying for the typesetter precisely how he wanted every detail to be set.

From Commercial Art to Graphic Design

The design of the stuff people saw every day—magazines and ads and packaging and billboards—was in the hands of “commercial artists,” a catch-all term with the emphasis on “artist,” implying that any type used was subservient to the overall graphic effect. (Well, actually, the real emphasis was always on “commercial.”)

As advances in printing technology made it easier to adopt a more visual style of page layout, commercial artists were becoming more concerned with illustration and the arrangement of photographs. By mid-century, in this country, commercial artists were calling themselves “graphic designers,” in an effort to take away the blue-collar connotations of “commercial artist” and position themselves as highly paid professionals. Most graphic designers did work with type, or at least with lettering, but they left the execution of that work to regular typesetters or to lettering artists.

Once everyone began using the same tools—PCs and Macs, Photoshop and QuarkXPress, PageMaker and Illustrator—the division of labor changed again. Graphic designers took on the task of setting their own type or hoping that the program’s defaults would magically do the job for them. Since most modern-day graphic designers have never sat at a production keyboard (much less picked up a composing stick and set foundry type by hand—a much older production method), they have never had the opportunity to learn how to handle type on a day-to-day basis. But there are fewer and fewer trained typesetters or type houses that they can turn to for practical help.

Even when graphic designers have been through an art or design school, where presumably they have been exposed to at least a basic education about type, most of them don’t seem to have absorbed much understanding of the nuances of typography. They’re practicing a graphic discipline that has become detached from its principal mode of communication; all too often, they simply don’t know how to deal with words.

Needed Today

That dissociation makes typographers important again. It’s essential to involve people who understand type—not just the choice of fonts but how to use them—in every kind of graphic design where the content matters. (And that means most graphic design.)

Every organization or group that produces printed matter (or non-printed matter such as Web pages) needs this kind of typographic vision and expertise, whether in the hands and eyes of each designer or in the perspective of an overall typographic director. Without it, the communication itself is compromised.

Fit to be a typographer? Not a bad thing to be called.

John D. Berry is a typographer, book designer, design writer, editor, and typographic consultant. He is a former President of ATypI, and he is the founder and director of the Scripta Typographic Institute.
  • anonymous says:

    Thanks to John Berry for continuing to be the eloquent voice of typography. I’m always delighted to still find his writing, even though U&lc is no longer with us. He has always been an inspiration to me.

    My business, FinalEyes, is devoted to helping graphic designers work more effectively with type. I’m the last look at anything that goes to press or is launched on the Web. Some of my clients actually allow me to read from their layout programs so that I can kern headlines and work with line breaks while I’m at it. Ahhhh, reminds me of the good old days!
    Barbara Scott
    Final Eyes
    Taos, New Mexico

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