Scanning Around With Gene: Part 2 of That '70s Type!

Part 1 of That ’70s Type!

Setting type is like re-decorating your home: you know exactly what you want and you think you know how to get it. But when you put it all together, it doesn’t have the polish of a professional job. Until the 1970s, most display type was still set by obsessive professionals. In fact, the ’70s saw a big growth in type shops that did nothing but set beautiful display type. Yet it was also the decade when type escaped the shackles of form, and economics shifted in favor of the type customer. One way or another, type started its somewhat painful journey to commodity status.

Farrah Fawcett, Pong, and Type Democracy
Metal and wood type can hold a decent amount of detail and fine lines, but using those materials to manufacture a wide range of type styles in the sizes required for advertising display work was problematic. Not only was there the problem of where to store all that type, but it also wore out from frequent use and was somewhat inflexible when it came to refinements like letter spacing and kerning. Take a look at a good type specimen book from the 1950s and you’ll see that choices were limited.

But with the two methods introduced by Letraset and Visual Graphics in the early 1960s, it became economically feasible to stock large amounts of type styles and sizes, and to set them in any way imaginable, even if it meant overlapping characters, tight letter spacing, or irregular baselines. These capabilities fit perfectly with the freewheeling artistic style of the times and allowed even small-town designers to produce big-city results — or complete disasters.

Figure 1. It was always possible to force tight letter spacing and to overlap characters, but prior to phototype it took a lot more work. Suddenly designers could more easily create non-existing ligatures, letters that weave in and out of each other, and turn ordinary type into logo type. From top left: a 1977 ad for the U&lc Book Shop; a 1977 use of Stripes; proof that a major company (in this case, Audi) actually used the typeface Neon; a nice logo made from modifying Eras; and more Serif Gothic.

Figure 2. A mid-’70s promotion from Mattel looking very Machine-Bold-meets-Disco; a program from the stage version of the Who’s Tommy in 1972 with the words “On Stage” in a rather obscure shadow font called Mania No. 3; highly modified Souvenir on the cover of Lou Reed’s 1978 album; and a good example of a perfectly set optical circle of type (in Arnold Bocklin) for a toy company.

The Letraset method, dry transfer, was essentially a decal process that eliminated the water. Type characters were printed on clear transfer sheets and sold direct to the designer. Because the printing process Letraset used allowed for high detail (with no generational loss during the transfer process), the company was able to market very complicated type designs of the sort that required visual setting. Some of these may not have been technically practical for a traditional type foundry, and certainly not worth the development cost given limited market appeal. But due to relatively low production costs, Letraset could market unusual designs. Some might call them unusable, but in the ’70s not much was considered off limits.

Figure 3. Can you read me now? In 1973 Letraset held a worldwide lettering design competition. Here are two of the winners, both of which fit perfectly with ’70s style: Top is Astra, designed by Francois Robert and Natacha Flada, and bottom is the first-place winner, Bombere, designed by Carla Ward.

Letraset made it easy for designers to mess with type themselves, trying different spacing, using partial characters, or otherwise modifying the design. Many logos began as dry-transfer experiments, and the distribution of Letraset products through small art stores opened new markets for type.

Figure 4. Clip-art company Formost used classic ’70s multiple outlines to promote its self-adhesive clip-art line in 1979. And one look at the line-up of “designer” fonts from Zipatone in 1977 gives you a good idea of what artists were buying at the time (or what someone thought they were buying). Please note the irony of naming a dry-transfer typeface “Postscript.” Hope they got a trademark on that.

At the same time, the Visual Graphics PhotoTypositor was making its way into type shops and ad agencies with great success. The first model was introduced in 1960; by 1979, the company had sold more than 7,000 units. This machine used large film-negative strips that contained type characters spaced one next to the other. The operator simply lined up the character he or she wanted to print with a lens and projected it on to a piece of photographic paper. As each character was printed, the operator could visually place the next character and make appropriate adjustments to letter spacing before printing.

Figure 5. Two ads from Visual Graphics Corporation promoting its PhotoTypositor headline-setting machine, both from 1978. In addition to selling to the type-shop trade, VGC marketed directly to ad agencies and design studios. These machines became a staple of the display type market and because the letters were set visually, one at a time, letter spacing could be infinitely adjusted. The typestyle in the bottom ad is Organda Light, one of the many faces VGC brought to the market.

This visual method of setting the type, combined with various distortion lenses placed on the unit, gave the operator tremendous flexibility. And the low-cost filmstrips meant it was possible to stock lots of type designs, even rarely used novelty faces. The quality was quite good, too, allowing dramatic enlargement when necessary. Display type definitely grew larger in the ’60s and ’70s, in part because it could.

Figure 6. Anyone who worked in graphic arts during the ’70s will remember Letramask (top), though we all knew it as Rubylith and Amberlith. The rather distinctive three-dimensional typeface is Quartermane SQ, complimented by Premier Lightline. In the ad for the PhotoVision photolettering machine (bottom), designers are encouraged to set type in their own studio and promised that they will “never run out of letters.” How I wish some designers would run out of letters today.

Thanks to dry-transfer type on the low end, and photo-lettering machines like the PhotoTypositor at the high end, the market opened for new and refreshing type designs. A race was on among type shops and type manufacturers to constantly expand selection, no matter how bizarre or even unusable the designs. Somebody, I assume, bought them all, even the ones that looked like bent paper clips or pieces of Swiss cheese.

Figure 7. There were a number of competitors to the PhotoTypositor, including the Spectra Setter, shown here in a 1978 ad. Below is a sample of display faces popular in the ’70s and available from Phil’s Photo near Washington, D.C. Larger type shops like Phil’s would usually have well over 1,000 display faces and offer a number of special effects.

Mood Rings, Waterbeds, and Circular Type
Thanks to the switch from letterpress to offset that was taking place in the printing industry, darkrooms were becoming more sophisticated. It was routine to re-size graphics, create chokes and spreads for trapping, and otherwise use process cameras and film exposure units to modify art and type. This started people such as Dan Solo in Berkeley, California, thinking about specialized machines to optically modify type. In 1973 he patented a device called an Altergraph, which used optics to distort type into new shapes.

Figure 8. Solotype had a process it dubbed “elastographs” that made these types of distortions optically. Many larger type shops around the country offered these services, and the results could be seen in logotypes and advertising throughout the decade. Some of these effects became available for the first time during the mid ’70s. Previously such works would have to be drawn by hand, a skill many designers lacked.

Figure 9. Solotype was a pioneer in the use of optics to distort existing type designs. Here, from a catalog of the era, are examples of the outlines the company could produce. These outlines were done on a machine that rotated two film planes in a circular motion with light projecting through the film to expose new film or paper below. By varying the rotation diameter and arc, it achieved various thicknesses and angles.

Using these and other techniques, type shops started offering the ability to take a solid typeface and create outlines, inlines, contours, drop shadows, circular baselines, and weird perspectives. Examples started appearing in publications and advertising around the country. When a new piece of typesetting equipment came into a small community, the results were visible right away as designers, hungry for more options, embraced it.

Figure 10. Before he checked in to the Hotel California with the Eagles, Joe Walsh (upper left) promoted his So What album with a very deep drop shadow. More Souvenir (upper right), this time in a 1977 ad for the Hawaiian islands; another trendy drop shadow from the Mexican Tourism Board; a hint of what was to come in the 1980s (large condensed sans serif) in a 1979 ad alerting music listeners that the much-anticipated new Fleetwood Mac album had arrived; and the Fonz promoting a line of Happy Days bicycles from Murray. In that ad is another favorite ’70s typeface, Frankfurter, designed by Bob Newman for Letraset.

So graphic artists not only had a new generation of type designs to choose from, but they could set them in new and unusual ways. The static baseline was gone for good. And since more printing was being done in process, designers were looking for ways to add color to headlines. Creating multiple outlines or drop shadows was a great way to make type “pop” in a colorful world.

Figure 11. Let the sunshine in! These three examples give off the sort of good vibes common of the decade. Top is an ad for White Rain shampoo in 1970. Middle is a 1976 Dodge van ad, and bottom is a 1970 ad for Colgate Palmolive. The all-cap, rounded-letter Bauhaus/Busorama look was really big, but it was never a favorite of mine.

Of course, new capabilities are sometimes abused. This period gave birth to some really bad typesetting and special effects, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Why shouldn’t type be subjected to the same “so-bad-it’s-good” phenomenon as other arts?

Figure 12. Even though it was designed in 1963 by Roger Excoffon, Antique Olive really took off in the late ’70s. I hated it and always associated it with cheap weekly newspapers (this because I worked on a lot of cheap weekly newspapers). I think you got the entire family free when you bought any sort of typesetting machine from Compugraphic. And it wasn’t just type that took on three-dimensional qualities in the ’70s. It was also the era of pre-printed borders. C-Thru Graphics (below) sold a line of very hip ad borders, and you couldn’t beat the Boarder Board pre-printed paste-up boards from Graphic Products Corporation.

Mini Bikes, Puka Shells, and ITC
You can’t talk about ’70s type without highlighting the International Typeface Corporation in New York. Formed by a group of respected type/graphic designers, the company approached type design with a new business model and some terrific designs.

Figure 13. When the International Typeface Corporation introduced a new design, it didn’t just put it out in the market. It promoted it heavily and showed designers how to use it. In 1978 when Zapf Dingbats were released, this page from U&lc magazine showed designers that dingbats could be fun and perhaps take on starring roles.

Instead of type being exclusive to any one device manufacturer (which was more the model leading up to this time), ITC existed to license its designs to as many companies as possible. It then set out to promote the use of those designs, thus benefiting all licensees, regardless of the output device. ITC designs were licensed by major type equipment manufacturers, but also by dry-transfer companies, sign-making companies, copier companies, and by anyone with a need for high-quality type.

Figure 14. Bold and tight. These two 1978 examples were designed by Herb Lubalin and are from U&lc magazine. Top is Serif Gothic and bottom, Machine Bold. Very tight (often overlapping) letter space, tight word space, and tight leading were the hallmarks of the Manhattan ad-shop style.

You could easily say that ITC designs put a face on the ’70s and ’80s. Starting with the company’s first release in 1970, Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde, ITC churned out one winner after another. You couldn’t open a magazine or pass a billboard in the ’70s without seeing Souvenir, Bookman, Bauhaus, American Typewriter, Tiffany, Lubalin Graph, Kabel, Serif Gothic, Benguiat, Machine Bold, Eras, and many others. Some of these designs were essentially revivals, but with the stylish marketing of ITC behind them they felt like fresh new efforts.

Figure 15. If I had to pick one typeface that most represents the ’70s to me, it would be ITC Machine Bold. This ultra-bold, all-cap design was created by Tom Carnese and Ernie Bonder. Lately it seems to have been relegated to use in sports-related settings, but in the ’70s it was everywhere. This ad, for the Ford Mustang, appeared in 1979. For many years the United States Army used Machine Bold as its advertising font, and when I had my own type shop I used it in my logo design. Though it may seem like an all-cap design would be easy to set, Machine Bold is one of the most difficult type designs to set well. The very thin letter spacing must be just right for the type to look balanced and work well at various sizes.

Not only did ITC produce popular type designs, but through its quarterly publication U&lc, it influenced how they were set, as well. I can tell you that, as a typesetter in those days, U&lc was the standard for how contemporary type should be set. (You can read more about U&lc in the article "Big Pages, Flamboyant Typography".)

Figure 16. This 1978 ad for New York type house Photo-Lettering, Inc., was designed by Ed Benguiat to promote his new typeface design. Seeing this ad was one of the inspirations that caused me to switch from a focus on editorial to a focus on typesetting. To this day, ITC Benguiat remains one of my favorite type designs and despite being closely associated with the ’70s, I consider it timeless.

Calculators, Preppies, and the Death of Old Type
My fondness for ’70s type is not just because of the way it looked. The proliferation of lower-cost typesetting equipment and dry-transfer type helped rip type out of the hands of a few and place it in the hands of many. Some people lament this change, but it was necessary and inevitable.

Figure 17. In 1974, well-set Avant Garde encouraged husbands to buy their wives a silver Audi Fox, for the simple reason that it was smaller than a regular Audi. But if those models weren’t small enough, you could always get a Renault Le Car (below), which was sold between 1972 and 1984. It was actually a Renault Model 5, but someone thought more people would buy it if was called Le Car. As it turned out, more people made fun of it because it was called Le Car. I suspect Le Typeface for this ad was hand-drawn.

Old-style typesetters had many skills and some of those are sorely missed. But you can’t have truly innovative and great type without allowing for some horrible and bad type. The ’70s was the first decade when designers could make typesetting mistakes on a big scale.

Figure 18. Since film fonts could contain as many characters as the foundry wanted, it was a popular decade for swash alternates. In fact, the whole swash thing got a little ridiculous in the ’70s. These two examples are pretty tame, but often every other character had tentacles waving pointlessly at neighboring letters. Of all the “alternate” type options, swash characters are among the least understood and most abused. There were times in those days when I cursed ITC for licensing so many copies of Bookman with Swash.

Nobody wears leisure suits anymore, and not a lot of men sport perms. And I don’t run across many designers who use Serif Gothic or Machine Bold, either. Many of the popular ’70s typestyles feel rather dated these days. They don’t all have the lasting power of classic designs from the likes of Garamond, Goudy, or Bodoni. But a few do.

Figure 19. Roller Boogie, an unfortunate combination of disco with roller skating, wasn’t a ’70s myth — I use to pass a roller disco in Hollywood that was briefly popular. I don’t know if it was “love on wheels” as claimed in this advertisement for the 1979 movie staring Linda Blair, but it didn’t last long.

Each generation should have its own typefaces, as it has its own music and its own fashion. The more outrageous the better, I say. Prior to the ’70s, a relatively small group controlled type design. And though each era had its ornate and outrageous styles, I don’t think you could describe type as “fashionable” or “trendy” until the ’70s. Time-to-market was fast enough for new designs to have a more timely impact.

Figure 20. Plenty of ’70s logos and headlines were still hand-drawn, but they also reflected the three-dimensional, curvy look of the decade. In 1979, Cheech and Chong (top) had just finished their second movie and stopped being very funny. The ’70s also had its share of one-hit-wonders, both in type design and music. Irish musician Gilbert O’Sullivan (bottom) was a big hit when this ad ran in 1973. But by the end of the decade he was alone again, naturally.

Type became colorful in the ’70s, in all definitions of the term. And I think for the first time new people started noticing type. You couldn’t really help noticing when it took ten minutes to figure out what it said.

All this talk about the ’70s has me teary-eyed and nostalgic. I think I’ll go put on a Peter Frampton album, pour myself a Lowenbrau, and set something in Avant Garde using all the wrong alternate characters.

Posted on: August 22, 2007

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

7 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Part 2 of That '70s Type!

  1. I started doing layout and paste-up for my mom who was a “Commercial Artist” after working for years as an animator at Hanna-Barbera. From there I never stopped, and was doing layout, illustration and design for school papers, posters and yearbooks through the seventies. I used countless sheets of Letraset type, did countless dropouts using amberlith and rubylith…and Good Lord, the fonts. The thing was, I was too young to know any history of fonts at all. I guess I knew the classics from the trendy, but I had no idea of the lively era that I was witnessing. Thanks for the retrospective, I remember it all better than I would have believed.

  2. Great article, very informative and made me chuckle.

  3. Awesome really awesome article here man. As a 26 year-old freelance designer..I learned so many techniques and do’s/don’ts for my next client.

    Thanks again for typing this informative article. Us 20-somethings need to know how and why we use what we use.

  4. Great article ! On the Pacific southwest coast of the U.S., I had typositor & over 4000 fonts. Made a fair living assisting art directors and the like.
    One photo modification device not mentioned: the Modigraphic distortion camera. The problem for most shops have this device was the price and the space (darkroom) required. I may have not caught this in your article, Lettering Inc. small film pieces, assembled on glass or plastic, to form a line. A Clydesdale camera with movable back assisted in distorting the lettering. Lettering Inc.’s form of setting film lettering dates back to the 1940’s patent.
    Thank you for permitting added comments.

  5. I found an old brochure for a Spectra Setter and did a search only to find this. Awesome stuff. My family owned a screen print shop and I began setting type on the SS. In the early 80’s I took a job at Black Dot Graphics in Chicago as a typositor operator. Man those were the days, lots of work and overtime. We also used a machine called a typeflex and IIRC one called a graphic modifier which did fatties, skinnies and drop shadows. Then the Macintosh came along and the craft died. I guess that’s the price of change. Thanks for the article.

  6. Wow, brings back memories. The young lady in the Spectrasetter ad was Lori Bailey, daughter of Paul Bailey, owner of Lettergraphics in Culver City. I worked there for a while back in the 70s. I set type, created fonts, worked in the darkroom, and did some handlettering. A long time ago!

  7. Very interesting article. My father, Ken Stern, was Sales Director for Photovision in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.