When Typographers Were Kings

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As I sit at a table peering out the large windows that make up the front lunchroom at Hunan’s, I cannot help but notice the excessive number of “For Lease” signs attached to the exterior of what appears to be every building lining San Francisco’s historic Sansome Street. The dot.coms that once dominated this old and rustic neighborhood have long vanished. Even the once mighty advertising agencies that took up complete floors of office space have been reduced dramatically in size.

This neighborhood, like most major metropolitan cites, has seen its share of change. Long before our world was infected with political correctness (when drinking a cup of hot coffee meant you might burn you tongue, but you never thought about lawsuits, and when baseball players actually played for the love of the game, not the money) this neighborhood was the home to some of San Francisco’s finest typography houses. Companies like Rapid, Mercury, Omnicomp, Mastertype, and Andresen called this neighborhood home. The typography houses that populated metropolitan cities were an indispensable resource to America’s creative professionals.

Raiders of the Lost Art
Today’s printed pieces do not have the aura of communication they once represented. It’s not hard to see the differences and the gradual lowering of typographical standards that stem from the demise of the typography industry. Many of today’s printed pieces suffer from some typographical deterioration.

Advertising agencies and design firms once considered typography an important part of the communication process. Today, most no longer share the passion for the artful letter and word spacing that once was such an important element in the creative process. From the 1950’s to the late 1980’s typography mattered and had purpose. Whether you were part of this process during the days of hot metal or phototypesetting it did not matter. Typography was an art and typographers were kings.

All across America there were typography houses run by dedicated craftsman who gave their life’s blood on the floor of their shops. All this just to make sure some illegible hand scroll an Art Director had drawn up on a cocktail napkin over a four Martini lunch, was transcribed perfectly into the work of art it was intended to be. These Creative Directors and Art Directors were great, and many carried huge egos the size of Boeing 747’s, but most had the talent to match the ego. An idea born inside the mind of these creative geniuses would never make its way to a printing press until the final round of typography had been approved by everyone involved in the process.

In the Shadow of the King
If typographers were kings, then the king of kings was Drew Andresen of Andresen Typographics. Mr. Andresen thought outside the box long before the term was coined. In doing so, Mr. Andresen brought his company and an entire industry to national prominence. Mr. Andresen’s combination of savvy business and marketing skills, long left out of the typography industry, carried the industry to new levels that others emulated.

Mr. Andresen created the largest typography organization in the country with five locations in California and two in Arizona. At the height of the industry, Andresen was responsible for the typography on most every record album Warner Brothers and Motown Records produced. Most of the major entertainment companies, advertising agencies, and design firms in California and Arizona worked with Andresen Typographics.

During the 1980’s, television network ABC launched a show called “Bosom Buddies” starring an actor with no reputation at the time, Tom Hanks. The art director for the show called Mr. Andresen to ask if he could use Andresen’s famous typography catalogues for the set to replicate the environment of an advertising agency. When Honda Motor Company hired Ketchum Advertising to introduce the very first Acura campaign, Ketchum’s creative team spent several months working with Mr. Andresen pouring through his company’s library of over 10,000 typefaces looking for the right one. Finally it was decided that all the work would be produced on a Berthold typesetting system, and a series of specially designed fonts were created just for the Acura campaign giving Honda a very distinct look.

For most art directors and designers today, terms like “track two, minus leading, 10/10” mean absolutely nothing. Nor would they be able to identify the names of typography legends Vern Simpson or Les Usherwood.

When Mr. Warnock and company founded Adobe, it forever changed the graphics and publishing industry. One of the indirect consequences of PostScript was the death of the typography industry. It is unfortunate that the art of typography did not take root in the PostScript world. While many of the legends from the typography industry have passed on, some like Mr. Andresen continued on in the prepress and printing industry. Their place in history is important and their story should be told.

Jeremy Smith is CEO of Smith Consulting, a consulting company in the San Francisco Bay Area that specializes in sales, business development, and executive management for the printing, graphic arts, and imaging industries. Before starting Smith Consulting, he was Vice President of Business Development for Webprint, a technology solutions provider of customer-branded e-commerce solutions for the on-demand printing industry. Mr. Smith has worked with leading companies such as Adobe, Agfa, and Kodak. He has spoken at Seybold, VuePoint, and PINC, been a guest on MSNBC, ZNET, and America Online, and appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Micropublishing News, and MacWorld Magazine. You can reach him at [email protected]

Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved, WhatTheyThink.com.


  • anonymous says:

    Much of the Design today lacks the proper use of type. Designers seem to think a picture tells all by the misuse of type. Many examples adorn our bus stops and billboards today with a style that’s only worthy of a drive by. No longer are the days of stop and look.

  • anonymous says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Jeremy Smith. His article on the demise of the typographer took me back to my days as a junior artist in a Toronto advertising design studio in the late 60s, and reminded me just how much everything has changed – and not always for the better. Now I am working as a design director in a small publishing company on the western edge of Europe. Young, and not-so-young designers have been known to roll their eyes and cast pitying looks in my direction when I lament the lack of typographic training in today’s colleges. After all, digital type can be squashed, stretched and otherwise tortured until it fits a given space, so why worry about things like proportion and readability? And is there a designer anywhere who can still do a freehand rendering of Times Roman or Helvetica for a layout? Typography is no longer the realm of the more senior designer, and it shows. There was a lot to be said for galley proofs, the ink still slightly wet as one meticulously did a cut and paste late on a Friday afternoon. In those days you had to know what you were doing because deadlines were tight and there was little tolerance for beginners who carelessly wiped their sleeve across the freshly output proof! Unquestionably, digital design and typesetting has taken a lot of drudgery out of our business, and has opened up all sorts of new, exciting design possibilities. But I wouldn’t have missed the opportunities I had in my art college and junior artist days to render a full colour ad in soft pastels, and later in magic markers; to spend hours carefully hand-lettering entire paragraphs in recognisable fonts; to laboriously cut drop out masks for photographs, and so on. While I don’t have to do all that anymore, I have found that the work habits learned through those tedious tasks still stand me in good stead – namely patience, attention to detail, maintaining a clean working environment etc. But typography taught me something more – an appreciation for subtle nuances in design and a sense of the printed word as an art form in itself. Unfortunately, that also means that I tend to wince when I open up a book or a magazine and see widows and orphans and little rivers of white space trickling down the page. The pity of it is that with care, even digital typesetting can be done well, but sadly, designers are now more likely to answer to the company accountant who only sees beauty in the ‘bottom ‘line’ – not by the eagle eye of a creative director who has no qualms about tearing up a shoddy pice of work, even if it means staying up all night to do it again. Ironic, isn’t it – we have been freed from the time-consuming drudgery of scalpels and rubber cement, but we have less time to spend on producing high quality typography?!
    Thanks, Jeremy. You are absolutely on the mark!

  • anonymous says:

    What’s the solution?

  • Anonymous says:

    I think the subject of this article should have been Drew’s father, Andy, and his grandfather. Drew and brother Bill took over Andresen from their dad and rode high on a high-finance wave, driving clients to endless lunches in a vintage Cadillac and living high on the hog. Computers and desktop graphics were on their way into fashion, and in spite of constant warnings that this was the new wave, the boys insisted that advertising and art direction would always be willing to pay for hand-set type or Compugraphics typesetting. This did not turn out to be true, and Andresen Typographics went from fame and fortune and their tentacle in Arizona to a tiny industrial mall location in Santa Monica. This happened very quickly. The Andresen boys reacted as if they had been personally attacked. How dare the world rujin their game? Short-sighted is the term I would use to describe both, and also cavalier and careless. I share the previous commenter’s love of typography. Sadly, Drew and Bill Andresen loved the remuneration it brought for a while. Jeremy was an employee at the Melrose shop; he was a highly paid salesman supported by the two wayward sons, not someone who appreciated beautiful typography or design. If anyone really appreciates type as art, go to Europe and see some. Don’t be fooled by Jeremy Smith and his ode to Drew Andresen, playboy and bad businessman.

  • Anonymous says:

    I worked there, and at Fotoset of California, and for Characters & Colors (Headliners)….I know the boy’s well, including the Luke Westlake, Drew’s right-hand-man. My Father had long years in the typography industry, and when I started, I worked with the hot metal guys who had just made the transition to photo-typesetting. I remember the cabinets in the back rooms filled with metal fonts, the typositor, transfers, slide reversals, etc…I know the guy’s from childhood via going with my father to work from time to time. Bill Johnson, Johnny Rygroc, Yas, Harry Kennedy, Harmon, Don Johnson, Tiny, Jack Robinson….I know em’ all. Got questions?

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi Charles….I’m Bill Johnson’s daughter. Your list of names is truly the who’s who of the men of Los Angeles typesetting back in the day! Sadly, my dad is gone now. I spent many a Saturday, as a youngster, playing around FotoSet on a Saturday, intrigued most of all by Tiny and the darkroom! Happy memories for me!

  • Anonymous says:

    I always admired the typographic posters from typography houses. I think I still have a large poster from andresen.

  • richard carrillo says:

    Dear Mr Smith. I would love to chat sometime and catch up on all the years past.
    that is if you remember the 18 year old shipping clerk you hired at Andresen Typographics.

    Richard Carrillo

  • Jeremy Smith says:

    Hi Richard,

    Would enjoy hearing from you,. You can reach me at [email protected] 


  • Ken Trickey says:

    I worked at Andersen’s in the late 70 maybe 80. Started in the shop in Santa Ana, then up to Melrose as a typesetter on the Computegraphic system. We had a big company party at my house in Van Nuys. Let Drew ride my Harley. Really a good guy. He told me was voted “Least Likely to Succeed” from Cal State LA. I loved the shop and people, especially in Hollywood.

  • C Zee says:

    I’m so late to this party. In the 80’s I was a color proofer, brand new to the BATU, yet I captured immediate Journeyman status while being a one-trick pony. Along the way I got plenty of experience that evolved into semi-expertise as a proofreader and camera operator, as these elements were part of my specialization shtick. Near the end of my short-lived career, I was working overtime to produce stacks of rub–down transfers to be used at computer shows, when “Apple” caught my eye. More like … a bullet right between the eyes. I said to myself, “This company is going to eat right through my job.” With Adobe’s Post Script, they and Apple were poised to revolutionize “personal computing” and turn type shops into mere service bureaus, until everyone had their own computer and printer — and the service bureaus lay wounded and dying almost as soon as they were born. The BATU, also gasping for air, joined with the CWA and Teamsters in an effort to stave off its own inevitable ugly death. By the time all the dust of the Canons blew away, the few who had retained work in the “typographic” field were relegated to positions as copy operators or worse — CSR’s at one of those glorified coffee shops where you could pay to use their internet service in the middle of the night to try to look for a new job. The death of the art of typography struck the bell tolling the demise of the newspaper. The domino effect was only felt by those of us who were dominoes. It seemed the rest of the world didn’t notice or care that images that were conjured up by well-crafted and perfectly hung letters were missing now. And would be missing forever. Letters strung together forever after that were just boring words. No longer an art form. Newspapers went bye-bye, one by one. The camera operators, proofreaders, paste-up artists, printers, printer’s helpers, film suppliers, camera manufacturers, camera mechanics, photo processing chemical companies, darkroom suppliers, stripping table makers, light table builders, specialty bulb makers — I could go on but you get the point. When typography died, a lot of jobs died with it. The bones of the dead have been swept behind paywalls now, of “online newspapers” that are nothing more than click bait. Now, Adobe is mostly recognized worldwide as the thing you have to download onto your PC in order to be able to open a .PDF file. And Apple? After the personal computer invasion, they upped the ante and got their hands in the pants of nearly everyone on earth. There’s no one, except perhaps indigenous tribes far away in the Amazon Forest, who hasn’t heard of the iphone. And the Amazon Forest? Most people think that forest is where smiles are printed on boxes containing crap mostly made in China, and delivered to their front door without charging shipping fees if they are an Amazon Prime member.

    The death of typography has had far-reaching negative effects. Global warming wouldn’t have happened if typography survived. A well-designed and professionally executed advertisement could have stopped global warming cold.

    I’m being a little facetious about the global warming thing but… only a little.

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