So You Want to Create Your Own Typeface? the Transformation of Old Dreadful Grotesque

By Berlow, David | Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, January 1990 | Go to article overview

So You Want to Create Your Own Typeface? the Transformation of Old Dreadful Grotesque


Berlow, David, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management


So you want to create your own typeface?

In the 500 or so years since Gutenberg invented movable type, perhaps a quarter million typefaces have been developed in the Western world. That may seem like an enormous number of typefaces, but when you consider the requirements of old technology, much of which required fonts developed specifially for a size on a single machine, and you consider the large number of type styles over all those years, the estimate seems prudent. Discounting Sundays, wars and the strict principles of serious statistical science, that's an average of around two typefaces completed every work day since Gutenberg.

Fueling this marathon of type development have been the twin needs of technology and taste. But because most of the technology for which these faces were developed doesn't exist anymore, and because market tastes develop rather slowly, fewer than 2,000 faces are currently available to the desktop design market, the leading edge not only of print production technology, but also of the changing tastes of print designers.

Desktop typography

There is a need for more typefaces on the desktop than can be supplied readily by the usual type sources, the type foundries. Fortunately, type design software, such as Fontographer and Ikarus, are available on desktop equipment so that a type or graphic designer can develop custom faces distinctive to the tone and style of a publication. Smart magazine, for example, used this availability to develop a series of typefaces and styles that uniquely define the character of this young monthly, which competes against the likes of Vanity Fair and Esquire for attention on the newsstand.

It should be noted that while some of Smart's type was created on desktop equipment, most was designed by experienced, professional type designers. Some faces, like those for Smart, require such experience. Others may be developed without such expertise. The question here is that although technology has brought the ability to create type to the mass market, is type design a task to be undertaken by the average magazine art director?

The following fiction begins in the office of an art director who uses desktop computers like the Macintosh. Similarities to real people, real companies and real products are coincidental.

You're just finishing your 10-minute Art Director's Special from China-Grits Express. Dessert is a fortune cookie: "You will need a strange typeface," your fortune reads. You smile and wonder who is running the cookie factory as you toss the fortune in the trash with the rest of your lunch leavings.

At that very instant, in your VP's office, the Biscuit Publishing brass is fine-tuning plans for Crunchy Bits, a spin-off of Dog Biscuit Monthly. From the piles of contracts, resumes and dummy layouts, the VP pulls a type specification that calls for Biscuit Grotesque.

He frowns, swivels in his chair, warbles your phone and asks if you've ever heard of it. As you fish the soy-stained fortune from the trash, you confess you haven't, but if you look at a sample of the typeface you may recognize it as being derived from something more commonly known.

A couple of days later, artwork shows up that looks something like the Old Dreadful Grotesque #47 in that 1924 type specimen book from Dinotype. It turns out that back in the sixties, the last art director for the Dog Biscuit Monthly convinced Mr. Biscuit himself that a bolder, narrower version of Dinotype's Old Dreadful Grotesque #47 presented just the kind of updated look the magazine needed for its redesign.

So, Dog Biscuit Monthly, which was purchasing $225,000 worth of typesetting every year from Ed's Type Hut, asked Ed, who was purchasing $1 million worth of typesetters and peripherals from the Acme Type Corporation, to ask Acme to develop Biscuit Grotesque.

It took months and cost Acme $16,000, but it was a good business decision. …

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