Historically, sign painters, also known as sign writers, lived in a completely different world from printers. They worked in small shops, frequently alone. Some were uneducated itinerants. They were the most blue collar of the “creatives,” with a unique trade vocabulary. They drew and painted letters by hand, ignoring typography for the most part. Skilled at brush manipulation, they used letter styles they called “alphabets,” developed for speed and legibility, except in the occasional instance where they were required to duplicate a printer’s typestyle on a sign. Sign painters never called themselves typesetters or printers. Few even called themselves artists. Tradesman, or craftsman, were terms that seemed more appropriate. Yet most were quite talented, many achieving high levels of artistic ability and speed.
Sign painters were never asked to use a font because such a request would not have made sense. In fact, “font” was not a word they used because it had little to do with hand lettering. The word font was not found in instructional materials on hand lettering, and it was never used as a synonym for “letter style.” Sign makers who were familiar with printer’s terms may have known what a font was. It was a collection of type—pieces of metal. These were kept in drawers, cabinets and cases in print shops. Loaded onto a press by typesetters, the metal type from a font collection was used to print letters on paper in a particular typestyle.
How fonts were made
In earlier times, the design of a typeface started with a highly skilled metalsmith called a punch cutter (the first punch cutters were actually goldsmiths). The punch cutter’s job was to produce a complete set of letter punches in a particular style and size. A letter punch was a rectangular metal rod with a small raised letter carved in reverse on the end of the rod. The punch was carefully struck with a hammer to make an impression of the letter on a slab of softer metal that became the bottom, or matrix, of a small mold. In the type foundry, these molds were filled with molten metal to produce pieces of type, enough to create a complete font, or set, of type. This process of producing type fits with what is thought to be the origin of the word font. It derives from an early French verb meaning to found or caste in metal. Early printers did their own typecasting after purchasing a set of punches from a punch cutter. Producing a complete font of metal type was a laborious process from start to finish and punch cutters were highly skilled. Producing a set of punches to make a single font (one size, in one typestyle) could take many months of careful, tedious work using tiny files and gouges. Each additional font size would have required the cutting of another complete set of punches. Understandably, acquiring a set of punches represented a significant financial investment on the part of a printer.
Setting type was time-consuming, too, though many typesetters became amazingly fast. The process of casting and setting type became automated with the introduction of typecasting machines, such as the Monotype and Linotype. As metal type gave way to other forms of typesetting and printing, a font eventually became the name for a piece of digital software to be loaded onto a computer. Technically, font is not a synonym for typestyle. A font is what is used to produce a typestyle in print. In other words, a font is not the letter style, but the underlying software code.
Modern day punch cutter at the French type foundry, Typofonderie
In contrast to the sign industry, the print world evolved into an industry employing many specialty occupations: typesetters, artists, pressmen, proof readers and editors, all of whom served to increase the level of professionalism in the industry and the quality of the end product.
Today, the distinction between the worlds of printing and sign making is beginning to blur. As a result of inexpensive technology and equipment, a crude form of typesetting is being practiced in today’s sign shops, often by inexperienced and untrained workers, resulting in an enormous amount of sign work that is being produced cheaply, but that is often unattractive and ineffective as advertising. Poor design work lacking in eye appeal is common as standards have declined. Designers are often hired, not so much because they have good design skills, but because they know the software and can type rapidly. Artwork has been replaced by copy/pasted clipart, sometimes pirated.
In the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote of a time of upheaval and great change. He repeated a theme of dark against light, good against bad. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
For the sign industry, this is the best and worst of times. Some of the most amazing design work is being produced today with the assistance of powerful design software. Alongside this work is a growing flood of mediocre and poor design, also produced with the help of computers, that threatens to be overwhelming.
Is it possible to reverse this trend?