Glossary of Terms

This blog entry begins a new category on this blog site that will gradually be added to, though it will be by no means exhaustive.

The sign world has long had a collection of trade terms that are not well known outside the industry. And I have even met sign makers, some having been in business for years, who are not familiar with terms that were once commonplace among sign artists (for example, pounce pattern). And, as the sign business continues to move away from hand lettering and to blend with the printing trade and its related field of typography, terminology is often misunderstood by sign makers not familiar with print jargon. The terms logo and font are two examples of terms commonly misunderstood, or used imprecisely, both inside and outside the sign industry.

At the same time, language is not static. It is a living, breathing animal that is constantly changing. Definitions will continue to evolve.

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Metal printing press letters
Historically, fonts were collections of metal type that were stored in divided drawers or cases. A single font would have included an assortment of letters, punctuation and numbers in a single point size, although larger print shops may have owned multiple fonts of the same size to increase production. Modern-day fonts are software programs loaded onto computers. Font software is protected by copyright law in the US.

FONT  [n.]   Brit. FOUNT   a complete assortment of type of one style and size.

Origin: probably from Middle French fonte, the act of founding or casting, from Vulgar Latin fundita, fem. of funditas, a verbal noun, the past participle of Latin fundere, to found, pour or cast.

A font, or collection of type, was originally made of metal by the process of casting, or founding. The metal was commonly an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. Fonts were stored in print shops in compartmentalized drawers or cases. Type compositors stood in front of the font assortments, selecting type from either the ‘upper case’ (capital letters) or the ‘lower case’ (noncapital letters). Though printing is still accomplished using metal type, the vast majority of printing is now composed with digital type. Fonts are now pieces of software, programs really, that are loaded onto computers to drive printers and other output devices to produce lettering in a particular typeface. An analogy to music can help explain the difference between a typeface and a font: If a typeface is like a song, a font is like an mp3 file. The song is what you hear, but the file is what produces it. Similarly, a typestyle is what you see, while a font is the digital tool that produces it. In practice, the word font is often used without much precision, sometimes interchangeably with the word typeface. As the digital age continues, and the original meaning of the word font fades, the distinction between typeface and font may disappear altogether.—see related post, Sign painters didn’t use fonts

In the US, a font (the software) is protected by copyright, whereas a typestyle (the design) is not. Both the US Congress and the US Copyright Office have made it clear that the design of letters cannot be protected. However, the name of a font may receive trademark protection. —see related post, Is a typestyle protected by copyright?

 

 

 

Is a typestyle protected by copyright?

No, it isn’t. At least, not in the United States. On the other hand, a font IS protected by copyright.

Does this seem confusing? If so, it’s because so many people use the term “font” to refer to a “typestyle” or “typeface.” The two terms are really not interchangeable.

A typeface, or typestyle, is a set of letters, including numbers, punctuation and assorted glyphs, that all share similar design characteristics. They may have similar shapes, strokes, serifs and other details. In printed form, they all look to be part of the same family due to their design. In the United States, a letterstyle  does not qualify for copyright registration.

So what is a font? Though many people use the word ‘font’ as a synonym for letterstyle, it is really what is used to produce letters in a form that can be viewed. A font is a piece of software, a program really, that allows a computer to command a printer (or router, or laser engraver, or embroidery machine) to produce the letters in physical form. Originally, a font was a set of metal type pieces in a particular size and typestyle for loading onto a printing press. To create a complete font of type was labor-intensive and expensive. Nowadays, a font is generally composed of unique digital code. This code is protected by copyright, and it cannot be copied without permission from the copyright owner.

Additionally, font names can be protected by trademark law, just like brand names. This is why you can buy a font (actually, a license to use the font) for your computer for printing letters that look exactly like Helvetica, but they are called something else. Someone owns the Helvetica font, the name and the underlying software, and that’s not the license you bought. You bought a license to use a differently programmed piece of software with a different name. But what you print looks just like Helvetica letters, because the Helvetica font owners don’t own what the letters look like, the design.

Of course, this is US law. The laws on fonts and typestyles may  and does vary in other countries.

Helvetica       Helvetica

Helvetica   Swiss

Punch cutting. These videos show how it was done.

The making of metal type by hand for printing was very involved and labor intensive. Most people understand that metal type was cast: Molten metal was poured into molds.The bottom of a mold, the matrix, held the impression of a letter, in reverse, perfectly formed. How were these molds and impressions made? They were made by punches, produced by amazingly talented and patient craftsmen called punch cutters. Punch cutters, with tiny gouges and files, sculpted raised letters in real size, in reverse, on the ends of square metal rods. Not surprisingly, the first punch cutters came from the ranks of goldsmiths.

The true artisans of the early hot metal printing industry were not the printers, but the punch cutters.

Making letter punches by hand was made virtually obsolete in the late 1800s by the invention of the Linotype and the Monotype machines. Later, photographic processes supplanted the making of hot metal type. Then computers arrived and changed everything again.Today, a “font” is no longer a collection of metal type kept in cases or drawers, but a piece of digital software loaded onto a computer hard drive.

This fascinating series of videos shows how punch cutting was done:

One of the better books on this subject, written by a modern day punchcutter:

Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century; Designing Typefaces Now, by Fred Smeijers (London: Hyphen Press, 1996)

Sign painters didn’t use fonts

sign painter on scaffolding

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

punchcutting_punches-matrix

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?