Remembering the art of type spec’ing


Before desktop computers, typesetters set type. Designers provided fully marked up manuscripts (yes, you had to count characters) including written, highly detailed instructions as to how to set the type to fit the layout. It was important to be accurate because resetting galleys at your expense cut into a project’s budget and profit.

Setting type was expensive and designers tried to avoid the following situations:

  • AAs (authors’s alterations), meaning either (1) the writer or client changed the copy after the initial manuscript was released, this one was clear cut; or (2) the designer was unclear, mistaken or forgot something. Not so good.
  • PEs (printer’s errors) as with bluelines or proofs in 20th century printing. Unless the error was completely obvious from either the typesetter or designer, this discussion was a gray area. Each side tended to finger-point to avoid charges, usually resulting in splitting the difference.

Designers were loyal to their typesetters – the advantage, a shorthanded script and beautiful galleys. If you were trying a new typesetter, the manuscript resembled architectural blueprints.

Fitting copy required a showing catalog for reference, encompassing an individual font family. Type showings displayed typefaces in various sizes, weights, leadings and spacings allowing the designer to count characters in a specific setting. These catalogs were THE BIBLE of each particular foundry’s font cuts. The showings served as guides but also as sales tools for the issuing foundry and/or typesetter. In most cases, the showings were beautifully designed – a testament to the font and/or the typesetter’s capabilities.

A defunct chapter in the history of graphic design.

Left: This “found art” is a marked-up manuscript from 1986. Judging by the crossing out, the tape and the note to call for a pickup, I’d say this was a rush. I can’t understand my own handwriting, it was amazing that the typesetter did. Right: Berthold Bodoni, Berling and New Baskerville showing catalogs circa 1984 thru 86, as compared to a recent Emigre Mrs Eaves catalog. A tale of two eras.

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