A typical type design desktop situation from the late 1980s, comprised of an Apple Macintosh that runs Ikarus M software, keyboard and mouse, letterform master drawings marked for digitization using an Aristo tablet and a sensor device. (Reconstructed from Erik Spiekermann’s collection, photographed by Norman Posselt, Berlin)

A brief overview of developments in digital type design

This article was first published in Yearbook of Type #3, (Slanted Publishers, 2018). Read it here with additional images in full color and extended captions.

Tools and technology have always had a strong influence on new type designs. The second half of the 20th century is particularly determined by linear and concurrent developments in an environment of constantly changing and transitioning technologies that were used to design and produce type — with manufacturers rising and disappearing as well as new tools eclipsing in and fading out again.

In a small pamphlet issued by the D. Stempel type foundry in 1953, Die künstlerische Drucktype (the artistic printing type), the author Albert Windisch raises the question: “How does a typeface come into being?” He describes a long process from early design sketches to cast metal sorts (so-called foundry type) with many obstacles to overcome: “In the oldest method matrices are produced from the embossing of a steel punch, that carries the face of the type, into a small metal block. The making of such punches is the job of the punchcutter. […] At first the drawings [of a type designer] are photographed to match the size that is to be cut precisely mirror image on four to six centimeter long and square punches.” This was followed by several steps of tedious adjusting, until “the matrices were final in appearance, so that they could be inserted in the casting machine and used to cast type.” [1]

A metal sort in the making: Once the punchcutter has engraved the mirror-image of a letter in steel, this so-called punch is used to make an imprint in a copper block. The block serves as a matrix that is inserted into a hand mould to cast metal sorts, made from lead. (Albert Windisch: Die künstlerische Drucktype, Frankfurt am Main 1953, p. 6)
Lowercase letter ‘a’ of Gerard Unger’s typeface Demos, decomposed of several hundred bitmaps, to be used for typesetting on the Hell Digiset, a CRT composing machine. (Visible Language, vol. 13, no. 2, Cleveland/OH 1979, p. 137, with kind permission from the collection of Gerard Unger, Bussum)

While this process was still true for the time of Stempel’s publication, it changed entirely with the rise of phototype technology about a decade later. Heavy type cases were abandoned and negative filmstrips replaced brass matrices. With the introduction of Dr. Rudolf Hell’s typesetting machine, the Digiset 50T1 in 1965 (considered a so-called ‘third-generation phototypesetter’), letterforms were beamed by spots of light through a cathode ray tube (CRT) in the composing process. Thus, in German this technology is known as Lichtsatz (Licht means light, noun, — ironically the inventor’s name Hell also means light, the adjective). Although letters were still exposed photographically at the end of this composing process, the ‘matrices’ of the fonts had been replaced by a numerical description and letters were decomposed to single square dots (the term ‘bitmap’ is probably appropriate). The font data itself was stored on the machine and not on a separate device: Letterforms had completely lost their physical representation and were essentially ‘dematerialized.’ This process was known as ‘digital photocomposition.’ [2]

Type specimens of Marconi, the first commercially available digital typeface (released in 1976) and Edison, Hermann Zapf’s second typeface for the Hell Digiset typesetting machine. (With kind permission from the collection of Erik Spiekermann, Berlin)

Type from other manufacturers could not be used on the Digiset, therefore Hell established their own exclusive design program. In 1976 the first four commercially available digital typefaces were Marconi and Edison by Hermann Zapf (1918–2015) as well as Demos and Praxis by Gerard Unger (*1942), recent recipient of the 2017 TDC Medal. Designing type for the Digiset was a meticulous process; large master drawings had to be applied on a 100 by 200 unit grid (with coordinates) by hand for each glyph, before these positions could by transferred to the machine by a technician (the new punchcutter). While Unger drew every pixel by hand, black on white, it is known that Zapf used a grid of black squares and filled the ‘negative space’ with white-out. Each typeface contained four weights in the first release with about 100 glyphs each — “no joy for a type designer” Zapf later recalled. [3] It was his fellow type designer (and wife) Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse who carried out a fair share of the work. [4]

In 1976 Hell presented their first set of typefaces for the Digiset in a collective specimen: Marconi by Hermann Zapf on the cover page, Demos and Praxis by Gerard Unger featured on a double spread. (From the collection of the University of Reading, Department of Typography and Graphic Communication)

Unger remembered, designing Demos reflected the aim to match his own “desire for aesthetic as well as perceptual quality with the necessary restrictions of technology.” [5] For one thing, the Digiset was not portable, but its greatest drawback was perhaps its limitation in reproducible sizes: it was low at first (16 point) and improved rather slowly.

The solution that made scaling type without loss of resolution possible lay in vector formats. The earliest vector-based type designs were developed by Allen V. Hershey, funded by the US Navel Weapons Laboratory and documented in his technical report Calligraphy for Computers in 1967. [6] So-called ‘Bézier’ curves were probably first discovered as an algorithm for calculations of streamline shapes by the engineers Paul de Casteljau (*1930) in 1959, while working at Citroën, and Pierre Bézier (1910–1999) in 1962, who then worked at Renault.

Left: A draftswoman at URW uses a sensor device on an Aristo tablet to trace marked drawings for Ikarus digitization. Right: The digital data is used to cut letterforms on ‘Rubylith’ masking film on an Aristomat 201M plotter for phototype technology. (From the ‘Papers of the 1983 ATypI Working Seminar’, Cary Graphics Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology, with kind permission of URW++, Hamburg)

Beginning in 1972, Peter Karow (*1940) developed a type design system called Ikarus at the Hamburg-based firm URW. The origin of this concept can be traced back to the company Aristo and their “Coordinatograph with numerical continuous path control,” [7] a device introduced in 1959, that was used to plot and cut complex shapes on ‘Rubylith’ masking film (a trademark produced by the Ulano Corporation), particularly splines for shipbuilding. [8] By 1972 the entrepreneur Walter Brendel developed the idea to use Aristo’s flatbed plotter to automatically cut master patterns for quick and precise reproductions of letterforms in phototype technology, for which he consulted the engineer Karow at URW. Karow famously compared, what seemed sufficient for the streamlined outer skin of ships would be just fine for letters. [9] Inspired by the interpolation theory, he developed a working process at URW known as ‘hand-digitization’ using a digitizing tablet and a sensor to trace marks on analog drawings of letterforms, transforming them into digital vector outlines. The process of developing digital type for the production of phototype matrices cannot be underestimated, as it led to the consideration of ink-traps, spikes, and other features, in letterforms. Ikarus was presented at the 1975 ATypI conference in Warsaw.

Released in 1985, the Apple LaserWriter was the first device that carried PostScript description for digital fonts. (With kind permission from the collection of Frank Romano at the Museum of Printing, Haverhill/MA, photographed by Norman Posselt)

By the early 1980s several other type design systems had been developed, partly with different approaches: e. g. Donald Knuth’s Metafont described letterforms by defining parameters for digital strokes in different widths, while the Xerox Alto Font Design System and the Camex Letter Input Processor followed the concept of digitizing an outline. These and other systems were demonstrated at design conferences, most notably at the 1983 ATypI working seminar at Stanford. [10] Around the same time John Warnock (*1940) and Charles Geschke (*1939) developed the page description language called PostScript that could also be used to describe vector-based fonts. It received wide-spread recognition in 1985 when it was implemented in the Apple LaserWriter. While fonts were displayed as bitmaps on screens, the outline information was only present in the printer. In an environment of stand-alone solutions that could not be connected very easily, PostScript served as the language between all devices — it was essentially device-independent.

The story of Erik Spiekermann’s FF Meta (not to be confused with Metafont), reveals a typeface that underwent the technological transitions of its time: what began in Ikarus in 1985 was continued on various systems by different assistants — often re-drawn and re-digitized — over the course of five years. [11] Today it still does not look too clean and is marked with a few “quirks” from that period. With PostScript type design tools arrived on the personal computer. By the time desktop computers became affordable and available in people’s homes, the design of new typefaces was no longer limited to a handful of geeks and those who could afford costly hardware. There were plenty of type design editors to choose from, e. g. Fontographer, Fontastic, Fontstudio.

Early sketches of capital ‘O’ and ‘Q’ of Postschrift (also known as ‘PT’, short for Post Type, released as FF Meta in 1991) on transparent paper, with corrections by Spiekermann, dated June 1985. The annotation on the right demands more space between the overshoot and the tail, “like in the regular weight”. (With kind permission from the collection of Erik Spiekermann)

Different widths of letters have existed since Gutenberg and new tools to create variations of existing letterforms more easily, such as the infamous pantograph, were always invented. [12] While expanding and condensing with optical correction were modification features in Ikarus, Adobe’s Multiple Masters was an attempt to produce weights for different sizes in digital typography more affectively. A new concept in letterform variation, an OpenType format specification for variable fonts was launched officially in 2016. It enables a range of weights as well as the slightest interpolated instances between them to be carried in one single font file. We are currently seeing the first typefaces that make use of this feature. Today there are more type designers out there than ever before. There are a handful of universities that offer in-depth education, some with an emphasis on type history, others with a focus on programming or font engineering. A new digital type foundry is born out of just a handful of fonts and weights every other week.

Variable font technology enables a range of weights as well as an infinite number of interpolated instances between them, all stored in a single font. The specimen on the left demonstrates a vertical axis of stroke weights as well as a horizontal axis of letter widths — features of the type family Dunbar, released with CJ Type in 2016. CJ Dunn’s Dunbar is not an exact digital revival, but a rediscovery of Jakob Erbar’s Erbar Grotesk, released in 2016 as a family of essentially three styles (Text, Low, Tall) and as one of the first in the variable fonts format. (With kind permission from CJ Dunn, New York City)


[1] Translated from the original:

Das älteste Verfahren erzeugt die Matrize durch Einprägen eines mit dem plastischen Schriftbild versehenen Stahlstempels in einen kleinen Metallblock. […] Als erstes wir die Zeichnung auf die zu schneidende Größe photographiert und als Spiegelbild auf das feinpolierte Kopfende des vier bis sechs Zentimeter langen, vierkantigen Stahlstempels haarscharf übertragen. […] Erst nach dieser peinlichsauberen Justierung ist die Matrize in ihrer Gestalt so endgültig, da. sie in die Gießmaschine eingesetzt und für den Schriftguss benutzt werden kann.

In: Albert Windisch: Die künstlerische Drucktype. Wie entsteht eine Schrift? Wie beurteilt man eine Schrift?, Frankfurt / Main 1953, p. 6 ff.

[2] Read more in: Fiona G. E. Ross: Digital Photocomposition, in: The Printed Bengali Character and its Evolution, Richmond 1999, p. 195 ff.

[3] Hermann Zapf: Vom Stempelschnitt zur Digitalisierung von Schriftzeichen. Die technische Veränderung der Schriftherstellung, in: Stephan Füssel (ed.): Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Mainz 2000, p. 31.

[4] From a conversation with Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse in Darmstadt, March 8th, 2015, mentioned by the author in the talk Gudrun Zapf — Ein Leben für die Schrift at TYPO Berlin 2016.

[5] Gerard Unger: The Design of a Typeface, in: Visible Language, vol. 13, no. 2, Cleveland 1979, p. 134.

[6] Watch Frank Grießhammer’s lecture on The Hershey Fonts, held at Type@Cooper, San Francisco 2016 [last opened 26 August, 2017]

[7] Peter Karow: Digital Formats for Typefaces, Hamburg, 1987, p. 54.

[8] The term ‘spline’ originally referred to long strips of thin wood that were used by draftsmen in aircraft and ship building to engineer curves. To create rather complex curves such as tangents, lead weights with small attached hooks were used to hold the spline in place, similar to the use of control points on Bézier curves.

[9] Peter Karow: Ikarus in Hamburg, in: José Encarnção/Herbert Kuhlmann (eds.): Grafik in Industrie and Technik, Berlin 1989, p. 67 f.

[10] Read more about different type design systems presented at the 1983 ATypI working seminar here: Ferdinand P. Ulrich: From Punch Cutters to Number Crunchers, in: Eye Magazine, no. 94, London 2017, p. 38 ff.

[11] Read about the process of FF Meta in the designer’s own words here: Erik Spiekermann: Post Mortem. How I Once Designed a Typeface for Europe’s Biggest Company, in: Baseline, no. 7, London 1985, p. 6 ff.

[12] Read about the extensive use of pantographic devices that created variations of woodtype letters in: Rob Roy Kelly: American Wood Type. 1828–1900. Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types, New York 1977.

This article is the result of Ferdinand P. Ulrich’s ongoing PhD research on the discourse of transitioning type design technologies in the early digital era, supervised by Gerry Leonidas and Sue Walker at the University of Reading, Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, funded by the AHRC Design Star CDT.

The article was first published in Yearbook of Type, vol. 3, Karlsruhe 2018, pp. 442–445 (Photograph by Norman Posselt)