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A Brief History of Do-It-Yourself Typesetting

By Angela Riechers

A few years ago, The Atlantic Monthly assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and historians of technology, and asked them which inventions have done the most to shape modern life. Ten of them put the printing press at the top of the list. Moveable type certainly made reproducing words easier, cheaper, and faster than handwritten manuscripts. But even printing presses have been inaccessible to many—and that’s where do-it-yourself typesetting comes in. Without mechanical expertise, the average person can produce lettering for everything from crates of export goods to labels for a machine shop’s parts drawers. Let’s take a look at DIY type methods and how each is linked to the prevailing technology of its era.

STENCILS

The DIY type timeline starts with the stencil, an enduring printing technique practiced since prehistoric times, when our ancestors used ochre pigments to create silhouettes of their hands on cave walls. A quick, inexpensive, legible way to create type needed for shipping, commerce, industry, and architecture, it’s the ultimate DIY typesetting method. Stenciled letterforms also find their way into military, police, and fire department uses as well.   

Stenciled Orange Crush label.
stenciled spanish wine label
stenciled metro signs

Images from Stencil Type, by Steven Heller and Louise Fili, courtesy of Thames and Hudson.

The first commercially available stencil typeface, Stencil-Gothic, was released in 1885. Designer John West hailed from Brooklyn, New York, and it’s tempting to think he drew inspiration from the local stencil cutters, whose work appeared on crates and boxes of goods flowing in and out of the busy freight docks along the East River’s Brooklyn and lower Manhattan shores. By the late 1920s, a range of stencil types found their way into the offerings of European foundries. Many of the font names reflect the stencil’s mercantile or military heritage: Boxcar, Crate, Combat Tested, Shell Shock.

DECALS

The decal is a printed letterform that’s been around in one form or another since the 1700s. It only needs to be gently coaxed off its backing material and onto a surface—voila! Instant typography! The technique was invented by Simon François Ravenet, an 18th-century French engraver (and artist William Hogarth’s assistant). Decals offer a high level of precision and detail, giving them a significant advantage over stencils.

A box of type decals
a box of type decals
a box of type decals

Duro Sign Maker from Duro Decal Company (collection of Tobias Frere-Jones). Photograph by Angela Riechers.

In more recent times, people seeking to add polished, attractive addresses to their buildings could pick up decals at the local hardware store for a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional sign painter. The only trick was to make sure the decals were applied to a perfectly clean surface so they would adhere properly and were correctly positioned and level. Otherwise it was back to the hardware store for a razor blade to scrape off the unsuccessful try, and a new set of decals for a second attempt. Decals still add typographic flair to race cars, military vehicles, and model planes.

TYPEWRITERS WITH VARIABLE FONTS

While typewriters are a vital part of the DIY type tradition, most of them don’t qualify as typesetting devices, since the keystrikes only produce one size and weight of letterform. Typewriters with variable fonts were a game-changer, edging this method a bit closer to “real” type. For most of us, the first example that comes to mind is that mid-20th century icon, the IBM Selectric, but the very first typewriter that allowed a change of font, the Blickensderfer, dates to 1897.

The Blickensderfer had a unique rotating typewheel instead of traditional type bars that swing up and strike the inked ribbon with a type slug to transfer the letter onto the paper. A typist needed to swap out the entire wheel to change the font.

A Hammond Multiplex typewriter

A Hammond Multiplex typewriter (photo from Thngs).

In 1913, the Hammond Multiplex typewriter addressed this inconvenience by introducing a model that could hold two type shuttles on the machine at all times. Rotating the shuttle holder 180 degrees switched between type fonts in a matter of seconds. 

The IBM Selectric typewriter, designed by legendary architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes, was introduced to a receptive business market in 1961. Like the Blickensderfer and Hammond typewriters, the Selectric eliminated the moving carriage and type bars of traditional typewriters in favor of a golf-ball-shaped type head that allowed typists to reach higher word-per-minute speeds. The Selectric’s golf ball moved across the page and eliminated the traditional carriage return, meaning the typewriter took up less space on a sleek midcentury desk.

But more important (for type purposes, anyway), the removable ball also allowed for quick changes between fonts, including italics, scientific notation, and multiple languages In 1964, the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST) model became the first word-processing device. The Selectric brand was retired in 1986 as personal computers rose in popularity.

DYMO LETTERING SYSTEM

Since 1958, Dymo labels have kept things organized in workshops, children’s rooms, kitchens, military bases, and every other place where neatly labeled boxes or drawers are a boon to sanity.

Dymo-Mite label maker (photo by River Rat Antiques).

The handheld Dymo lettering device is about as basic as it gets: A user spins the font wheel, squeezes the trigger, and embosses a raised (always capital) letter into the malleable plastic adhesive-backed or metal tape. The plastic turns white from the stress of being stamped, meaning that no ink is needed. Steady finger pressure on the trigger is the key to creating consistent letters, which takes some practice. The devices were first made from sleek and durable heavy-gauge aluminum, and plastic models are still available for around $10, along with a wide range of more expensive tech-y devices that connect to a computer so labels can be designed onscreen and printed out on the labelmaker.

LETRASET

Letraset dry-transferable lettering granted professionals and amateurs alike the ability to set their own high-quality display type. Developed in England in 1958, Letraset was soon available in 70 countries and became a studio staple for students, printers, design studios, and advertising agencies seeking to avoid the time and expense of sending out for commercial phototypesetting.

picture of Letraset letters
picture of letraset letters

Images of Letraset sheets (left photo courtesy of Dan Rhatigan, right photo by Elisabeth Rutt).

Except for those tense moments when things started going horribly wrong (a misaligned letter, a suddenly broken piece of type, the realization at midnight that you just ran out of capital Es for a project due in the morning), transferring Letraset type by burnishing over each letter with a ballpoint pen was also fun. When Letraset was introduced, it relied on a process adapted from the wet-transfer method used for decals. By 1961, a new dry-transfer process made it a commercially viable product with mass-market appeal. Other companies, such as Chartpak, Zip-A-Tone, and Deca-Dry, produced dry-transfer lettering as well, but Letraset was the most successful thanks to its wide range of type styles, weights, and sizes.

THE PERSONAL COMPUTER

You knew we’d get here, right? Any chronological discussion of DIY type has to end with the graphical user interface (GUI), technology that kicked off the desktop publishing revolution in 1983, put countless type houses out of business, and forever changed the relationship of designers to the type they use. Computers as design tools gave us the ability to explore different solutions with ease, create complex layouts far more quickly, and refine typography with great precision. In 1973, Xerox PARC Alto (not sold commercially) was the first computer to make use of a GUI with windows, desktop icons, and a mouse. It inspired Apple’s Macintosh computer (shown below), introduced in 1984 as the first commercially available desktop machine. Its widespread accessibility and intuitive interface meant that pretty soon everyone in the design world was using a Mac.

Thanks to the personal computer, the opportunity to create good-looking text is now shared by designers and support staff alike. Many foundries offer versions of popular typefaces as pared-down “office use fonts,” with fewer options and refinements, meant to add on-brand typographic sophistication to day-to-day correspondence and other simple documents such as mailing labels, emails, and the like.

THE POWER OF TYPE

All these DIY methods share a democratic approach to type, bypassing the designer or commercial typesetter and putting control in the hands of anyone who needs to set type for personal or business use. The results may not be as refined as those achieved by professional designers using materials and methods honed through study and experience, but there is something powerful about the ability to produce attractively lettered text on one’s own. Good typography elevates everything it touches.