Digital type has gone from a handful of commercial implementations in the late 1960s to the dominant technology of text transmission today. Surfing along with Moore's Law, digital type shot past metal and photographic type and disrupted the 500 year hegemony of analog printing to become today's dominant mode of written information transfer. Nearing its half-century anniversary, digital type is older than most of the people who use and read it, but its vast scope and influence means that interest in its early days is growing.
I began to study digital type in the late 1970s, and in 1981, Patricia Seybold at the Seybold Report, a publishing industry newsletter, invited me to write an article on the aesthetics and technology of digital type. New, comparatively inexpensive digital machines were becoming popular in commercial typesetting, but many, if not most, traditional typographers were justifiably worried that digital technology made type quality worse, although digital production was faster and cheaper – plenty good enough for the economics of newspapers and phone books but insufficient for higher echelons of publishing, advertising, and graphic design. To evaluate the quality concerns, I examined digital type technology in relation to the traditional aesthetics of typography.
My article appeared in August 1981 and was one of the first published essays discussing type aesthetics in digital technology.*
I wrote the text, Kris Holmes lettered and drew most of the illustrations, and Jonathan Seybold edited it, wrote a cover-page introduction (cover omitted here) and wrote part of a short conclusion (included).
Enough time has gone by that this article has become a kind of digital archaeological artifact buried under seeming aeons of digital rubble, wreckage, and cyber-crud that have piled up since. Yet, many of its topics are still relevant today, so I post it here as an historical document. It is the first in a planned series of weekly posts on the early era of digital typography.
These first eight pages constitute a condensed history of typographic design and revival, setting the stage for the entrance of digital technology in the following section. Come back next Tuesday for the rest of the article, part 1.2, about the transition to digital type. Then revisit on following Tuesdays for more, including my personal recollections as a ronin in the Font Wars.**
Other essays on these subjects that I co-wrote or edited appeared in other publications about the same time, and will be cited here or in future posts.***
[To read a larger image of each page, click to enlarge it.]
— Chuck Bigelow
— Chuck Bigelow
* This was not the first such review of digital type. An excellent treatise on "Digital Textsetting" was well researched and superbly designed by Michael McPherson as his 1979 M.F.A. thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design, but he chose not to publish it.
** Frank Blokland of the Dutch Type Library has asked me to write down my recollections of the early days of digital font technology, as part of ongoing interest in digital font technology connected to the Peter Karow Award, honoring a digital type pioneer. I plan to preview those here in the B&H blog.
*** In 1983 as professor of digital typography at Stanford University, I organized an international seminar on "The Computer and the Hand in Type Design" for the Association Typographique Internationale, and Donald Day and I wrote an article on "Digital Typography" published in Scientific American in August 1983. (Some papers from the Stanford seminar were subsequently published in the journal Visible Language, Volume 19, Issue 1, 1985. The remaining, unpublished manuscripts from the seminar were donated to the Cary Collection of Rochester Institute of Technology.)