Digital Type: Pros and Cons?

Scott Murray's picture

Until relatively recently, type was an entirely analog medium. First wood, then metal, then film. And now, most type is digital. What have we gained in this transition, and what have we lost? What has changed as a result?

I am researching this subject for a graduate project and have my own thoughts, but would be curious to hear from others first.

Gary Long's picture

Lots of technical pros and cons of digital type versus non-digital forms, but I think the biggest ramification has been the ability now of anyone with a computer and some software, an investment of a only few thousand dollars, to design, produce, and market typefaces. This has resulted in a huge increase in the available typefaces. Probably more bad type than good, but still more good stuff than we would have had in the "old days". Type designers and foundries can take chances that they wouldn't have when bringing commercial typefaces to market cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

blank's picture

I feel like what really got lost, at least for a while, was personality. In he rush to get metal type to photo type, and again to churn out digital types, a lot of little things that were adorable or gorgeous in metal disappeared. Of course, now all of those goodies are coming back.

Depending on one’s feelings about digital perfection, we have either lost the random little bumps and misalignments, or gotten rid of them.

ebensorkin's picture

My Advice: Search typophile via google ( rather than by using the local search ) and see what you get. Just put in Metal Type, Photostype etc. There are a ton of threads here that address this question and in great detail. Then you can come back & ask a less broad or generic question.

Si_Daniels's picture

>First wood, then metal, then film.

How about clay! why does clay get no respect?

david h's picture

Matthew Carter: If you cut punches in steel, there is a huge penalty for making a mistake...Nowdays it's the opposite — computers are so forgiving. If you make a mistake, you just hit 'undo'.
I have to say, I couldn't be more glad to be working in today's technology — you can be more opposed to when I was cutting punches where you tended to be very much more conservative in design terms.

bieler's picture

In both pre-film and pre-digital periods likely it was more that experienced practitioners using traditional techniques lent to more appropriate typefaces for the printing technology of the times. More of a hand to hand thing I'd assume.

With the use of the camera, re: film, and now digital, and the printing technologies that were/are concurrent, all of these "appropriate" restrictions were by-passed. Less of a hand to hand thing. For better or worse, dependent upon your perspective on all of this I'd guess.


ebensorkin's picture

How about clay! Why does clay get no respect?

I respect you more & more.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

How about clay! why does clay get no respect?

Right on! Cuneiform rocks.

Si_Daniels's picture

>Right on! Cuneiform rocks.

Not quite movabale type, but this was...

ebensorkin's picture

Clay was quite a viable medium for the wax seals ( the design was reversed of course) in Roman Civ. Maybe other time periods too. There are some great glyph designs that come out of that I think.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Not quite movabale type, but this was...

Thanks for that link, Si! And I thought that the earliest movable type was made with wooden blocks... Now I've learned something new.


bieler's picture


Movable type is not about the material, it's about the ability to adjust the letter in regard to the material.


Giampa's picture

Letterpress fonts had distinct incarnations of their own. Punchcutting was earlier handcut. Discussion later came about mechanical punchcutting. John Dreyfus wrote an interesting book on the subject. Also I could tell you many things about both but this audience, I fear, would fall asleep.

Film only offered "scaled small caps", as opposed to "redrawn small caps". Film fonts offered ligature, tied character and swash "POVERTY". And you guessed it, poverty sucks.

Digitally speaking the first to reclaim those territories was Lanston under my direction. Followed by major digital foundries such as Adobe and English Monotype who called them expert fonts. I considered and treated all of our customers as experts, for the most part they were.

I have worked extensively producing both hot metal type and digital offerings. From that experience I can say nothing is more enjoyable that working with hot metal. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves. Or not very good at it.

There are many things I can say about digital type. One is that the good thing about digital type is that anyone one can do it, the bad thing about digital type is that anyone can do it.

Not too impressive.

Also the photo boys figured that they could overlap type. They did it because they could, not because it was a “good thing to do”. Those same kind of handlings creep into digital types. Stay away from rubber type.

The one feature of letterpress, never addressed by film, and ignored, not to mentioned not allowed to function in font formats is "optical scaling". This issue has been discussed over and over in this forum. I have tried to talk Hrant into activily. I am not sure what he is doing. Maybe someone should ask him.



ebensorkin's picture

Gerald, I am having a hard time following what you are talking about when you say “optical scaling”. Do you mean optically optimal shapes or just dumb ( as in unadjusted mechanical ) optical resizing? I assume it is the 1st, but I am not really sure.. And what have you been trying to convince Hrant of - that he should be addressing that aspect of things in his designs?

Giampa's picture


Increasing x height for smaller sizes, bolder for small sizes etc. Caslon accomplished this naturally. Mechanical punchcutters redrew and re-adjusted their machines. For pantograph cut faces some required different drawings for each size, others drawing for two or three sizes depending on whether the face was text or not.

I should point out that some "hand cut faces" were photo sized and only had one drawing for all sizes. These were recent developments. They sometimes used transfer types stuck on the end of a steel bar, and sometimes then etched to the surface giving a small relief of the image.

Optical scaled hand cut punches used also only one drawing. The optical scaling was performed on the fly by a very skilled craftsman. This work was natural and usually superior to other methods.

We accomplished optical scaling with digital type when applications allowed type three fonts.


Giampa's picture

"I should point out that some “hand cut faces” were photo sized and only had one drawing for all sizes. These were recent developments. They sometimes used transfer types stuck on the end of a steel bar, and sometimes then etched to the surface giving a small relief of the image."

These fonts were not optically scaled. They could be but not usually. I am not sure that was clear.


Giampa's picture

You mentioned Hrant. Naturally his fonts should be optical scaled. All fonts should. We had discussed working on the program to do just that.


Scott Murray's picture

Great points and ideas, everyone. Thanks for your feedback.

Giampa, I appreciate your point about digital type's scalability as a further extension of what we first saw done with film (and the good and bad that come with that. Also, sii, thanks for bringing clay into the discussion.

I wonder if anyone has experienced any unexpected positives or negatives of working with digital type? In the "Helvetica" film, someone — was it Massimo Vignelli or Erik Spiekermann? — makes the point that all the computer can do is help you work faster, but not better. The quality of the design is up to the designer, not the computer, the font file format, or the application. Certainly, every designer I know bemoans the abundance of low-quality work out there (it's never ours, right?), but at the same time, the desktop publishing/designing phenomenon has brought huge numbers of people into the field, increasing its visibility in popular culture in turn.

I mean, there's an unexpected positive right there: Non-type designers know what fonts are. (This is a positive because explaining your job to a non-designers is easier than ever.) Can you imagine anyone producing a film about a typeface 50 years ago?

Don McCahill's picture

Is this only about the medium, or about the field of typography in general. I think that typographic knowledge and practise was strong in the hot metal days, but waned considerably with the introduction of the phototype systems, and reached rock bottom a few years after the Mac became popular. It is probably stronger now, since such a large mass of people know a bit about type, a smaller number know a lot about it, and we probably have more expert typographers than we ever did in the past.

pattyfab's picture

Most of the posts in this thread have dealt with the pros and cons for the type designer - but for the graphic designer, the pros far outweigh the cons - at least compared to film, which is where I stepped into the flow.

We used to spend hours doing a cast-off, then use an arcane formula to figure out how many characters per line we'd get in type, then spec the type. If you weren't experienced, you could really screw up and way over- or undershoot your mark. It was crazy expensive if you had to do it over. You then got galleys which you'd lay in and hope they fit. Then you had to do the whole thing over again with repro. Wax, thinner, T-squares, triangles, acetate, X-acto knives, etc etc. All those bloody tools.

Digital type enables you to try out a bunch of different fonts in your design, print them out and compare, using actual copy.

Furthermore, for anyone who remembers hand letterspacing display type, I don't think I need to say more. Not to mention having to cut the galleys apart line by line in order to wrap the type around a photo. Etc, etc, etc.

pattyfab's picture

The cons of course - anyone thinks they can be a graphic designer, and they also think they can set type. Type used to be set by professionals, and design left to the designers. There is an unbelievable amount of bad design and typesetting out there now.

brianlawler's picture

I've been at this for a long time, and I made fonts when they were photographic (I had a V-I-P and a P&M font camera). It was dreadful.

What I think is so impressive about modern digital typography is:

a. sharpness. There has never been an era in typography where the type was so sharp. Anything optical, anything mechanical, was subject to softening factors... paper, ink, lenses, film, etc. Now it's razor-sharp all the time, and I appreciate that.

b. accessibility. Though there is, as Patty points out above, a lot of really lousy design out there, there is more good design than ever before. The tools provide precision to those who know how to use it. I argue that there has never been a better tool for fine typography than Adobe Illustrator. I routinely work in Illustrator with my cursor key movement set to 0.0001 in. That, to me, is worth the price of several decades of training and practice in typography. I love to tweak things so they really fit.

c. I also don't miss the X-Acto knives, the Rapidograph pens, nor the triangles (which were never square anyway).


bieler's picture


Yeah, I can imagine a film about a typeface fifty years ago. There is a rather phenomenal short on Frederic Goudy producing a typeface from drawing to casting. From the silent film days and produced in the fashion of German Expressiomism. I don't have a current link to it but it is on the web somewhere.


The Bieler Press

mosh's picture

I miss the way the pages in a metal-pressed book feel :( Most of the type nowadays looks very blurred if you inspect it closely.

Florian Hardwig's picture

In the “Helvetica” film, someone — was it Massimo Vignelli or Erik Spiekermann? — makes the point that all the computer can do is help you work faster, but not better.

IIRC, that was Wim Crouwel.

ebensorkin's picture

All fonts should ( be optically scaled/optimized)

Yes, I agree completely.

Giampa's picture


Sorry, I think I spelled your name wrong. I get very little time to read over my writings. Time is at a premium for me at this time.

Still, that is no excuse, once again, sorry.


ebensorkin's picture

No problem. Cheers!

Koppa's picture

pattyfab: There is an unbelievable amount of bad design and typesetting out there now.

I couldn't agree more. But I wonder if this is a function of "anyone thinks they can be a graphic designer" or the general lack of education and respect for all things culturally, artistically, and intellectually cool in the United States. I tend to think it's the latter. I think it's more unconscious than conscious. Therefore, I'll go on record as saying it's not the technology that's creating the bad design, it's our culture (or lack of it).

Am I perceiving this correctly? Is there more bad design in the United States than in Europe or elsewhere around the world? Who's countryside has the ugliest billboards? That's probably material for another thread.

Miss Tiffany's picture

I think there is bad design everywhere. However, some cultures have a cult of good design to begin with so we see it less. Or perhaps we only see the good because that is all that is published far enough abroad for all of us to observe.

Nick Shinn's picture

There is an unbelievable amount of bad design and typesetting out there now.

As an absolute quantity, or a relative amount?

WIth digitization, the number of "graphic artists" has increased hugely (25-fold, according to Pamela Pfiffner in her book on/for Adobe). And now consumers are setting type for garage-sale flyers and their blogs and Myspace page.

However, I would say that in absolute terms, there is more "good" design and typesetting than before digitization, and type culture as a whole is better than when it was a closed shop. Sure, that situation maintained high professional standards, but at the expense of being turgid. Now things are wide-open -- surely the creativity of the hive-mind cannot be denied?!

ebensorkin's picture

but at the expense of being turgid

Well put.

Giampa's picture


"a. sharpness. There has never been an era in typography where the type was so sharp. Anything optical, anything mechanical, was subject to softening factors... paper, ink, lenses, film, etc. Now it’s razor-sharp all the time, and I appreciate that."

I am not sure about razor sharp, "lots of low rez out there". Also many early faces, by big foundries, compromised outlines to optimize low rez. That is certainly a minus.

Film had serious problems, if changes had to be made, and the job was high quality, the entire text would be run through again. Reason: the chemicals deteriorated. Reproducing a "deterioration" was not an option.

Another complaint about digital type is that they are not "points and Picas". Digital fonts are based on low rez screens.

Also digital type, at least as you all know it, is restricted in outline units, not to be confused with fit units. Ikarus was far superior.

Another thing to think about is that film fonts were more often than not digital. ITC, Letraset, Berthold made good use of digital font outlines produced on Ikarus software.

So it may not be so much the digital aspect, but more so the output device. Also what is so sharp about screen fonts?

Rather a newsprint letterpress proof.

And last but not least I do not agree typography is better, or that there is more products that are better than the past. If you removed digital reproductions of hot metal faces you would be in a negative balance.

Percentage wise, at least in America, it would be hard to beat hot metal in the twenties for both craftsmanship and design. And while there was less type to work with, they were at least worthy, for the most part, of looking at. Look at the ATF catalogue and tell me if you disagree. The typography was excellent. The type offering were inspirational.


ebensorkin's picture

I need to get a copy of an ATF catalogue. I do think that some of the work of the last 20 years is plenty worthy though. Don't you?

Giampa's picture


"I do think that some of the work of the last 20 years is plenty worthy though. Don’t you?"

Some great letterpress work.

This falls just a couple of years earlier than your cut off, but that was not my last work. I continued letterpress printing until 1994.

There has been some excellent "digital typography" by "letterpress typographers", Bob Reid leaps to mind. Beyond that we stretch?

Eben, can you point to any examples that support that there is a serious body of digital typographical excellence performed by persons outside the letterpress experience?


Scott Murray's picture

bieler, thanks for mentioning that silent film about Goudy. I found it here:

Nick Shinn's picture

Gerald, never mind printing, why aren't you bemoaning the demise of the scriptorium? :-)

ebensorkin's picture

I will see what strikes me as worthy over the next week. When I wrote that I think I was thinking about the fonts themselves rather than the design & the printing. Before I really think about this I would like to be clear about what I am thinking about. You mean all together correct? If so that will present some problems because I don't think the best printing is done by type designers or the the best type design done by printers. It's a sort of apples & oranges thing.


I am - in a very limited and specific way...

Giampa's picture


"If so that will present some problems because I don’t think the best printing is done by type designers or the the best type design done by printers."

I am not so sure, I rather like Metropolitan, or otherwise know as Centaur. Also the companion italic by Frederick Warde.
Both were printers.

Hopefully this extension of parameters will make your search easier. Good luck. I would like to have reason to believe that the evolution of typography is not "stuck". Evolution of mankind has become stuck. Natural selection has become greatly diminished by modern medicine.

The third world is our only hope.

Are you a creationist, I hope not, I am treading on thin ice. Actually I am leading up to Nick Schinn.


Nick: "Gerald, never mind printing, why aren’t you bemoaning the demise of the scriptorium? :-)"

I don't know for sure, some of it interests me but I go into a panic attack when I get close to it. The religeous connection is offputting for me. Also the people who gravitate towards scriptorium are alarmingly weird, maybe you have to eat magic mushrooms to like it. I heard you quit? Good!

Some people don't like Rhetulus Sp. and the Chroysochra Rajah, I love them. But wierdos, I give them wide berth. Call me crazy, no mushrooms for this chap. We should meet some day, I would be happy to show you my bug collection. :-) You heard our good friend Jack died, he enjoyed bugs too.

P.S. By the way, I have noticed your work has greatly improved since I elucidated on William Morris. I am glad to see you have embodied the Arts & Crafts movement.

Nick Shinn's picture

...I elucidated on William Morris

Right. Who needs shrooms when you can get off on Old Bill!?

Giampa's picture

Nick: "Right. Who needs shrooms when you can get off on Old Bill!?"

Canadians are brilliant.


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