A Career in Type Design

Ron passing on his knowledge to Damien

Ron passing on his knowledge to Damien

Dalton Maag has recently begun a new training programme for its new recruits, presided over by Ron Carpenter, and this is the second of a series of articles giving an insight into the process.

Ron has a wealth of knowledge about font design, with over twenty years of experience in the business. This made him the perfect man to teach our new recruits about font design. We talked to him about how he came to be a font designer and his early days in font design.

“I got into type design rather by accident. In hindsight it may have had something to do with being left handed, and the effect this had on my writing style – even writing on a horizontal line is a challenge most left-handers will recognise! As a young lad in the late 1950s and early 60s the writing of birthday and Christmas present thank-you letters was a much hated chore and I would end up writing numerous drafts before I was satisfied with the results. The content was probably quite poor, but it had to look right. In retrospect I suppose I was aware that writing style revealed something about yourself and should be treated with care. It was many years later that I met up with the same issues in type design and its connection with branding.

“A fascination with maps lead to my first job – in cartography. The company provided large scale maps based on aerial photography for local authorities and civil engineers. Converting these photographs to readable maps required a fair degree of accuracy – so I guess I was developing an eye for detail. When the company moved to Northern Ireland I decided not to follow, so ended up answering an advertisement for a draughtsman at Monotype’s Type Drawing Office in nearby Salfords. Note the word draughtsman, not designer.

“Much of the work carried out in my early years there consisted of creating new glyphs (called specials) requested by clients to augment existing fonts, so we got to work with many different type styles, which again in hindsight was a good experience.

“Letterpress was still in use at that time (1968 onwards) and optical scaling was the norm, so the re-interpretation of font families for use at specific sizes was an important part of day to day design work, requiring accuracy of interpretation more than creativity. Some new designs were being developed, but these were mostly adaptations (to the Monotype system) of existing designs, or were commissioned from specialist type designers working outside of the industry – José Mendoza’s beautiful artwork for Photina springs to mind.

“Pencilled sketches were made onto cartridge paper using customised rotating drawing boards and, to ensure permanence and clarity, these were finished off using french curves, also custom made. Production processes from drawing, pattern, punch, matrix and type, required drawings which were back-to-front. An ascender to descender height of 10 inches (about 25 cm) was required and all drawing was carried out in outline, so the system was not intended for the creative aspects of type design, but as a means to copy or modify existing designs. It took several weeks to create letterpress prints, so the proofing and checking process was, by modern standards, extremely slow – and costly.

“Later developments into phototypesetting and eventually digital laser composing machines freed us from some of the constraints of the old system and smaller film positives provided a more designer friendly basis for creativity – we could even work with characters facing the right direction! It opened up opportunities to create new designs which I was quite keen to do. My favoured method of working in that pre-digital period was to sketch onto tracing film; modifications and refinements could be made by flipping the drawing over and sketching onto the back surface – a kind of early mask layer! These drawings could then be reduced on a photocopier before cutting out individual letters which could be arranged and rearranged into useful test words. For a more realistic representation these letters were inked in using a fine mapping pen for the outline, and felt-tip pen for the rest, with a minifying glass providing a further reduction in viewing size. It was a liberating period – after years of reproducing and modifying existing designs I could explore and experiment with new ideas.

“Of course, digital print and display screen technologies changed everything but whatever means are used to produce and display fonts, the issues remain largely the same. Designing type is about texture as well as form. It’s easy with high resolution screens to become seduced by the elegance of the larger letter forms we work with during the design process, without necessarily considering the textural effect resulting from their use at smaller reading sizes. I like to imagine working ‘at size’, as punch-cutters from the past would have done, dealing directly with minute detail. There seems to be a conflict in type design between the freedom necessary to be creative and the discipline to eventually execute things precisely. It’s part art and it’s part architecture.”

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Ron, always learning, takes part in a cyrillic font design workshop.

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