In the first half of the 20th century a significant
workforce was engaged in the production of one-off
posters, signs, and show cards. Distinctly different
from commercially set type, the work created
by “lettering artists” was included in all sorts of
advertisements as well as what we would now call
environmental graphics. The supply of display fonts
available for use was limited, and frequently there
was no alternative to hand-rendered type—even for
things that would be mechanically reproduced.
So what killed the demand for professional hand
lettering? Among the more notable factors was the
1959 introduction of Letraset, transferable lettering
that made custom work possible without advanced
drawing skills. Another likely cause was the Photo
Typositor, which revolutionized typesetting in the
1970s and ’80s. With this machine, the operator
could visually do kerning so that the type could be
set tight, normal, wide, or even with letters touching.
Yet another factor may have been the design education
curriculum, which had evolved from emphasizing
manual techniques to stressing conceptual skills.
Today’s designer—not constrained by the stash
of rub-down letters available at art supply stores,
nor confined to the hours the typesetter’s studio is
open—has an infinite array of options for employing
display type. But the truth is that the allure of handdrawn
type persists. There is certain charm to that
which is custom made for a particular project or use.
Such work is inarguably more human in its feel, perhaps
because of its inherent flaws and imprecision.
Luckily, the lettering artists of days gone by have
left us a legacy—an impressive lot of reference material—
and today’s designers are smart to gain inspiration
from those typographic pioneers.
For many designers, the quest to find handrendered
reference material is almost as much fun
as winning a typography award. While much of the
research done for design projects today is conducted
from an ergonomical chair in front of a nonglare
computer screen, good historic typography examples
are often found in things that were ephemeral, many
one of a kind. Let’s look at where to find some wonderful
reference materials for this vanished era.
Antique stores and malls
Even if you’re not an antique buff, you’ll benefit
from a shopping trip to one of these venues. Pick
one that specializes in paper goods—including
books—for the best selection of historic typeface
examples. You may find your inspiration in some
unexpected places, such as an old high school yearbook,
a manual for a household item, or even the
metal plate on a small appliance. Don’t forget to
check out antiques venues when you travel, as different
regions will yield various sorts of items.
Tag, garage, and estate sales
People who have lived in their homes for a number
of years typically accumulate stashes of old books,
magazines, packaging, and all sorts of interesting
things. Items at a garage or estate sale are often in
excellent condition and attractively priced. To find
sales in your area, consult the newspaper or keep
your eyes open for signs posted on telephone poles.
Used bookstores and book fairs
Many designers report picking up a coveted copy of
an old Graphis annual or an ancient Art Direction
show book at a dusty bookstore or during a book
fair. Also available in these settings are things
like old comic books, posters, and occasionally
even used record albums. Best of all, the items are
typically priced to move. Another source for rare
and out-of-print books is, of course, the internet.
Check out sites such as www.alibris.com or
Very often old retail stores will sell everything when
they close—from fixtures to scrapbooks of their old
advertisements to in-store signage. And you can
strike a bonanza when a printer or service bureau
decides to change locations and subsequently parts
with old samples or reference materials. You may not
even need to wait for a business to have a sale; sometimes
a well-timed inquiry will be rewarded.
Through the viewfinder in your camera
There are many reference materials you might never
truly own, but can “collect” just the same via a
photographic image. Signage, marquees, exhibits,
or other unobtainable artifacts are easily captured.
Take your camera everywhere or invest in a disposable
one for when something engages your eye.
OK, now we’re back in front of a computer screen,
but the fact is there is a ton of good reference stuff
on eBay and other auction sites. Check out auctions
for magazines such as Flair (produced for just one
year and highly stylized), vintage clothes that still
have their hangtags attached, or old board games.
It’s no secret that many designers use the work of
their contemporaries as a jumping off point for their
own projects. By looking back further—to a time
when “lettering artist” was a career path—new creative
dimensions are open to exploration.