A new column by PNCA faculty and Crack Press | Plazmtype Design owner Pete McCracken ’95 explores new frontiers in webfonts.
Welcome to Type Talk, a new column by Pete McCracken ’95, PNCA faculty member, owner of Crack Press | Plazmtype Design and PNCA alumnus. In the column, Pete investigates and shares his experiences with “type trends, type boo-boos, interesting type as well as awareness and information about current typographic shenanigans.” In this installment, Type Talk spans centuries as Pete explores new frontiers in webfonts and pays homage to a venerable American wood type museum.
Wood And WOFF—New Type not the same as the Old Type
How did we get from wood type to WOFF fonts? First, a quick definition to set the stage. Wood type was invented in the 1800s to satisfy the demands to create larger poster advertisements for competing businesses, WOFF fonts are the new standard created for displaying typefaces on web sites. There is an unexpected link to these two very different typographic technologies in that each process allows the typographer to work with type in much larger formats. Wood type was the only way to implement and use in letterpress printing at sizes larger than a few inches. WOFF, Web Open Font Format, files—also called webfonts—allow designers to use larger type on the web with perfect clarity, unencumbered by slow connection speeds.
Once again, the typographic industry has continued to evolve and reinvent itself with WOFF, which allow browsers to display typefaces as html text instead of image files. The webfonts reside in web site servers around the globe and are called to action when someone visits the site through a subscription based service. WOFF files can be hosted on individual website servers but require converted WOFF fonts and browsers that are up-to-date with font embedding technology. A competing technology is @font-face, which uses a script to display TTF and OTF font files. The downside is that there continues to be concerns within the industry that this will allow hackers to easily steal the font files.
Webfonts are still so new that few companies seem to be utilizing them outside of larger web-savvy companies with the wherewithal to implement, test and update the web technologies very quickly. You’ll be surprised when you discover you’re looking at a site using webfonts. Hint: if the type looks very different from Arial or Verdana and you can select the text, it’s probably a webfont. The availability will spread to many more users as Google and Typekit have recently announced an open source collaboration.
A funny thing about the usage of webfonts is that it can be very restrictive—boxed in by web technology similar to working with wood and lead type in the bed of a press. For example, a web designer is not able to set type on a diagonal or curve, or stretch and distort type to grotesque proportions—type designers world wide shiver at even the mention of type being stretched to fit. The biggest advantages for the designers and web developers are a larger selection of webfont typefaces that appear very clean at large sizes, are search engine friendly and easier to update. Using this new technology creates simple, elegant and sophisticated typesetting on webpages. Can you imagine that?
Typekit.com is just one company that is offering the delivery of converted fonts through a monthly subscription. Other companies creating webfont technologies include typotheque.com, fontdeck.com and kernest.com.
Wood Type—An Era on the Verge of Closure
As a new era of type usage emerges, another era of type history may be coming to a close. The Hamilton Wood Type Museum, Two Rivers, Wisconsin, will shutter its doors unless funding and more interest from the design and print communities can work together to keep it active. The Hamilton Museum is, per their website, “the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type.” As writer Kathleen Rooney said in a recent online post, “Located in a vast and drafty factory building on Jefferson Street, the semi-haphazard, semi-organized museum houses—in drawers, cabinets, shelves, and boxes—1.5 million individual pieces of type in over 1,000 styles and sizes, from a quarter of an inch to four feet tall. This is the largest such collection on public display anywhere in the country. But the largeness of the exhibit is not the reason why the Hamilton Museum is so powerfully awesome. Rather, the museum inspires awe because of its smallness: the narrowness of its focus, and its relative irrelevance to contemporary life and commerce.”
Wood type is an essential component of the American design history. Characteristic of deep tactile grain texture, nicks and typeface designs (often recollecting the Old West and circus posters), it has become a revered aesthetic for contemporary designers and a coveted practice of letterpress printers who collect wood type. Because of the heavy use of wood type in the 1800s, often using 20 plus typefaces for a single poster, the design style is symbolic of that period. It’s a very distinct typographically-cacophonic look of yesteryear.
Hatch Show Print of Nashville, Tennessee has become an iconic vestige of wood type printing by creating posters for the Grand Old Opry for 130 years (the oldest continuously running letterpress shop). The print process of fast turn around, unevenly inked wood type letterpress printing has become synonymous with the print shop. Contemporary designers use wood type and letterpress to convey a look and feel of honest hard working design that makes web type seem cold and distant. An important aspect that makes Hatch Show Print unique is that the type collection has remained in tact—no new typefaces or fonts have been introduced. It creates a palette of typefaces very specific to the shop and to the design work. It also means that the very same piece of wood type used on an Elvis Presley poster will be used on a poster for contemporary music groups—creating an even deeper integrity to their work and history.
We can compare this to a designer working today, that would select and only use typefaces that the designer has purchased. However, this is not the case since digital fonts are so easy to appropriate and download for free. Jonathan Barnbrook is one such designer who primarily uses the typefaces he creates in his design work. (More about Barnbrook and Virus Fonts in future columns.)
Hatch Show Print and Barnbrook set an example and I challenge all designers to only use typefaces that they have created or purchased and then perhaps you can stand proud behind your work.
Creative communities have become very aware of the potential demise of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum and are rallying to create awareness. Rick Griffith, Director and Principle of Matter, has organized and curated a show of letterpress printed ephemera show called Pressed, on display from May 28 – July 4 in Denver, Colorado. The show includes designer/printer artwork from the Hamilton Wood Type Museum 10th Anniversary show, the Typelab/Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection and Hatch Show Print.
The opening weekend will include a screening of the film Typeface by Justine Nagan, a film about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum and last of the type cutters who are now in their 80s.
So you’re still wondering how we got from Wood type to WOFF type?
Words. Lots and lots of words. Written, printed, published and written again. We love words. Our love affair of words has also created, whether we realize it or not, a love of type. And with each new generation of the technology that delivers us our daily dose of words, type designers, printers and publishers have followed suit.