I still treasure a Letraset catalogue from 1974. I’m not sure why, as I never really got on with Letraset. If you don’t remember it, I had better explain that in those days it was a form of instant “dry transfer” “rub-down” lettering. And I never could get it lined up straight.
Those were the days long before QuarkXPress (launched in 1987) and Adobe PhotoShop (launched in February 1990).
The catalogue begins:
For designers, graphic artists, draughtsmen, typographers, in fact anyone connected with graphic art, the name Letraset is synonymous with high quality graphic art materials.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Can you believe it? We worked on paper! Where did we ever find the time to apply headlines to artwork letter by letter, rubbed from the back of a transparent plastic sheet?
There were foreign alphabets, too. And it wasn’t just lettering. There were borders, lines, electronics symbols and even art illustrations such as cars and people for use on architectural drawings.
I was at university at the time and I have to admit I mostly used the catalogue as a source book for drawing my own fonts in pen and ink – badly, no doubt, as I am not a natural artist.
By the time I became a newspaper reporter, then sub-editor/designer in the late 1970s, hot metal was on the way out in the industry and we used a computer typesetting system that spewed out headlines and text on strips of “bromide” paper, to be cut with a scalpel by a compositor and stuck with wax on to a paper sheet with the columns, gutters and horizontal guide lines printed in non-reproducing blue.
The comps had to get whole blocks straight, but at least they weren’t fiddling with individual letters. Actually, I lie. I remember once when I was “stone sub” I made a comp cut up the letters of a word and rearrange them, as the spelling was wrong. Then I went to check and found it had been right the first time, so he kindly rearranged it again.
The word was “sacrilege”. It was in 7-point type (that’s VERY small). The little bits of bromide stuck to his fingertips but he got there in the end and put a piece of Sellotape over it to hold it in place. I won’t spell that wrongly ever again…
But back to the Letraset. Around this time I volunteered to help out with a community newsletter using the dry transfer technology and this was where I found I really could NOT line up the headline type using Letraset.
The instructions make it sound so easy ( ! ):
Remove the siliconised backing paper and position required letter on pre-drawn guide line.
Press the letter on to the art surface with your finger and then shade lightly over the whole letter with a ballpoint pen, soft pencil or other blunt instrument.
Carefully pull away the sheet, making sure the transfer has been completed.
Repeat until your word is complete. Then place the backing paper over the lettering and burnish moderately hard for firm adhesion with a smooth instrument, such as the cap of a ballpoint pen.
The system even has “Spacematic – an automatic spacing system which gives optically correct letter spacing…”
Anyway, as I say, I never did quite get it right.
I still love looking at the typefaces, remembering my favourites (for drawing myself) from those days. It was the 1970s.
It was a time of space travel and science fiction and very early computers…
It was a time of psychedelia and flower power…
It was also a time when most font designers were men with beards…
These were the world’s top type designers in 1974 and they selected Letraset’s special Letragraphica series of typefaces. “And their choice reflects the very latest thinking in typography and type design”.
I intended to label this blog post as “Things of the past: Letraset” – until I googled Letraset and found they are still flourishing. And they still do transfer lettering!
According to Wikipedia, Letraset naturally saw a decline in sales of these materials in the 1990s so moved into the desktop publishing industry with software packages for Mac such as ImageStudio and ColorStudio.
These weren’t very successful, but as Letraset held the rights to their fonts, it made sense to enter the digital font market. They began releasing many fonts in formats such as postscript.
Letraset has also continued to produce marker pens for artwork – in 1974 they emphasised their use of the Pantone colour matching system.
It is fascinating to see that Letraset are now big in the Manga market and hold very successful monthly manga art competitions online, for art drawn using their colouring pens and materials.