Saturday, August 29, 2009

Finding My Prince of Fonts

Craftsman Table-top Printing Press

Now to decide on a font for 'Leonardo". Firstly, I should say that my comments are made in the context of this book and with the experience of my past mistakes and observation of what has worked well for others.

The font, or typeface used to print a work depends on a number of factors, including the method of printing, type of paper, and purpose of the piece, and is just as important as any other aspect of the book. Like the paper, the font carries a subliminal message, which can help to set the tone and add to the character of the book. It needs to be subtle, so that it doesn’t draw attention to itself and away from the meaning of the words it frames. It is part of the supporting cast for the message the text brings to the reader.

I’ll diverge here for a moment and talk about the method of printing I intend to use. I set the text on the computer, and send the digital files to a platemaker, who then makes photopolymer plates which I mount on a base. The base is then secured into the chase of the press. In my studio this is a Craftsman hand-operated iron press with a clamshell action, where pulling the handle brings the inked plate into contact with the paper. Above is a picture of the press. The words on the plate are raised, and press into the paper. Here is one of the plates I used for “The House that Jack Built” and here is an image of what the printed page looks like. (Hand coloured with watercolours.)

I chose to use this method for several reasons, one of them being that I only have the one life, as far as I know, and don’t have time to become an expert printer especially as I have probably already used up more than half of that life. Other considerations are that I tend to use a different font for each book (using that which I consider most suitable) and if I used movable metal type I would have to spend a great deal more on buying that type: with the small editions I make, the books would be prohibitively expensive. Photopolymer plates are for me, the next best thing to movable type.

There are some things to consider when using PPP. On a computer, the font is designed to be shown on a monitor, and is made to be visible in that medium. It is usually heavier in weight than the same font designed for letterpress. In addition, the physical action of printing on a press with ink, and the impression of the letters on the paper, add to the appearance of weight. This means that when choosing a computer font to use for PPP, it is better to choose one that is on the ‘anaemic’ side rather that something bold and beefy.

I wanted to find a suitable italic font, but most seemed to be either too compressed, or the letter-fit was too close, or they were too upright, or too sloping, or too formal...Having exhausted the selection on my computer, I turned to the internet to see what else I could find. On the Adobe site, I eventually found what I had been looking for. A font that is scaled (optimized for use in different sizes), and available in a ‘light’ weight, and one that is a lively italic, with movement, not too formal, not handwriting, well spaced and has quite open counters (spaces inside letters such as e) - just right in fact. The font is called Brioso, designed by Robert Slimbach of Minion fame, and I have high hopes for it. So that is what I bought. Well, of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as I haven’t yet had the plates made up, I won’t rejoice too soon, but it is very promising. After kissing a lot of frogs, I was finally able to find a Prince of Fonts.

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