At any given time there are a few people who can see into the future and anticipate what we will all need. David Berlow, type designer, is one of them. Sometime in the early 1980s he realized that a program called PostScript was going to change the lives of everyone who has ever typed anything on a computer or read anything printed via a computer—i.e., the whole world. Ninety-nine percent of us know nothing about this. Berlow is in the other one percent. While he is respected and innovative as a designer, his career has meant more than that: part creative technician, part techy genius, he has been instrumental in pioneering type design for a new medium. And the work of a type designer over the last 40 years has been all about chasing technology.
Paid to draw letters all day
Berlow majored in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in the 1970s, and got his start in graphic design while still in school, when a friend asked him to draw a logo for a local travel agency. After graduating, he fetched up in New York City and found his way to the Mergenthaler Linotype foundry, where he worked for master designers such as Matthew Carter and Herman Zapf. “The money wasn’t great,” he says, “but the work was fantastic. I discovered you could get paid for drawing letters all day long.” Berlow and his co-workers would take the masters’ drawings, redraw them on cotton rag paper (a process that had been the same for a century), and make the letter forms ready for machinery. “Then Xerox came along,” Berlow recalls, “and asked Linotype to make bitmaps for them.” (Bitmaps being a type of memory organization or image file format used to store digital images.) He adds, “Linotype agreed, but that wasn’t really their business, and they would only make them for Xerox.”
As far as Berlow was concerned, he had seen the wave of the future, and he and other Linotype colleagues jumped ship to join a newly formed digital type supplier, Bitstream, making stand-alone interactive type designs for software systems like Adobe’s Illustrator. This time history repeated itself in an even shorter period: Bitstream had reached its limits, and wasn’t interested when Adobe’s founders came up with PostScript. For Berlow, PostScript was what would enable him to ride the next wave, return to his birthplace, Boston, and start his own shop, the Font Bureau, in 1989.
Gutenberg to digital—in a generation
Type design has been through huge changes in the last 40 years. When companies like Mergenthaler began in the late 19th century, their revolution was to create typesetting machines that could make a line of metal type in one piece—and that was the technology for a hundred years or so. Then came photosetting (essentially reproducing print photographically), soon to be superseded by digital type, at first used only on specific machines but by the early ’80s available for use on any home computer. (Berlow says he has a fondness for wood and metal letters, but considers most of the stuff that happened between then and now just “bailing twine and chewing gum.”)
One of the keys to digital type’s success has been PostScript. PostScript is a programming language. Created by the founders of Adobe Systems, it went on the market in 1984 and was adapted for use with laser printers very early on. Laser printers made printing both graphics and type much easier, and PostScript worked with any computer and any printer. Its font system allowed fonts to be created as line art for any size and resolution—solving problems such as, for example, what happens when a font created in a particular size is enlarged, which can distort its appearance. And the standardization that PostScript enabled helped to turn desktop publishing into something that everyone—anyone—could do. That was where Berlow came in. His goal has always been to raise the bar on what readers see and what designers use.
Berlow remembers the moment when computers really “had me,” as he says. “It was the ability to undo.” Everyone knows it: command Z, which reverses any stroke just made. “It was all I needed,” he goes on. “It just saved thousands of hours of work getting back to the place you just came from—it was like jumping off a cliff!” He’s still constantly amazed about the possibilities of exploring things in analog, then recording and distributing them digitally—he seems not only to embrace the ever-shifting scene but to actively enjoy the shifting.
The other big life-changer for Berlow came in 1987, with the advent of Fontographer, an application used for creating digital fonts—“the great liberator.” It meant that anyone with a bit of knowhow could design a font for around $400. Berlow was using it almost from the beginning, when Fontographer had only 30 or so paying customers. He’s still using it, but is now transitioning to a more open-source program he’s been developing himself. The new drawing tool, which will be produced by Typemytype, is called Robofont. You heard it here first!
Berlow’s company, the Font Bureau, calls itself an independent type foundry. This kind of foundry isn’t the clanging, dirty, factory-style workshop where metal type was once cast, but a virtual office of experts who mastered working with computers early on and who now design type electronically for use on computers. In fact, Berlow and his brother Sam manage to run their Boston business from a very different part of Massachusetts—Martha’s Vineyard; only the sales team works out of Boston, and the rest of the office is scattered all over. “My product is virtual,’ says Berlow. “Fonts are built into things so deeply now that my company works that way too.” Besides, he adds, with a touch of drama, “Paper is the enemy.”
In the 30 years of its existence, however, the Font Bureau has owed quite a lot to paper, developing more than 300 new and revised type designs for clients ranging from the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, to Hewlett Packard, Apple and Microsoft, and other businesses that bundle fonts with their applications, printers, operating systems, and integrated technology solutions—even onboard navigation systems in cars, for instance. Its retail library includes more than 500 typefaces, most of them original.
Designing the letters
Berlow still draws his fonts by hand sometimes, but he’s adamant that you can only really see the result by drawing a face in the form it will to be used in. Designing a font is a painstaking business requiring enormous patience; the illustration at right gives an idea of the work involved in producing just one weight of Helvetica. It includes not just all the standard English upper- and lowercase letters and numbers, but Greek, Cyrillic and Icelandic characters, as well as every letter (also upper and lower) that carries an accent in western languages—for a total of more than 2,000 characters. Clients often want their work done to their own deadlines, says Berlow—“If you put three people on it can I have it faster?”—but for him the type-design process is much like having a baby: “It takes the time it takes.” Even after a font is designed each character must then be tested to make sure it works in combination with the rest. “The whole thing is a patient process. The world has time sickness, but this must be tamed,” says Berlow (who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and would be the first to admit that patience outside font design may not be his strong suit).
When he’s working on a font, Berlow divides his screen into three windows (see illustration at right). In the right-hand window is the character he’s currently drawing, by plotting points that define the angle or curve and create the outline or contour; at top left are the characters he’s already drawn, set out much like an old wooden case of type; and under that on the left is what he calls the “space center,” where he can compare characters in order to see how the combinations work together. His focus shifts back and forth constantly between windows so that he effectively proofs his work as he goes along. Periodically he stands back six or eight feet from the screen, squinting at the characters to check that the letters have an easy flow. “I’ve done this long enough to know what they’ll look like smaller,” he says.
Families and favorites
It’s hard to define a “normal” font family, but a western (i.e., roman alphabet) typeface in a single weight is usually composed of around 2,176 different characters. It usually includes letters (upper- and lower), numerals as well as “punctuation” (the shorthand for punctuation, reference symbols, monetary signs, parentheticals, math symbols, foreign accents, and more), with each of these in roman, italic, bold and bold italic faces—and, beyond that, sometimes also condensed or expanded (narrower or broader) and heavy or light versions.
Berlow charges around $75 a character, but he claims he once charged per point on a contour for a very complicated logo (“it broke every printer we tried it on”). And he still remembers the custom typewriter fonts he drew for me in the early 1990s for Allure magazine as among the most complex he’s done in terms of the number of points. Those faces had masses of squiggly lines that mimicked the magnified rough edges caused when an old-school typewriter key strikes the typewriter ribbon.
Berlow has a particular fondness for capital Rs. “They’re unusual. They encapsulate a lot of what the uppercase is about, because they include round, diagonal and straight elements,” he says. And the diagonal itself is open to many different variations: “It can be wavy or curvy or even straight.” The illustration (right) of the capital R that Berlow is working on right now for a face named Custer shows the curving line at the top of the letter’s leg, like a nipped-in waist after a large meal. “Without that the intersection would look clogged, and a heavy black hole would appear on the page. Essentially, I’m trying to avoid anything that might interrupt reading so that it all flows evenly.” The least interesting letter? Probably a capital I; on the other hand, the capital Y is so exuberant that Berlow says it makes him want to get up and stretch every time he sees it. His font legacy? He’d like to be remembered for Grotesque, which he brought back from the dead, and the expanded Franklin Gothic that’s used all over in a million ways.
Typeface R and D
Berlow is always on the lookout for the new, and that often means digging into the past. For many reasons, fonts can disappear over time, so frequently a lot of research has to be done before a designer can sit down to draw. As he did with Grotesque, Berlow enjoys bringing fonts back and giving them a whole new life. Custer, the font he was working on when we talked, came out of a request by an architectural historian, the wife of one of Berlow’s typography professors back in Madison (Wisconsin, historically a paper-making state, has as a result long been a center for printing and design). The historian was curating a show about Frank Lloyd Wright that featured a Wright book, The House Beautiful, and was looking for a font to use for the show. The book itself had a simple Bookman-ish type (for the technically minded, all caps, in simple 65-character columns, justified at around 9 on 11 point and framed in custom-made ornamental borders). Berlow saw a real copy of The House Beautiful and thought what a great set its capitals would make for type on screens. A Font Bureau sleuth tracked down several likely fonts, dating from around 1895–1897. One, of them, from a Chicago foundry named Western Type, looked promising: it was called Custer. To be sure, he compared specimens to The House Beautiful, then accurately digitized a font of around 86 characters. The architectural historian got her typeface.
Education for type
Even skilled designers use fonts designed to be used as text (i.e., ordinary reading size) faces for headlines, and vice versa. “There are people out there using Courier for display, Helvetica Bold at 9 or 10 points,” Berlow rants. (Full disclosure: I’ve been guilty of both.) “They know nothing of optical sizing, misuse neutral quotes and commit general crimes against base readability, such as leaving widows and orphans [those lone words left on the last line of a paragraph—even more awful if they’re on the first line of a page].”
With everyone now his own typesetter on a home computer, an enormous amount of the skills involved in type choice and typesetting have been abandoned. Typography can often seem like an indulgence, as it usually costs more, and few people know the difference, but Berlow’s a crusader: he wants the world to know more about typography, not keep it behind ever higher walls. He is often asked why there are so many typefaces; part of the answer, he points out, is that there’s no one to say “This one’s intended to be used at 8 points.” There’s no reason, he feels, that such explanations can’t accompany every typeface, so that people can know which to use, when and where. Needless to say, he’s is in the process of creating a recommendation table to help steer people away from such crimes.
Unlikely as it may seem, what David Berlow likes to do when he isn’t designing type is to work in wood; he built his Martha’s Vineyard house himself. There’s something marvelously circular about that. For his part, he’s just sorry there’s no command Z in the physical world.—LUCY SISMAN