Thursday, October 24, 2013

A look at some old-school fonts...

Let's take a step back to the late 1980s for a moment...

I was in college majoring in graphic design and, unlike today, there wasn't a Mac on every designer's desktop. In fact, I almost quit the program my Junior year because I'd been hand-lettering the type on a letterhead mockup for three hours straight, continuing to mess up and curse life because I knew if we would just get some damn computers I'd have been done in ten minutes!!! In 1987/1988 (my sophomore year), I knew that the Mac would be the wave of the future and had to take some Communications electives just to get a chance to work on the macs (I think maybe 4 hours for the entire semester). In 1989, there still weren't any Macs (or computers of any sort for that matter) in the art department. The school paper did, however, have a Mac setup (two SE's and a Macintosh II)... but the paper only had them because I (as the Art Director in cahoots with the Editor-elect) told them to get rid of the old Agfaset. Back in the old-world-ways of the art department, we were still putting copied pages from Letraset type sample books in a photo-enlarger-style Art-O-Graph projector and having to hand-letter that shit for hours at at time. Utterly ridiculous by today's standards when I think that stuff that used to take me an hour or so to hand-letter can now be accomplished in a few seconds.

Granted, the variety of fonts on the Mac at the time were rather limited. The system-standard fonts were the ones mostly named for cities (New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Geneva, et al.) Additional postscript fonts were available, but expensive and also limited. By contrast, the Letraset catalog had all these really great fonts, though many of them were sadly out-of-date for the late 80s, but still available as rub-down transfers (the heart of Letraset's offering) and were, therefore, represented in the catalog. Nowadays, we take the landfill-sized variety of fonts for granted. In the late 80s, only those of us with access to these kinds of graphics resources (e.g., architects, designers, etc.) knew what was there. That Letraset book began my love affair with type, particularly those of the funky persuasion.

My late-80s edition of the book "died" years ago from mis-use; it was spiral bound and the pages just didn't stand much of a chance. But I do have a 1981 edition that I bought several years ago as a shelf reference; it's perfect bound and, therefore, not subject to the same issues as a well-handled spiral book. What's below are pictures from that 1981 edition of some of the fonts that I've long been in love with, but that also fit in to the old-school RPG aesthetic.

Just a warning... many freebie versions of the fonts listed below are bad/clunky conversions/copies of the originals, and suffer from both compromised forms and bad kerning pairs (kerning is the space between two individual letters, and in bad type faces, these kerning pairs are largely ignored, leaving "gaps" in words when typeset).

The cover of the 1981 edition of the Letraset catalog.

Galadriel. Designed by Alan Meeks in 1975. Named (I assume) for the LoTR character. There are freebie forms of this, but a decent version is available for about $30.

Marvin.There are bad versions available of this font, but if a decent commercial is available, it's possibly got a different name.

Arnold Böcklin. This baby goes back to 1904; the Art Nouveau influence should be obvious. Corel draw came with a version named Arabia so people assumed an Easter/Oriental influence, though it's very "French." And, yes... it is the typeface White Dwarf magazine used during its early days.

Tip Top. The original version of this font was released by a German type foundry in Leipzig. Again, this is an Art Nouveau era font, but I think 60s pulp fantasy when I see this one.

Hunter. This is another one I've seen used in the past on books, but can't seem to find a digital version at all, much less a bad one.

Quentin. We should all recognize this one. However, it is a victim of poor conversions and the freebies really suck. However, a decent version is available for only $20.

Souvenir. This is the BX typeface, and the font family I've adopted as the house typeface for my Oe/BX/1e compatible stuff (Old School Adventures). Luckily, this is one of the first digital typefaces I ever owned. It's never really gone out of style, but was still pretty commonly used in the early 90s when I started building my Postscript type collection.

Futura Display. A great 60s pulp sci-fi feel. Or if you want to see uses of this one that are more general, check out this link.

Company. The problem with finding a copy of this one is the name. I guarantee that putting the word "company" in a Google search doesn't do a damn thing for finding this face.

Thalia. This is the DragonQuest typefaces. And it's probably the best example of being the most poorly converted (even worse than Quentin).

Pretorian (aka Pretoria). I've really been looking for an occasion to use this one. In fact, I want to use it so bad, I would consider naming and designing an adventure just to fit the personality of this typeface. (Hey, I'm sure we've all created adventures around far smaller kernels of an idea than that.)

Eckmann Schrift. Designed in 1900 by German Otto Eckmann to reflect Japanese calligraphy (Japanisme ran rampant during the Art Nouveau era).

Serif Gothic. This was designed by typography mastermind Herb Lubalin in 1974. The typeface Lubalin is best known for is probably Avant Garde (the typeface used by TSR on the first wave of adventure modules).


  1. A trip down memmory lane. I was doing paste-up paid by the page or piece back in those days and when I wasn't using sheets like you mention here I was cuttting type chips and blocks out of galleys output from expnsive type-setting equipment.

  2. @JD: My senior year of high school (1985-86) I interned at a local graphic designer's shop and that's where I did my first paste-up. I recently found it while I was going through the garage and was thinking about framing it for my office. It even has an amberlith overlay! I graduated from college in spring 1990, and it was a good 3-4 years after that before we abandoned traditional paste-up altogether and started outputting all film/veloxes straight from computer.

    1. We had a customer call us in a panic once because all the color layers were in black or red only...

  3. Great post Richard. Like JD said, a trip down memory lane. I never thought that fonts would hold so much meaning. Thanks for the heads up of the poor versions and the more professional. I'll ave to keep an eye on that in the future. What difference am I looking for between the poor and professional?

  4. @Tim: i'll try to pull together some examples and use that as a post for tomorrow morning.

  5. Thanks for the info on the Letraset. I had no idea how this was done pre-computer. So you would look through the Letraset catalog and then order a bunch of sheets of which ever font(s) you wanted to use?

  6. @Zenopus: Only for comps and mockups. For actual print production, you would refer to a typesetters specimen book, type up your copy, then send it off to the typesetter.

    Print Specimen Example (books like these were common until the mid-90s):

    Type Specification Markup (again, through early 90s):

    Paste-up/Print Mechanical Art Example (again, through mid-90s):

    1. it seems evident that a post on justification and word spacing will be forthcoming...


    2. You are quite right, sir. I've been making mental notes for a post about x-height in relation to body copy sizing, and the justification discussion is an extension of that.

  7. Eckmann Schrift looks like the inspiration for the Rudelsberg family of fonts. Something very similar was used for the Cthulhu Mythos title font in the original AD&D Deities & Demigods. It is also the font I chose to use for the header of my blog. :-)

  8. But apparently typing "company" into the search function on myfonts does work!

    Is this version any good? The description sounds like the designer might have digitized it himself, but I'm not sure.

    Thanks for this and the next font post, they're great!

    1. Damn! I can't believe I didn't think to do that!

    2. Glad to have helped! I love fonts, but I had no idea so many of the freely available ones were so much worse than the real thing.