Scanning Around With Gene: Part 1 of That '70s Type!

Rating: 
Body: 

Go to Part 2 of That '70s Type!

I've never qualified as a "typophile," or any other –phile for that matter. For one thing, my knowledge of type history is woefully inadequate. And my attempts at drawing letterforms stopped precipitously in the eighth grade. It was then that I won a consolation prize for my hometown's fire-prevention poster contest. My entry depicted a joint-smoking, long-haired man tossing a lit match into the trash. Below I had carefully penned the caption: "Don't be a careless Hippie." I have no idea if I used a serif or san-serif style, but I'm guessing sans. I had no clue at that time what a serif was. All I remember is running out of space and desperately switching to a condensed writing style for the last few characters.

I will gladly confess to being a "typo-hack," however, prone more to gimmickry and showmanship than fine typography. I know and appreciate the difference, but fine typography is damn hard work. I find myself preferring type that cheaply draws attention to itself, boldly screaming "look at me!" Perhaps that's why I love 1970s graphic design so much. And why I'm nominating that decade for the title "Golden Age of Type Design." It was certainly the "Golden Age of Type Setting." Nobody set type like some of those guys in the '70s.

20070815_fg01.jpg
Figure 1. One way to get the feel of any period in graphic design is to look at the logos of the era. Here, from the book Trademarks of the '60s & '70s by Tyler Blik, are a few that capture much of the '70s atmosphere. Bold type, hard lines, outlines, and swashes were common ways to "beef up" otherwise simple designs. The PBS logo was designed in 1976, the Kiss logo in 1974, the two bottom logos in 1976, and the Avant Garde magazine logo in 1967. I've included it here because until 1970 Avant Garde (designed by Herb Lubalin and Tom Carnese) was an exclusive design to the magazine. But in 1970 it was released as a commercial product and quickly became the defining typeface of the '70s decade.

Of course my judgment is clouded by the fact that I came of age in the '70s -- it's the decade when I went to high school, graduated from college and began my efforts working with type. I'd like to say it was also the decade in which I first had sex, experimented with drugs, and hitchhiked across America, but for me, "coming of age" was all about responsibility and hard work. And Slurpees.

20070815_fg02.jpg
Figures 2 and 3. The '70s weren't all color and chrome. It was also the decade of English Leather, musk, Earth Shoes, ferns, and ficus benjamina. For the decidedly non-disco market there were Earth-tone palettes such as (above) from Congoleum (1975), English Leather (1977), and Ford (1973). The Pinto wasn't the only thing selling well in the '70s -- so did Souvenir, the typeface Ford used in this ad. Souvenir languished for decades in relative obscurity until re-drawn and heavily marketed by ITC starting in 1970. It was also used in the ad (below) for Supersoil. (And yes, people really did talk to their houseplants then, but that was before cell phones.) If you were lucky enough to snag a pair while they were hot (1970 to 1977), the Kalso Negative-Heel Earth Shoe was the least-attractive thing you could put on your feet. That is until they invented Ugg boots.

20070815_fg03.jpg

But you didn't have to be engaged in drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll to appreciate the way the '70s looked. People talk about the 1960s as a colorful decade, and I'll bet it was. Yet the graphic arts technology of the '60s was crude in comparison to that of the '70s, so the '60s character didn't show up quite as well in print.

20070815_fg04.jpg
Figure 4. In part due to the proliferation of four-color offset printing presses in the market, more and more publications were running full-color portfolios in the '70s. Advertiser wanted to take advantage of all that color. Here are two examples: a 1972 ad for the Grateful Dead's European tour, and a promotion for Rick Wakeman's 1974 album Journey to the Center of the Earth. That album, by the way, is a good example of the '70s "concept" music trend that got a little carried away. It tells the classic Jules Verne story in rock music complete with a narrator, full orchestra, and choir.

Clogs, Harvey Wallbangers, and Cheap Type Libraries
Good technology promotes creativity. Until the '70s, type design and type setting were greatly limited by technology. Truly unique and interesting display and logo type was often drawn by hand. And if you didn't have those skills or time, then the choices were limited.

20070815_fg05.jpg
Figure 5. You can't mention the '70s without thinking of macramé. Above, two books on the subject. On the left, Magnificent Macramé from 1979 (set in Circuit Double); on the right, Creating with Macramé from 1971. Below is a more typical '70s look with the shadow type set in ITC Grizzly, released in 1971. This ad from 3M appeared in 1974. Grizzly, designed by Tom Carnese and Ernie Bonder, was a popular choice for advertising headlines during the period. It is similar to Novel Gothic, which also saw a resurgence during the decade. Any typeface that used something other than a circle or square for the dot on the lower-case "i" was an instant success.

In the '70s there were two new technologies widely in place that gave designers more choices, not just in type styles, but in how type was set. This was the decade when designers started taking more control of their own typesetting.

20070815_fg06.jpg
Figure 6. The magazine Rolling Stone certainly set much of the tone for graphic design in the '70s. An early masthead from 1973 (top) along with the section heads from the same era; a tenth-anniversary 1977 cover (along with new masthead design) during the period when Roger Black was Art Director. Note the heavy use of swash characters, which was very popular at the time.

Both processes made type cheaper, which was the key to expanding the market so more type designs could find an audience. The '70s was an era of fashion extremes, music extremes, political extremes, and graphic design extremes.

20070815_fg07.jpg
Figure 7. Thanks to popular designs such as Harlow, Mistral, and Kalligraphia, bold and three-dimensional scripts became very popular in the '70s. Here, a hand-drawn logo for the first album from British new-wave band the Fabulous Poodles.

Carrot Cake, Macrame, and Machine Bold
Don't get me wrong -- not everything about the '70s should be celebrated. There was disco, leisure suits, cocaine, perms on men, Matteus Rose, and a variety of fashion offenses. It's true the latter part of the decade saw music from the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, and the Clash. But many of those ten years were devoted to over-orchestrated "concept albums." And Abba. And The Carpenters. And the Village People.

20070815_fg08.jpg
Figure 8. Disco and the movie Saturday Night Fever are defining icons of the '70s. The type designs associated with disco naturally bring to mind the bright lights and flashy surfaces typical of disco-dancing clubs. Thanks to the optical effects available at the time and the still-widespread use of airbrushing in graphic arts, there were plenty of examples of logos like this one that graced the cover of the 1977 Saturday Night Fever album.

20070815_fg09.jpg
Figure 9. Unbutton your shirt and grab your coke spoon, we're going dancing! These great examples are all from 1977 and 1978. Somehow a disco version of the theme from Jaws leaves me feeling a little sick, though. I spent the '70s in Los Angeles, but I can honestly say I never heard anyone utter the words "let's boogie."

But it was all part of the fun, and good or bad it was at least tidy. The disenchantment many young people felt after the '60s turned into a decidedly "me" attitude. Yet it was also the decade when gay rights, feminism, and the environmental movement came out of the closet. It was nothing like the TV show.

20070815_fg10.jpg
Figure 10. Rainbow colors have long represented positive, happy things, so in the '70s they were used extensively. The colorful-looking chap in the upper left is from a knitting magazine of 1977. The Ameritone paint ad is from 1976, and the Springsteen sticker was given out by Los Angeles radio station KLOS in 1978. It was in that same year that San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker hand-dyed a rainbow flag to display in the Gay Freedom Day Parade in the City. The rainbow colors had been associated with diversity for some time, but the specific symbolism of those colors on a flag at that event crystallized the rainbow flag as an icon of gay pride.

20070815_fg11.jpg
Figure 11. And for the man who wouldn't be caught dead in a disco or celebrating Earth Day, there was always the option of growing sideburns and a mustache to look b-a-a-a-d (below). This was before the Village People shed a whole new light on the term Macho Man, and just about the time smoking started losing favor.

The nation half-heartedly celebrated its bicentennial midway through the decade, so in addition to the bright colors and reflective shine of disco, we had the red, white, and blue of patriotism. Frustration from a failed economy and several dramatic gas shortages fueled a somewhat fatalistic attitude. And the fall of Richard Nixon led some people to lose faith in all institutions, not just the government. To stand out, graphic designers had to use every tool in their well-organized taborets.

20070815_fg12.jpg
Figure 12. 1976 was the nation's bicentennial, so out came the red, white, and blue. The USA logo at the top was designed in 1976 by Tony DiSpigna, who also co-designed many of the popular typefaces of the decade, including Lubalin Graph and Serif Gothic. The type in the center is from a 1979 record album, and the bottom image is from a 1973 Letraset art supply catalog.

Alice Cooper, Op Art, and the Type Industrial Complex
In the '60s a group of progressive artists used optical illusion and hard-line geometry to create bold and colorful images. Lines within lines, circles within squares, drop shadows, and bold, solid colors marked this style.

20070815_fg13.jpg
Figure 13. Who needs color? Above, two carefree gals from a 1970 ad promoting cotton, and below a collage of logos pulled from small ads in one 1975 issue of Sunset magazine. In 1977 I took a graphic design class at UCLA and the instructor gave us several tips for how to make a headline stand out: reverse it, put a line around it, distort it, or give it a shadow. "Make it more readable" was not on the list.

I'm not sure if graphic design influenced fine art in this case, or vice versa, but the aesthetics of Op Art were a natural for advertisers and publishers looking for something new and exciting. Type design had become a bit stale. The same few companies dominated the market for decades, insisting that certain rules were inflexible. But changes were underway and a new generation had taken over the type industrial complex.

20070815_fg14.jpg
Figure 14. Bold colors and stark black and white were very popular in the late 60s and through the '70s. Here we see a lovely living room design that appeared in Better Homes and Garden magazine in 1971, and below an ad for art-supply company Chartpak from 1977.

Just about the time that Op-Art style was making its way into galleries and fashion, a new generation of typesetting techniques was hitting the market. Some of the options this equipment introduced to the design community were very "Op-Art-like." If nothing else, '70s type was very bold, geometric and three-dimensional.

20070815_fg15.jpg
Figure 15. A great 1978 logo from German designer Anton Stankowski, and a fun room layout from a 1971 edition of Better Homes and Gardens.

Painter's Pants, Shag Carpets, and Photo Typesetting
The idea of setting type by projecting light through film characters, and even distorting it, was conceived of long before the '70s. In 1894 a patent was granted for typesetting through reflecting light off printed characters. But it took many decades before light and optics replaced wood and metal in any significant way.

The part of the industry devoted to setting headlines or display type was the first to come around to using optical methods on a commercial scale.

A patent was granted to Luis Bunnell, a New Jersey printer, in 1917 for a "photo-lettering machine." In 1933 that concept saw a real application. It was then that General Printing in New York obtained a patent for and began manufacturing the Rutherford Photolettering Machine. That machine paved the way for the more sophisticated devices to come. And it started the ball rolling on the idea that type characters were not "static," but could be manipulated through a series of optics to become something entirely new. Or at least more than one size.

20070815_fg16.jpg
Figure 16. The Rutherford Photolettering Machine from 1933.

In 1958 the German company Berthold introduced its Diatype machine, a photolettering device that, while short on special effects, offered printers more than 400 relatively inexpensive type styles on film discs. Berthold eventually sold more than 10,000 of these units, and the machine had a big impact on typesetting and the availability of more type styles.

20070815_fg17.jpg
Figure 17. Three more modern versions of the display photo typesetting technique: the Visutek 725 (top); a Berthold Superstar; and a Monotype Studio Lettering Machine. All could set type from about 1/4-inch up to several inches high. On the left is a snazzy '70s character wearing clothes from Angel's Flight.

It was around this time that two influential companies and typesetting techniques appeared in the market. They would heavily influence both the economics and creativity of type.

The first, Letraset Ltd., was founded in England based on a 1956 patent for dry-transfer lettering. The second, Visual Graphics Corporation, was formed to exploit the market for high-quality display type set photographically. Both were incorporated in 1959 and introduced products over the next two years. Each company took a different approach, but in both cases type moved closer to becoming a commodity not tied to a service. This meant more competition, more access and, in the end, more variety in the marketplace.

20070815_fg18.jpg
Figure 18. Letraset was guilty of being trendy, but it was selling type to a different market than the traditional foundries. Here, from 1973, are some examples of the type designs Letraset was promoting. Many of the designs were "tonal" or otherwise showed off the fact that dry-transfer lettering could hold more detail. And Letraset loved to introduce designs that required characters to be connected in unique manners. That was another dry-transfer benefit. Some of the most enduring and iconic '70s type designs are from Letraset designer and type director Colin Brignall: Aachen Bold, Harlow, Italia, Octopuss, Premier, Revue, Superstar -- I love them all.

I'm not suggesting these two companies single-handedly revolutionized display type -- there were plenty others. Dan Solo of Solotype in Berkeley was experimenting with photo type as early as 1945 and started doing optical special effects in the early '60s. And a number of the larger display-type shops developed their own techniques. But in terms of opening up new markets for display type (and giving designers more control over type setting), Visual Graphics and Letraset lead the way. These companies were proud of, and promoted, the fact that that their products could be used by non-typesetters with little training.

20070815_fg19.jpg
Figure 19. The typeface Stripes was created by Tony Wenman for Letraset in 1972 and typifies '70s style (which often emphasized alternate character options). This dry-transfer type may seem impractical at first glance, but it often appeared on products and in advertising.

Sangria, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Part 2
Someone is calling out my handle on the CB radio, so I'll wait until next week for part 2 of our tour of type in the Seventies. Until then, better collapse in the bean-bag chair with your Rubik's Cube and listen to some Mungo Jerry before hitting the waterbed. Don't forget to get up early and get in line for gas -- it's an even-license-plate day. Or is it odd?

Liked This? Read These!

My favorite type era is definitely the Seventies, which I’ve written about before here and here. Read More
Part 1 of That '70s Type! Read More
LTC Caslon is the standout release of the selection. It is a new rendering of the famous face based on the Lanston versions most accurately attributed to the original Caslon. This 12 font family... Read More
This year John Baskerville -- writing master, letter cutter, printer, typeface designer, and one time resident of Birmingham, UK -- will be 300 years old. Read More