Scanning Around With Gene: When Letraset Was King
I was a freshman in college when I had my first confrontation with dry-transfer type. While every dry-transfer type encounter had a minimal likelihood of success, I somehow ended up with a decent-looking party invitation, which I remember distinctly was set in University Roman.
Fortunately, that first time I was using the best: dry-transfer sheets from Letraset, a British company that made (and still makes) a variety of graphic art supplies. It was the quality brand of the industry and you couldn’t call yourself professional without using at least one of the company’s products. The scans in today's column are from a 1970 and 1973 catalog. Click on any image for a larger version.
There were plenty of other brands of dry-transfer type -- Format, Chartpack, Meccanorma -- but Letraset was not only the best made, they had the nicest type selection, too. Many Letraset-exclusive designs have become standards of the type world.
You could tell serious graphic designer by whether they had a special tool just for burnishing dry-transfer type. A ball-point pen would do, but there were a number of dedicated products for the task, including what amounted to a big ball-point pen with no ink in it.
Letraset had special dry-transfer sheets just for architects. If your company was big enough, there were custom-made logo sheets.
My favorite Letraset products were the clip-art sheets. Like almost all clip art, you couldn’t imagine ever actually using them, though I have to guess sometimes artists did, if only for comps. Let’s also not forget that in those days you were certain to burn through a lot of registration marks, which Letraset made in sheet and roll form.
If you were ultra-cool or worked at a big-enough design studio, you had your own special cabinet just for dry-transfer type. This was a good thing because the enemy of dry-transfer was dust or dirt of any kind. You had to treat the sheets with tender loving care or the letters would crack and peel.
But Letraset was a lot more than just dry-transfer products. The company made a wide range of graphic arts supplies, most of the sort that we don’t use anymore.
There were two distinct processes in those days: making "comps" and making camera-ready art. Now the art is the comp and vice versa, in most cases. In those days, though, showing art in color was not all that easy. Making colored type, for example, was a complex process that rarely worked, and printing in color required layers of acetate overlays, one for each color.
Letraset's products included border sheets, shading film, and various textures, which, when applied in enough layers, generated odd moiré patterns and printing disasters. The artist had to pick the resolution of the screens in advance based on the printing method being used.
No art studio would be complete without an assortment of toxic aerosol products, which were necessary for gluing and adding protective coatings to keep the dry-transfer type intact.
Letraset licensed the Pantone color library and manufactured a variety of Pantone products (colored art boards and transparent sheets, markers, etc.). Letraset was partially responsible for Pantone’s success in the graphic arts market.
Did you know that Letraset sold a viable Photoshop competitor, too? Go to page 2 to find out what it was called.
Letraset tried to make the transition to digital. At one time, it had a number of decent graphic-arts software, including a viable Photoshop competitor called Color Studio (licensed from Fractal Design) and a page-layout program called Ready, Set, Go! (licensed from Manhattan Graphics). But Letraset tried to sell its software and fonts through art stores, which didn’t turn out to be a successful model.
So the company never got traction in the modern graphic arts world. Apparently, though, Letraset has found a new life among Manga artists who use the company’s tonal shading sheets in the genre's distinctive artwork.
The company, which was once owned by office-supply giant Esselte Corporation, now appears to be independent and still makes dry-transfer type and other craft supplies.
I don’t miss having a drawer full of dry-transfer type. There were never enough letters, they never really worked well, and if you needed to center something, you either had to have a great eye or take a series of ultra-precise measurements. The only thing harder than getting dry-transfer type to stick on the paper was getting it off if you made a mistake, which almost always meant starting from scratch.
On the plus side, using one-letter-at-a-time dry-transfer type taught you a lot about letter spacing and kerning, not to mention how to swear.
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