All about workflow

A preview section of the interview I gave to Eye magazine for their Monotype special edition, number 84:

Dan Rhatigan: All about workflow

Monotype’s UK type director talks about the way the company’s 125-year history informs its approach to twenty-first century challenges.

Interview by Simon Esterson and John L. Walters

Photo by Phil Sayer

Eye: How did Monotype strike you at first, before you worked for the company?

Dan Rhatigan: From the perspective of a type historian and a type user, I feel that Monotype’s story today is deeply tied to its story from 120 to 125 years ago. People who are printing, publishing and doing advertising need the typefaces, but they have a variety of needs. Monotype has always been in the business of getting those typefaces to people. It was originally a machine company, but it only took a couple of decades for them to realise the machines will keep on evolving but the actual value was people’s awareness of the different typefaces available. Monotype survived because they kept adapting the means of providing typefaces, building out this array of choices in the library over the years. Our customers say: ‘This is what we’re trying to do and we want to use these typefaces. How can you make it possible for us to put these typefaces on the dashboard of a car, a billboard, a website or this magazine masthead?’

Eye: So it’s doing now what it was doing at the beginning?

DR: Pretty similarly. If you think that the first custom typeface that Monotype did was Imprint [in 1912], which a publisher specifically requested. People weren’t thinking of Monotype as just a company that deals with machines and throws a bit of type in it, but actually the source of the typography itself. The real flourishing period came in the 1930s when you began seeing typefaces such as Times New Roman and Gill Sans. Monotype became so deeply embedded in workflows that they created this space for using type and creating a demand for typefaces.

Eye: It’s fascinating to hear the term ‘workflow’ applied in that way.

DR: It’s such an obvious connection to me. The Monotype machines (and the Linotype machines) were very much about consolidating the varying tasks that went on in a printing office, and channelling the workflow into a machine set up to move things along more efficiently. That was the explosion in printing and publishing – that came from mechanical typesetting – which led to this demand for printed stuff and this demand for typefaces. And it’s really all about workflow. But when the workflow problem radically changed, it led to greater demand and greater variety. With people printing more things, they wanted more personality in the typefaces.

Eye: When you came to these conclusions as a consultant, were you telling Monotype something people there already knew?

DR: It’s not a great revelation. However, most people had not thought of pulling it all together within the company in quite the same way. There are a lot of people that I’ve spoken to in the office, even in Salfords [home of Monotype since the turn of the twentieth century], who had never been back into the archive, those shelves of treasure. I invented excuses to go exploring in it because I was so fascinated by it.

Eye: Is that what you found in the archive? A pharaoh’s tomb of treasure?

DR: Absolutely. My first introduction to that body of material was when I was studying at Reading. I was researching the Monotype Four-Line system, which is a workflow solution that makes it easier to set mathematics. I didn’t go into the archive, Robin Nicholas (see pp.68-79) just pulled out a few relevant folders for me, but every time I dug deeper I just found more things. The more I learned about the history and about what we were doing today, in parallel, the more it became clear that it was the same thing. There is a very clear lineage, in Salfords, from 1897 to where we are today.

Eye: So Monotype was one of the great start-ups of the late Victorian era?

DR: People see Monotype and Linotype as the revolutionaries at this time, because they survived. But there were lots of companies that were doing the same thing. After the revolution of what Gutenberg did, there were small evolutionary steps for the next 300-400 years, but you still had a whole bunch of cases of type that you had to keep around a printing plant.

So you needed a big room, big enough for all the type, and enough people to compose it, to put it on the press, to put it all back… So what Monotype and Linotype each did in their own way was to pull all of that together, and get rid of the cases of type and people putting it all together manually. Essentially, you were spitting out pre-composed galleys of text that could be dropped on the press, then spat out, then another galley, and dump the lead when you were finished.

Linotype worked better at volume and Monotype was better at finessing, because you were getting individual sorts. The Monotype machine was, in a way, more of a self-contained type factory, whereas Linotype was very much about getting those galleys of text out there so that you could put newspapers, magazines and books onto the press really quickly. Monotype was a little bit slower, as it was putting out single sorts, which had to be tied up and bound. But you could also manufacture type for hand composition.

Eye: Is that why those two companies survived? Out of all those rivals?

DR: Yes, a lot of places had both Linotype and Monotype machines. Monotype was more deeply involved in printing houses within the UK than Linotype, which is part of the reason we survived much longer than the American Monotype company. Linotype was hugely successful in the US, but both were all over the world. And it was that mix of display or finely set work, and the speed and utility of getting those galleys that made them so central. Although the companies were competitors, there was a fair bit of cross-licensing between them.

Eye: Times New Roman was pioneered by Monotype but The Times also used Linotype…

DR: That’s correct. There was a period when both companies were developing new faces … as an incentive to invest in a particular machine. If you want Gill Sans, you need a Monotype machine. If you want Metro, you have to have a Linotype machine. Eventually there was a crossover. Helvetica and Univers, as well as Times New Roman, were used by both companies.

Eye: Has Monotype always dealt with big publishing companies?

DR: That’s where quite a lot of revenue comes from. But you do have to appeal to designers, students and educators, because you also need to work closely with the types of people who are going to specify typefaces to be used in these large organisations. You can’t let any part of the audience drop. You have to just reach them the right way.

Eye: Where do the designer and typographer fit into this equation?

DR: Stanley Morison (see pp.84-89) actually functioned as a design director within the company, in the way that a graphic designer in another organisation would. He took on the role of curating this library and developing projects and saying ‘these are the appropriate typefaces that should be put into use’. He talked to customers to get a sense of what they wanted, but also to tell them about what they should be using, the same way that a creative director in an agency might say: ‘These are the typefaces that you should use because they say this, this and this about your brand.’

That’s why we do have to operate at these two scales. Because of our extensive library we’re educating customers at the same time that we’re pitching to them. At the moment it happens quite a lot with technologies such as webfonts, and we are forever teaching our customers about the options for their situations. We recommend typefaces constantly. Designers have been exposed to a few typefaces but they might not be aware of all the options.

Eye: Is it a case of choosing new typefaces, or retooling and adapting the existing types within the library?

DR: Most certainly both. I’ve had people say that they weren’t aware that Monotype still makes new typefaces. Which is frustrating, because we release a typeface family a month! Not to mention the language extensions and weight extensions that trickle through all the time.

In a way, that’s why the history of the company is a bit of a burden, because new releases can often get lost in that 100 years of development. A lot of people come to us because they’re aware of our typefaces – they’ve seen them at school so they come to us because we have those classic typefaces. We get quite a lot of requests for a version of Baskerville or whatever – which is what we do, we do a lot of customisation of typefaces – but when we ask what they’re trying to achieve we can make them realise that while a different typeface from the library might work well enough, actually they need a new typeface altogether. Teasing out what they want is part of working with agencies instead of just being a shop.

Eye: Monotype was also a huge manufacturing company that employed thousands of people to make complex machines. Design was like a little cab on top of a huge truck. Does the design side, the intellectual property side, take up a bit more space now?

DR: Not really. If you think about it, it’s the way business functions. The designers are producing something that is just one part of an overall way of making things and getting them out into the world. But there is more of a sense of ‘design’ in the mix than in that golden age where someone drew some letters and an army of people turned them into typefaces.

One of the joys of working with Monotype is that great library of type. The typefaces that you grew up on are all there. But there’s a problem with backwards compatibility when a company has been around for that long.

The means of working with type have changed so dramatically that the time is really ripe to look at the best of the Monotype library – and perhaps faces that were overlooked, which could be made fresh again – and begin to take out some of the problems imposed by the unit system (see note, below).

Also the fashion has changed. The weight of typefaces people prefer today strikes me as entirely different from the digital fonts that were available when I started out. People at Reading [University] have had this conversation over and over again. The overall colour of typefaces has changed because people are proofing on a laser printer and they’re designing for that result. Whereas the first digital fonts were replicating original sources of typefaces that were for letterpress and photo printing, where the end result is pretty different from the drawn stuff.

Birmingham map by CityID

Eye: All that work designing a typeface so its true character was revealed when it was punched into metal … is that meaningless in a digital environment?

DR: Things were adjusted along the way. Spacing was re-adjusted with every generational shift. But with things like the deviation from striking a steel punch into a brass matrix – there are no true verticals in the original fonts to correct for that deviation – that was adjusted for digital type; if only because vertical lines set much more easily in digital type.

The more we look at the older typefaces, the more we realise that there’s nothing but potential in them. They exist, now, as products, and so people can have them if they want, but why can’t the spirit of those designs meet newer needs? I’ve worked on quite a few custom projects that began with a seed of something from the library.

I have been working on a couple of variations of a Modern typeface. There were variations of Monotype Series 1 [Modern] in metal over the years, but the digital fonts are pretty straight digitisations and they look weird because they are not set in metal and printed in letterpress. Returning to that typeface for some custom projects, I really felt that the fitting needs to change and the proportions really need to change. Because all these counters ought to be the same size. They shouldn’t be gently squeezed and expanded to fit where it could go in the unit system. When you pull out all those bits of influence from the mechanical restrictions, you see a whole new vitality that feels quite contemporary, even though it’s a 120-year-old typeface based on an even older source.

Eye: Is there a danger that – since some of a font’s characteristics are in its very eccentricity – you might lose something?

DR: Gill Sans! That’s the classic example. But every time that you try to pull it out of its context it becomes another typeface altogether. You can’t call it Gill Sans if you remove it from those decisions that made it what it was at the time.

Eric Gill was a letterer, so his expertise was to do with constructing letters in situ, how they would have been shown on signs and how they would be cut into a given stone. There was the collaboration with the drawing office that adapted that thinking into type, repeatable elements that had to work in different combinations in a given system. Some of the eccentricities come from Gill’s sensibility; some of it from getting the spacing and proportions right using the Monotype unit system. And when the family grew, it was not conceived as a family in the way that, say, Univers was.

Gill Sans was just wildly popular and if you look at the Gill Sans family it’s like: ‘Oh, people love Oreos! People love Oreos with chocolate in the middle! People would love Oreos if they had vanilla biscuits on the outside!’

Gill Sans grew organically and it’s not a family in the sense that you can clean it up and build multiple masters and interpolate the intermediate weights …

[First published in Eye no. 84 vol. 21, 2012]