Commentary & Analysis
The day the typesetting industry died
There will always be a printing industry, but it will be different than it used to be. Typesetting did not go away; it just moved to a different place.
By Frank Romano
Published: December 16, 2011
Patricia Loring came to visit me one day. She and her brother, Kim Loring Jr managed Machine Composition, a Boston-based trade typesetting service founded by their father in the 1920s. She had some of their father’s scrapbooks, publications, type, and other materials. It was nostalgic and historic.
Once there was an industry called typesetting. It was composed (no pun) of companies that set type for printers (trade typesetters) or set type for publishers, ad agencies, and others (typographers or typesetters). At their peak there were about 4,000 of them across North America. There were also printers and publishers who set type.
Typesetting services were born with the advent of machine typesetting—the Linotype and Intertype, and the Monotype and Ludlow. They had large libraries of hot metal fonts and delivered the metal type galleys or pages or stereotype plates to printers for printing. They prospered in the 1930s through the 1950s but were challenged by phototypesetting in the 1960s and 1970s and then by desktop publishing in the 1980s.
Typesetting services were a major market for new typesetting technology, from Alphatype to Tegra and all 42 models in between. Over 150,000 machines were sold between 1950 and 1995.
Kim Loring Sr was on the Board of the Graphic Arts Research Foundation, which was formed to support the development of the Higgonet-Moyroud photographic typesetter starting in 1949. It ushered in the age of pasted-up mechanicals and film stripping as offset lithography replaced letterpress printing. In fact, it was because of non-metal typesetting that offset litho succeeded. It was a more effective pre-press approach.
The 1984 Macintosh was an interesting typographic tool but the 1985 combination with the Linotype type library and Adobe’s PostScript changed the typographic world. I was sitting at the Spring 1985 introduction of what was called “Desktop Publishing.” Paul Brainerd of Aldus had coined the term and his Pagemaker program allowed page makeup on a screen. The 300 dpi Laserwriter and the 1200 dpi Linotype Linotron imagesetter brought it all into a system.
The owners of a chain of quick copy shops in the Bay Area were nearby. They had a vision of designers along Market Street making pages and proofing them on the laser printer and then sending the disks to be output at high-res. The PostScript service bureau was born.
Pretty soon graphic designers were composing pages with type. They could select fonts and sizes and formats, and without realizing it, were bypassing the typesetting services. The same designers who attacked proofs with a plethora of changes suddenly lowered their standards. Over time, quality was automated into QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign.
From 1985 to 1995 the number of typesetting services declined until only a few remained. They specialized in XML encoding and proofreading services. The printout market declined as we went directly to plate or directly to paper.
The handset typesetting era began in 1440 and ended in 1970, and it is still practiced in some quarters (500+ years).
The machine typesetting era began in 1886 and ended in 1976, and it is barely in practice (90 years).
The phototypesetting era began in 1950 and ended around 1990, and it is totally gone (40 years).
The laser imagesetting era began in 1978 and ended in 2008, replaced by direct-to-plate, on- and off-press (30 years).
The digital printing era began in 1976 and the laser CTP era began in 1991.
We cannot assume that any industry or technology will last forever. New markets and new kinds of companies evolve over time as early adopters take risks and others follow along.
Today there is more change than at any other time in the history of the printing industry. For some it is a catharsis; for others it is an opportunity. The stillness of Winter awakens with the re-birth of Spring. (Poetic huh?)
There will always be a printing industry, but it will be different than it used to be. Typesetting did not go away; it just moved to a different place. Some print moved to screens. But new kinds of print are arising, often engendered by digital processes.
Not only is there more change than at any other time in the history of our industry, there is also more opportunity. I expect to see you all in our new future.