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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.

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.



By Kevin R. Donley on Dec 16, 2011

Great review of the history of typographic technology. Many of us are fortunate to have lived and worked through most of these transitions (Frank might remember 1886 better than the rest of us). I know the typewriter fits into this chronology and we still use the keyboard from that system (QWERTY) out of habit and lack of an alternative. With (intelligent) voice recognition and touch technologies moving quickly into the content creation process I would suspect that the keyboard will disappear and we will witness the day that typing died.


By Robert Leonard on Dec 20, 2011

Frank, I believe in our lifetime we will see a demise of the printing industry, at least as we used to know it. I regularly point out to colleagues that it's not the elimination of the print customer that will kill printing, it's the elimination of profit profit. We are also in a time when the local is confused by who their competition is. We are living a time where technology is replacing our products. My mother swore the typewriter would survive.

RIT '79


By Dave Mainwaring on Jan 10, 2012

How to clone Frank ??

Thank You for your devotion to the industry


By John Clifford on Jan 11, 2012

First thanks Frank for a great capsule history of the industry that I grew up in.

To Robert: I think your comment is a little simplistic. Until I can see an alternative to packaging printing, I can't imaging a world without printing. Yes, it's certainly changing and I won't say it won't go away, but I think there are still some challenges to killing it off altogether.


By Robert Leonard on Jan 11, 2012


I agree mostly that my answer is simplistic and packaging will be more lasting, in my opinion, than most forms. My opinion is more based on the changing commercial market which is experiencing both fragmentation (to the consumer) and consolidation ( manufacturers (printers)) at the same time. My opinion is really far more complex than it can be stated here and, as stated, is very simplistic. Sectors and even sub-sectors, as commercial is too broad, need discussing - before they go away... :(



By John Clifford on Jan 12, 2012

Understood. As a teacher who is trying to train design students in prepress (my background is definitely NOT design), I find that trying to prepare students for the future means having to keep my ear to the ground, so simplistic "print is going away" always irritates me. It's certainly changing (a lot) but I think that it still needs to be taken into account in a whole range of areas.

Hope no offense was taken.


By Robert Leonard on Jan 12, 2012

no offense taken. :) Great Subject though for an old guy like me. Been a favorite subject of mine for a long time - we should talk more - sharing our crystal balls. seriously.


By Warren Seidel on Jan 13, 2012

Great topic of discussion. With the advent of fast, high quality web inkjet printing, the promise of the totally customized magazine is near. That was the promise when we first began talking about digital printing and I believe custom printed magazines will be hard for anyone to resist. Even for a twenty something. There may be hope after all.


By Robert Leonard on Jan 23, 2012


I try not be be a doomsday individual, but one difference I see here is that technology, even though improving the product experience and efficiency, is competing with the product we print as well.



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