Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution

Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution

by Unit Editions

Four years in the making, Unit 34 is a title we’ve been excited about for quite some time. Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution is the first comprehensive history of Letraset, the rubdown lettering system that revolutionised typographic expression. The book tells the Letraset story from its early days as a difficult-to-use wet system, to its glory years as the first truly democratic alternative to professional typesetting.

Essays by Colin Brignall, Dave Farey and Mike Daines – all key members of the Letraset team – provide expert insight into the rise of Letraset as a typographic and commercial powerhouse. A central essay by Adrian Shaughnessy examines the typographic and cultural impact of the system. It has an introduction by Malcolm Garrett, and features in-depth interviews with Mr Bingo, Erik Brandt, Aaron Marcus, David Quay, Dan Rhatigan, Freda Sack, Andy Stevens and Jon Wozencroft.

We’re delighted to share with you one interview from the book here in full – Adrian Shaughnessy in conversation with Andy Stevens, co founder and Principal/Creative Director of Graphic Thought Facility.

‘It was in pouring over my Letraset book that I realised that images and codes that I knew from record covers had been culled from this catalogue of metaphor and style, and now I was able to access them too. This opened up the well signposted path of observation and appropriation and use of context as graphic devices that I still apply as tools today.’

 

When did you first encounter Letraset – and what was its impact on you?

After getting my art O-level and being accepted on a BTEC Graphic Design course at Sheffield’s Granville College, I was sent a voucher redeemable at Andrews, an art and graphic supplies shop in the city centre, along with a ‘kit list’ that I would need to turn up with. This included ‘professional’ kit I had not encountered before such as Rotring and ruling pens, French curves, a range of bizarrely selected gouache colours that the shop were obviously looking to get shot of (a lot of ‘Bengal Rose’ coloured early projects), and best of all, a beautiful yellow landscape-format Letraset catalogue with a green spiral binding. I fell in love with this book and still own it today.

I also remember that art materials were on the ground floor of the shop (more populist), and graphic materials were up the heavy wooden staircase (more niche and rarefied). The staircase was lined with Letraset typeface posters showing interestingly illustrated applications of Benguiat and Cheltenham, etc., in ascending alphabetical order. I couldn’t comprehend how work could look that polished – rather like the Michael English posters on my bedroom wall that I tried to copy at school.

 

Where and when did you first use it? Were you a skilled user?

Like most of my school mates I had been using small postcard-sized sheets of rub-down letters from WH Smith (mostly piss poor versions of Times and Eurostyle) to personalise mix tape covers and special note books. I revelled in the universal practice of being able to conjure unnatural looking capital B’s from a sliced up number eights, and a bit of a number seven. I considered myself pretty damn good in these arts but have never graduated to making typographic forms from scratch that looked any better than these cut and shunt affairs. The first real sheet of Letraset I bought was Squire (designed by Michael Neugebauer) for a BTEC project. As I recall the project was basically a rip off of Josef Albers that was then ‘Squired’. Pretty cool really.

Has it had a lasting effect on your work – if so, in what ways?

It was in pouring over my Letraset book that I realised that images and codes I knew from record covers (smiling, hand-holding young couples and cityscapes from The Human League’s Being Boiled sleeve, and references to Pantone numbers on Heaven 17’s I’m Your Money, etc) had been culled from this catalogue of metaphor and style, and now I was able to access them too.

This opened up the well signposted path of observation and appropriation and use of context as graphic devices that I still apply as tools today. Plus, to my continuing regret, I would no longer have to worry about having to draw that well.

 

Do you have a favourite Letraset typeface?

Let’s stick with Cooper Black.

What has Letraset contributed to typography and to culture?

To typography it has provided a retirement home for fonts, through no fault of their own, no longer able to work. Culturally, intermediate technologies like Letraset are very often a productive medium in which strange things happen. It provided an interesting bridge between a homemade punk aesthetic and slicker corporate image production. I loved the way that the post-punk awkwardness of Being Boiled was refined into the beautifully judged pastiche of bland marketing culture that is Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement – my favourite album sleeve of all time.

Letraset is enjoying a period of renewed interest – and not just amongst nostalgists. Why do you think this is?

Limited choice is liberating.

Andy Stevens comes from Sheffield. He ‘pitched up’ at the RCA via Leeds in the late 1980s and found ‘a cohort of likeminded peers interested in a similar kind of optimistic, simple, crafted, awkwardness that we set about trying to find a look for. Have been pursuing this line of thought through Graphic Thought Facility since then.’

The book’s design is by the Spin team of Tony Brook and Claudia Klat. It uses many rare specimens from Letraset’s past – catalogues, press ads, mailers, storage units, and of course, sheets of classic Letraset typefaces.

Specifications
Size: 220×320 mm
Pages: 312
Print: Four colour litho
Cover: Four colour litho plus Pantone
Special features: Gatefold Letraset timeline
ISBN: 978-0-9956664-4-3
Editors: Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy
Author: Adrian Shaughnessy
Design: Spin
Edition: 2000

Free worldwide postage
£55 – Buy it here.

Luke Tonge