The Font Wars

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The Font Wars

In the early 1980s, my job in the graphics department at a newspaper meant spending a large part of my day typing words and control codes into a computer terminal to set type I’d use for headlines on special new sections, or captions for new graphics. The type would come out of a large typesetting machine on a strip of paper, or “galley.”


I’d wax the back of it, trim it into pieces and paste it in position on a thin sheet of cardboard that would then be photographed to make a printing plate. My coworkers and I spent a lot of time specifying type and calculating its size to ensure everything fit within the page area we were responsible for. It was nothing like graphic designers’ process today based on desktop computers. Nothing about modern word processing, design, or the Internet would be as we know it if not for three technologies that started it all.

The Dawn of Desktop Printing

In 1984, Apple released the first Macintosh computer, and Steve Jobs decided to ship the machine with a set of expressive fonts that used characters of different widths. (Previously,
most computer systems were limited to using monospaced fonts, as on a typewriter, requiring, for example, j and m to be the same width.) steve-jobs-young-chrisann-brennan.jpg The Macintosh was the first mainstream computer to offer this and partially reflected the calligraphy classes Jobs audited at Reed College after he dropped out.

Also in 1984, Adobe, then itself another young upstart, introduced the second innovation, PostScript, a “page description language” or interpreter between computers and printers. In 1985 Apple shipped the LaserWriter printer, which came with a PostScript interpreter built in. With PostScript devices like the LaserWriter, users could now convert text on their screen into desired printed copy. The final link was the first professional-quality page layout program, PageMaker from Aldus in 1985, which ran on the new Mac computers. With its layout and design software, practically anyone could produce their own brochures, signs, and newsletters that looked “like the real thing.”

At the time, I was a graphic artist for the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, laying out pages for the science section and investigative series, and designing maps and information graphics. Desktop publishing tools certainly transformed page layout for thousands of graphic artists, like me, who were used to cumbersome practices before then.
Around this time, spurred by a long-time passion for designing typefaces, I began knocking on the door at Adobe, after reading a 12-page Macworld article on the LaserWriter and desktop publishing. The article mentioned Adobe had hired a calligrapher, Sumner Stone, to lead its type team. I was surprised a tech company would value calligraphy, so I wanted to check it out. In design school, I was interested in type design. Back then it was a tiny field. Fewer than 100 people worked in the trade worldwide, and the type companies were focused on selling typesetting equipment rather than fonts.

Thanks to desktop publishing, the demand and use of fonts quickly became more than a niche field. I joined Adobe in 1986, and little did I know then, a war was brewing that would color my career for the next decade.

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