Monotype: Pencil to Pixel

Monotype: Pencil to Pixel

The Pencil to Pixel exhibition by Monotype is a real treat for typography fans and design geeks. On in Wapping for just a short week, through Friday 23 November, the show tells the story of the past, present and future of this unique typographic institution and what’s truly a heritage brand. Here are some of the highlights:

Monotype started as a machine company, focussing on the mechanics of setting type quickly, but quickly realised that developing typefaces was a good way to sell machines. Over the course of over 100 years, Monotype has commissioned, developed and licensed many iconic fonts, including Gill Sans and Times New Roman.

A labour of love by UK type director Dan Rhatigan, the Pencil to Pixel exhibition draws from Monotype’s extensive archives in Surrey. On his very helpful guided tour, we gained insight on everything from the original pencil sketches to hot metal casts to photographic film to the promotional materials on display.

The members of the tour I was on, including a group of students from the University of Reading, were seriously geeking out.

Arial. You might have heard of that font.

This is detail of a Neue Helvetica photographic master cut in Rubylith, a popular masking film. See the little spines cut onto the corners? They’re there because during the plate-making process, the corners tended to round out. By adding the little spines, which disappear during the process, the letters on the finished printing plate got the nice sharp corners as designed. So cool!

I wouldn’t say I’m a typography expert — I’m terrible at the Font Game — more like an appreciator of nice type. (True story: Back when my now-husband and I were first dating, he made me my own pixel font called “little c” for my birthday. And that’s when I knew for sure he was the one for me.)

My theory is that with the popularity of films like Helvetica and our everyday use of computers and an overall wider awareness of design, there’s now a sizable general audience who appreciates typography as part of a wider design aesthetic, and then there are the serious typographic geeks. It’s kind of like people who enjoy a glass of wine and the true oenophiles. I think there’s room for both appreciators and aficionados.

Pencil to Pixel is not a huge exhibition, but the materials on display are interesting and make it clear how much skill and craftsmanship go into developing the kind of typefaces we see every day. We see in the objects a history of type design, and with the promotional material and retail packaging especially, the changing aesthetics.

We’re lucky, too, that Monotype has such a rich archive of materials, as similar collections from American Monotype and American Linotype were either lost in floods or are not easily accessible by the public. It’s Monotype’s sustained base in Surrey that’s allowed it to maintain such a rich resource. I would love to see this collection shared with an even larger audience, say with an exhibition at the Design Museum.

The shop boasts many covetable items, including gorgeous printed pamphlets on GF Smith paper. For paper geeks, it’s the kind of printed material that makes you a little weak in the knees.

Monotype is currently working on the revival of certain typefaces, like Metro, introducing weights that had not previously been digitised, with a projected April 2013 release date for a large set. By harnessing digital capabilities, Monotype is able to restore to typefaces attributes, like more natural proportions and sharpness, that may have previously been sacrificed to adapt to the technology of the time.

Something else that’s coming in 2013: an office in Clerkenwell. Looking forward to welcoming Monotype to the neighbourhood and seeing more of Monotype’s work — past, present and future!

Pencil to Pixel
Metropolitan Wharf, 70 Wapping Wall, Wapping, London E1W 3SS
Exhibition runs 16th, 19th -23rd November, 2012
Twitter @MonotypeUK