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Letter Gothic

Letter Gothic

The greatest typographic shortcoming of the typewriter had always been its uniform character width. The characters W and i suffered most: the former had to be squashed into too narrow a space, while the i was given a wide foot and an upper serif. All this can be seen very clearly in the Courier typeface.

For many years, serif typefaces had been the preferred model in the design of typewriter fonts. The serifs served the designer as a means by which narrow characters could be made wider, and wider letters narrowed.

Full-page advertisement from 1962 for the golf-ball typewriter IBM Selectric (Archive/Scan: Fontblog)

In the autumn of 1958, IBM engineer Roger Roberson embarked on an experiment which his colleagues did not give any great hope of success. Roberson worked day and night on an alphabet for IBM typewriters whose characters were of a uniform width and all stood without bottom serifs on their imaginary baseline. Thus the typeface Letter Gothic was born.

The IBM Selectric made Letter Gothic famous around the world. The model’s winning feature was its entirely new construction principle: instead of type bars, a rotating ball was used to transfer the characters onto paper. The golf-ball typewriter was a mechanical masterpiece of extremely sophisticated construction. For several years, IBM held a patent for the technology and conquered the office world with it almost single-handedly. Thanks to the removable golf ball, users were able for the first time to write in a variety of font sizes and typefaces.

Letter Gothic is a monospaced typeface, also known as “fixed pitch” or “non-proportional”. This means that each character’s space (or, to be more precise, the sum of the character’s own width and that of the space either side of it) is the same size. Pitch as a unit of measurement refers to the number of letters per inch (measured horizontally). A ball labelled 12 (pitch) would therefore carry a font which, when printed, would produce 12 characters per inch.

The height of the characters is measured in points. When producing text on a computer, both point size and pitch can be varied, with the relationship between them inversely proportional. If a 12-point font corresponds to 10 pitch, then it will become 5 pitch at 24 points and 20 pitch at 6 points.

IBM golf ball with 12-pitch Letter Gothic and 96 characters (Photo: Fontblog)

When desktop publishing (DTP) made its entrance in the late 1980s, the typewriter was already on the retreat as a tool for business communication. Letters and faxes were word-processed by computer and printed on a dot matrix printer. With the advent of laser printers, the choice of fonts increased exponentially. Nevertheless, some typewriter classics survived, for even in the computer age printed letters needed to look like letters, rather than like newspaper columns set in Times. Laser printers includedCourier in their range from the start. And in the summer of 1989, the popular Letter Gothic was also released in PostScript format.

In the early 1990s, many graphic designers were weary of perfect type forms and went in search of archetypes from the early years of the computer. The industrial German typeface DIN was popular for its simple geometrical forms. And the Letter Gothic versions by Bitstream and Adobe won admirers with their tight, monospaced rhythm.
Numerous type designers responded to the needs of users and developed “distressed typefaces” such as FF Trixie, FF Confidential, FF Dynamoe, FF Blur and FF Magda. The distortion of character forms caused by mechanical inadequacies was imitated and intensified using digital technology.

Letter Gothic (top) and FF Letter Gothic Text, the proportional, space-saving alternative

In around 1995, FSI FontShop International decided to “adopt [some] non-design font stars”. After careful reworking, they were suddenly back in the spotlight as FF DIN and FF OCR F (both revised by Albert-Jan Pool). FF Letter Gothic Text followed in 1996.

The configuration of the original from the 1960s and 1980s did not suit the requirements of a modern typeface: there were only two weights, and accents and symbols were missing. FSI commissioned the Italian type designer Albert Pinggera to adapt and rework Letter Gothic sufficiently for it to meet the demands of desktop publishing.

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