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header:139:aPageArgs:page_title = 4 | At Microsoft Press
header:140:aPageArgs:section_title = Typographic memoir
functions-johndberry:262:aPageArgs:page_title = 4 | At Microsoft Press
functions-johndberry:298:sPageTitle = 4 | At Microsoft Press
functions-johndberry:314:sPageTitle = Typographic memoir
functions-johndberry:359:sPageTitle = Typographic memoir

Typographic memoir

4 | At Microsoft Press

Chris Stern and the creation of the type department

Chris Stern came to Franklin Press to be a phototypesetter, as a low-stress job after he had burned himself out as manager of the opening of F.X. McRory’s Steak Chop & Oyster House at its original location in Pioneer Square. Chris had no experience with typography, and he later credited me with teaching him to set type — phototype, at any rate. But Chris’s dormant management energy reasserted itself eventually, and when he left Franklin Press it was to go across Lake Washington to the upstart Microsoft Press, the book-publishing arm of Microsoft Corporation, to run the type department there. This was in early 1984. He staffed up his department first by recruiting Ken Sánchez, another phototypesetter and friend of mine who had been working at Franklin Press for quite a while, and then, in the summertime, by persuading me to make the jump.

Corner of a paste-up board from Microsoft Press, Sept. 1984, with Microsoft Press logo and the press's address & phone numbers
Corner of a paste-up board from Microsoft Press, 1984”

I had been doing the same thing for too long, but it was a comfortable rut. And I was skeptical about something as alien as working out in the suburbs, in a…software company? What could that possibly have to do with me? (I was already all too familiar with Microsoft; my partner Eileen Gunn had been working there since 1982, first as a copywriter and eventually as Director of Advertising & Promotion. Far from being a reason for me to go to work for Microsoft as well, that foreknowledge made me wary.) But after several months of resistance, I finally agreed that it was time to make a move, and I took the job in Bellevue.

(This was before Microsoft moved farther out into the suburbs and built its corporate campus in Redmond. In fact, at one point while I was first working there, they took a survey among the employees and contractors, to see how many commuted in from the farther suburbs and how many came out from the city. The results were perfectly balanced: half and half. Imagine how different Seattle’s history might have been if Microsoft had decided to move into the city instead of out to Redmond! But the founders were all suburban boys; I wasn’t surprised at the decision they made.)

At Microsoft, I felt cut off from the cultural life of Seattle, out there on the other side of Lake Washington. But I was also plunged straight into a high-energy environment and started learning new technology and a new professional culture. Microsoft was a very fluid business environment, and Microsoft Press might have been its most high-pressure unit. Despite my self-image as laid-back, even lazy, I discovered unsuspected workaholic tendencies in myself.

Things were so changeable at Microsoft that on the very first day I worked there, Chris put me into an unoccupied office but advised me not to get too settled there, as the interior structure of the building was going to be physically reconfigured over the weekend. Sure enough, when I came in again on Monday morning, most of the office walls had been moved. This was a pretty good preparation for the volatility of working at Microsoft.

The other fluid thing about the corporation in those days was hiring. I was looking forward to finally earning a regular salary, rather than being paid hourly as I had been at Franklin Press; although the salary was low, it seemed sumptuous to me after years of scraping by. But it wasn’t entirely a surprise (volatility, remember?) when my first payday came around and no check appeared: Chris had hired me verbally, but he hadn’t gotten around to telling Personnel about it in time to make that first pay period. You could get away with things like that in those days, when they hadn’t yet changed the name from “Personnel” to the more corporate “Human Resources.”

Of course the missing pay turned up in my first real paycheck, on the next payday. By that time, I had plunged full-tilt into the furious production schedule of Microsoft Press.


Chris and I both became passionate about learning more about typography, and with our newfound salaries we could afford to buy books. We dove gleefully into used-book stores and antiquarian bookshops, in search of anything about the history and craft of typography. I was enormously influenced by reading Ruari McLean’s biography of Jan Tschichold, the German typographer who launched the radical “New Typography” in his youth and then later brought an exquisite sensibility for traditional book design to, among others, Penguin Books. Many of the books we wanted to read weren’t available, but sometimes we could track something down and, if we couldn’t buy it, we’d photocopy part or all of it. I still have a Xerox copy of Geoffroy Dowding’s long-out-of-print Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type, one of the most recondite but fascinating studies of exactly the kind of typographic detail that we dealt with every day. (Finer Points was eventually reprinted in 1995 by Hartley & Marks in Vancouver, but that edition too is now long out of print.)

I recall the day that we discovered a trove of newly arrived books on type and typography in Henderson Books, a delightful used-book store in Belltown whose proprietor seemed to operate on the counterproductive principle of “Buy high, sell low.” These books had been part of someone’s collection, which Henderson said he had just bought. Chris and I pounced on them, divvying them up and deciding which of us would buy which of the books on offer. Sometimes there were duplicates, in which case each of us would buy one. Sometimes there were not. For instance, we found two different editions of the American Type Founders specimen book and catalog, one published in 1912 and the other in 1923. I took the 1923 edition, which showed a lot of then-new typefaces but had eliminated many of the older faces shown in the earlier edition; Chris took the 1912.

We bought new books, too. When Chris discovered the existence of the Swiss typographer Josef Müller-Brockmann’s seminal book, Grid systems in graphic design, which had just been reissued in a new edition that seemed expensive to us, we decided to split the cost and order a single copy, which we would pass back and forth between us, studying it closely and figuring out how to apply its principles to digital book typography.