Writing on type and design

U&lc: the business of type

U&lc was always about using type.

U&lc began life in 1973 as a quarterly magazine that would promote the typefaces available from ITC – by entertaining, delighting, and informing the art directors and graphic designers who could be expected to specify those faces in their work.

The contents might be about anything at all – from elaborate kites or Japanese shop signs to a digital-design school in Zimbabwe – but from the very beginning, the magazine itself was all about how type is used. And showing sophisticated ways of using type dovetailed with U&lc’s underlying purpose: to support the sales of ITC typefaces.

In 1973, the business of marketing type was entirely different from what it is today. U&lc evolved as the type business changed, but for 27 years it fulfilled its role in protean yet consistent ways – and in the process it became an institution.

U&lc had its origins in the world of New York advertising typography, as did ITC itself. This was a close-knit world where styles and approaches changed fast, but because the business of advertising – like the business of publishing – was so much centered in New York City, it had a worldwide effect. And so did U&lc, which was read by everyone.

ITC had been founded in 1970 by the the triumvirate of Herb Lubalin, Aaron Burns, and Ed Rondthaler; it brought together the type design and marketing expertise of Lubalin and Burns, who had already set up their own company (Lubalin, Burns & Co.) to create new typeface designs, and the production facilities and practical expertise of the company that Ed Rondthaler headed up, Photo-Lettering Inc., which already supplied an enormous part of the phototype to the local advertising world. The seminal idea was to license new type designs to not just one but all of the existing type-manufacturing companies, supplying them with master drawings that they could turn into usable fonts for their own systems. It was the heyday of phototypesetting; the malleability of letters that were reproduced photographically, rather than in metal, had set loose a creative revolution in graphic design, and there was an insatiable hunger for new typefaces. ITC positioned itself to feed that hunger.

U&lc was launched, three years after the start of ITC, as a way of reaching the wide range of people who used type. From the beginning, it was conceived of as a form of “soft marketing,” a publication that wouldn’t just fill itself up with marketing copy and sound like an ad itself but would provide a mix of intriguing content and flamboyant design that might catch the attention of graphic designers and typographers. There was no question that U&lc existed to promote ITC type – each new release was trumpeted and given a lavish showing – but the rest of the contents seemed to exist for its own sake, as a sort of amiable conversation with the graphic design community.

Starting a magazine wasn’t the obvious way to reach that audience. It might have seemed more logical to promote ITC’s typefaces in the usual way, through ads in existing trade publications and direct-mail campaigns. But Herb Lubalin had a flair for publication design – he was already famous as the innovative designer of the provocative magazines Eros and Avant Garde – and he and Burns realized that it might actually be cheaper to publish a quarterly magazine, printed inexpensively in one color on newsprint, and simply give it away: send it for free to everyone in the industry who wanted it. By doing this, they created a buzz, and this fostered a demand for ITC’s typefaces among the people who saw them used so dramatically in the pages of U&lc. Those were the people who specified type when they sent an ad out for typesetting; to keep up with their customers’ ever-changing demands, the type shops had to stock the currently popular typefaces. ITC’s licensing program made sure that each of the manufacturers of typesetting equipment (which was where the actual fonts came from, in a form usable by those particular machines) had ITC faces available that the type shops could purchase and offer to their customers.

U&lc reached a very wide audience. At its height, the circulation was more than 200,000 – which meant an effective readership of much more, as more than one person would usually peruse each copy that went out. Anyone in the graphic design business could receive U&lc, and most did. Graphic design studios would routinely subscribe to U&lc, and quite often the individual designers in the office would make a point of getting their own subscriptions, so they could keep the issues and not have to pass them on. This included not just practicing designers but students in design school – the practicing designers of the next generation. (A surprising number of graphic designers today still have a stack of yellowing U&lc’s in their attic or garage, dating back to when they first began receiving the magazine as students. In many cases they’ve tossed out the heavy piles of glossy art and design magazines somewhere along the way, yet kept the flimsy but lively U&lc.)

Because of its wide reach, U&lc became a favorite vehicle for other companies that wanted to advertise to this market. Each issue included several pages of ads from both type manufacturers and any other kind of advertiser who might offer a service or a product that graphic designers would want. In this business, it was the place to be seen. You could get an immediate snapshot of the entire U.S. type industry just by opening a copy of U&lc – not just the faces offered by ITC but the other, competing typefaces offered by the same companies that sold ITC’s designs. (At one point, for instance, Mergenthaler Linotype regularly took five pages of advertising in every issue. Linotype machines had been the longtime backbone of text typesetting in the United States, and the company was aggressively moving into photosetting, both text and display. They knew the place to make their pitch was in the pages of U&lc.) Although the purpose of U&lc was never to make money as a publication (it was a promotional tool, not an end in itself), it did bring in a significant amount of revenue in its fat years. There was even a period when the magazine had to turn away ads because there were just too many coming in.

U&lc’s readers saw it as an essential part of the graphic design world. It gave them a sense of who they were, and the changing forms of their professional landscape. Everyone would see whatever was published in U&lc. Other magazines might produce weightier articles and show off the high-end work of photographers and artists and graphic designers (in full color – something that U&lc didn’t venture into until more than halfway through its long run), and in later years, when everyone began using computers, other magazines certainly provided more hands-on guidance in using software tools, but U&lc fed an appetite for innovative, sometimes experimental typography in association with striking images. U&lc was where graphic designers turned to see what they might try out next.

There are no figures about the nature of the readership in the early days, but a reader survey from quite late in U&lc’s run, in 1998, gives some idea of both the range of readers and their remarkable loyalty.

Most of the subscribers who responded to the survey said they worked for graphic design companies, as art directors, creative directors, designers, or owners. They were producing “brochures, advertising, catalogs, books, annual reports, websites, etc.” (With the exception of websites, most of those categories would have applied just as easily in 1973.) But in describing their work, as Cynthia Batty put it in summarizing the survey results, “the diverse profile of the U&lc reader begins to emerge. There are architects, exhibit designers, a type designer, photographers, tapestry artists, a tattoo artist, and video artists, to name a few, reading the publication.” The survey asked just a random sampling of the subscriber list to respond, but, as Cynthia added, “It would be amusing to think that this proportion of type designers and tattoo artists could really be projected to the entire U&lc readership, which would yield 49 of each discipline among the readership!”

This was a survey taken a quarter of a century after U&lc began, and it clearly showed that a lot of the subscribers had been reading the magazine for much of that time. The average age of the readers in 1998 was 47, and their average time in the business was more than 20 years – a notably experienced audience. They thought highly of U&lc, according to their survey answers, and said that they found it a good source of new ideas and a way to keep up with new designs and trends. The magazine had served its audience well for a long time.

Typography is the art of arranging type on the page – but what kind of page, and what kind of type? Herb Lubalin was a prime practitioner of a kind of “expressive typography” that was well suited to the world of advertising and commercial graphic design. It wasn’t just a single style, but an approach that involved bold, eye-grabbing type even in text, and a complete marrying of text and display with dramatic images. It was about the idea, and how to express that idea. It could be described by many words, but “quiet” and “unobtrusive” were not among them.

The typefaces that ITC originally issued were targeted directly at this kind of typography. They were big letters, with tall x-heights and large interior spaces; and they were designed to fit tightly together, in the modern style made possible by phototypesetting. This is when the familiar phrase “tight but not touching” became popular, as a direction to the typesetter about how to set the new type. (In Lubalin’s hands, this might have been “tight…tighter…tightest,” creating blocks of text where the spaces were largely within the letters rather than between them. In his display typography, the letters would often be not just touching but overlapping.) The first ITC typeface, Avant Garde Gothic (developed by Lubalin and Tom Carnase from Lubalin’s logo for Avant Garde magazine), featured numerous alternate letters and astonishing overlapping ligatures. Later ITC faces, especially some of those developed by the prolific lettering artist Ed Benguiat, reveled in this blending of typography with the visual freedom of calligraphy.

ITC typefaces of the ’70s were at home in ads and brochures, where short blocks of text had to have visual punch. The classic example would be ITC Garamond, a family of typefaces derived from the types created by (or attributed to) Claude Garamond, a 16th-century French punchcutter. ITC Garamond, in four weights and eventually two widths, was a very effective typeface for brochures, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to any of the classic book faces based on Garamond’s types, despite a number of individual features that were recognizably Garamondesque.

When Lubalin died in 1981, what had by now become a tradition was carried on by Ed Gottschall as editor and Bob Farber as art director. U&lc’s tabloid format provided a large canvas on which to paint typographically; the subject matter could be as broad as anything that might draw the eyes of graphic designers. ITC’s new typefaces became more diverse, moving away from the easily recognizable “ITC style” and into a variety of other forms – but always with that aim of standing out and being expressive.

What U&lc did, under Lubalin and afterward, was provide a canvas for its designers and a mirror for its readers: they could see themselves and their times reflected in the typography in those oversized pages. U&lc often showcased the work of artists and designers, but it did so as a way of exploring how to present such dramatic visual material; one thing U&lc was not was a simple frame presenting material without comment.

Each issue provided visual stimulation for graphic designers, who are always looking for inspiration and new ideas. When Margaret Richardson took over as editor in 1989, introducing theme issues and a policy of using a different art director or design team in every issue, it became a sport in the industry to see who had been given carte blanche with U&lc this time, and what they had done with such artistic license. This variety of design approaches in the pages of U&lc also made it obvious how many different ways the ITC typefaces could be used – which continued the publication’s primary purpose, promoting ITC’s type library.

From the very beginning, U&lc had been about form and content working together, not standing separate like a pair of ill-matched strangers. Lubalin was both editor and art director, massaging the text to fit the design as well as massaging the design to suit the text – a form of creative interaction very common in the world of high-end advertising – and this dynamic relationship between form and content was a constant in the magazine, right through to the very end. Indeed, it was the magazine, essentially.

The business of selling type changed dramatically in the course of U&lc’s lifetime, reflecting the huge technological and economic changes in the type industry. Just as ITC rode in on the wave of phototypesetting and the new freedom it gave to both users and designers of type, in the 1990s the company had to adapt to a newer wave of desktop computers and digital fonts. These changes were talked about in the pages of the magazine, of course – how could they not be? – as the dynamics changed between the producers of type and its users.

The business of designing type had simplified and democratized. Now that actual fonts consisted of small bits of software on individual users’ computers, and the technology for producing these fonts had become an open standard, virtually anybody could get into the act – not just create a new typeface design but turn it into a functional digital font. The trick was to market and sell those fonts. That’s where ITC had a readymade advantage: an established vehicle for publicizing its typeface designs to the very people who were now going to be buying the fonts.

ITC faces were being distributed by a large network of licensees, just as they had always been, but now almost all the distributors were selling essentially the same thing: a font that would work on any computer, not a proprietary font that could be used only on a particular manufacturer’s typesetting machine. There were still finesses of execution – how well a particular design had been digitized from the original drawings – but even that was changing: the “drawings” themselves were more likely to be digitally created in the first place.

Eventually, ITC took the inevitable step: selling its own fonts directly, and setting up an e-commerce website to do it. With this change, the job that U&lc had to do changed too. Rather than just creating a demand that would be satisfied indirectly by the licensees who sold the typefaces – or, more accurately, in addition to this role, which still existed – U&lc had to take on a new role: drawing people to the new website, www.itcfonts.com, where they could actually buy the fonts.

At the end of 1997, when I was asked by Mark Batty to take over as editor and publisher of U&lc, one of my mandates was to create an online companion magazine, U&lc Online, and to make the two publications work symbiotically. If readers of one were inclined to make the effort to read the other, then there would be a constant back-and-forth between print and web, and the readers of the print magazine might be encouraged to buy fonts from the ITC website – which at that point had become an e-commerce site, selling ITC fonts directly to the end-users.

Starting an online companion was also the obvious way to confront the changing form of publishing at the end of the 20th century.

What I foresaw for U&lc Online was a more frequent publication, to reflect the faster publishing cycle of the web. It would maintain interest and a sense of interactivity between issues of U&lc, which as always was being published on a quarterly schedule. The webzine could be more immediate, more responsive than a print magazine with three months between issues.

A frequent publication works best when it features, as one practitioner succinctly put it, “news, views, and reviews.” For U&lc Online, I took a three-pronged approach: reviews, event reports, and regular columns. Columns are a backbone of continuity in a magazine; readers will come back to read what a favorite columnist has to say, at whatever interval the column appears. Reviews are an obvious part of any responsive publication; they reflect on the state of the art and on new things that come along. And a further sense of immediacy comes from first-person reports of related events – in this case exhibitions, conferences, and talks in New York and elsewhere that might engage the interest of graphic designers.

By web standards, where sites may evolve from hour to hour, U&lc Online wasn’t very frequent: we posted new content every month. But I conceived of each month’s “issue” as a companion to the printed magazine, and we numbered them accordingly. (We frequently referred to U&lc’s issues by volume and issue number: “25.1,” for instance, being vol. 25 no. 1. In a nod to the techie aspects of the web, I gave each issue of U&lc Online a three-part number: “25.1.3” meant the third monthly installment after print issue 25.1.) We rotated the columnists and other content through that three-month cycle, so there was always something new each month but the overall structure still reflected the quarterly schedule of U&lc.

As columnists, I recruited Eileen Gunn (who had already written about the Zimbabwe design school, ZIVA), Olav Martin Kvern, and futurist/science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling. Each of them had provocative ideas. Eileen had strong opinions about web publishing, and a lively way of expressing them. Ole Kvern had written several books on desktop publishing; I asked him to write a regular how-to column for the printed U&lc as well as this more freewheeling column online. And I believe I was the first editor to ask Bruce Sterling to write about design (a subject he now revels in).

Before I got to ITC, Roger Black’s company had designed an overall look and structure for the ITC website; the name “U&lc Online” existed, and a few articles had been posted to the site, but nothing had been done to make it a real periodical. I took the existing design, with its black navigation bar and colorful circular links, and created a basic page design for U&lc Online that worked with that. It was deliberately simple: beneath the navigation bar, there was a narrow lefthand column that was largely empty, except for titles or notes, and a main text column, sized to approximate a readable line length for extended reading. Of course, in an HTML web page no designer can control exactly how the text will look on each reader’s screen; that’s the essence of HTML. But you can set up defaults that will make sense, such as a default font and size and line space that ought to be comfortable to read (and will work across various platforms and kinds of screens) and a defined column width so the text won’t spread all the way across the page. This kind of simple, clean design invites reading, in a way that a cluttered, over-busy webpage design does not.

The irony of web publishing is that it’s an inherently visual medium, yet the safest kind of content to put up on a website is text: because text is low-bandwidth, while graphics take longer to download and slow down navigation from page to page. Even though U&lc’s readers were mostly graphic designers, who could be expected to have faster and more up-to-date web connections than the average web surfer, it was still important to keep the page files small and quick to load. So we used relatively few graphics – just small illustrations now and then, and typeset heads that would be converted to graphics. Many times, because of the nature of our business, the “graphics” would in fact be made from digital fonts. (ITC had an extensive collection of what it called “DesignFonts,” fonts that contained sets of pictures in place of letters, and we made full use of them in designing pages for U&lc Online, as well as in occasional collateral material for U&lc.)

The other essential piece to creating an online publication was to figure out a strategy for archiving old material, and a clear navigation system for getting to it. The home page of U&lc Online, once we had published enough issues to have an archive, gave prominence to the latest “issue’s” set of material, including a short introductory paragraph, and under that it listed the contents of the last two monthly issues. Below that was a link to the archives (which were organized chronologically, by issue; I had plans to create a cross-index by contributor as well, but this never got done). So at any given time, you could see the last three months’ worth of content listed on the home page, and it was easy to look up earlier material as well.

At the same time as we were developing this online publication, the printed U&lc was undergoing changes too. Just before I got to ITC, the decision had been taken to reduce the format of U&lc from the big tabloid pages it had used since the beginning to a more conventional page size (8-1/2 × 11 inches). This came as a shock to the readers. U&lc had always been printed inexpensively on newsprint of one kind or another; what made this print format vibrant and alive was the large page size (and of course the lavish use that successive designers made of it). Could U&lc still be itself at this smaller size?

Although I preferred the small size, I had nothing to do with the decision to adopt it; that choice had already been made before I took over U&lc. It was a choice based on hard economic realities, but it also reflected the changing world of magazine publishing. As I described it in the editorial of my first issue (which was U&lc’s 25th-anniversary issue), “After a quarter century of leadership in the graphic-design field, U&lc is neither going to rest on its laurels nor going to lumber away into extinction like an aging dinosaur.” After alluding briefly to the catastrophe theory of the extinction of the dinosaurs, I said, “But at ITC we intend to make sure that U&lc evolves into one of the small, fast-moving mammals who survive the climate change and thrive in the newer world.” It seemed clear that U&lc couldn’t continue to be exactly what it had been; the task was to turn it into something new, while maintaining the continuity with its long past.

Mark van Bronkhorst had been commissioned to design the next several issues, and to adapt U&lc to its new smaller size. Mark was a joy to work with; he cared equally about the designs and the words, so he always paid very close attention to the readability of the text, and in fact he would sometimes have editorial suggestions or catch typoes before I would. Although Clive Chiu, who handled print production very knowledgeably and had worked with a bewildering plethora of individual designers before this, had his office right next to mine at ITC in New York, Mark van Bronkhorst worked from his home office in the San Francisco Bay Area. The distance meant nothing to him; he was used to working remotely (as was I), and we communicated perfectly well by phone, e-mail, and Fed Ex deliveries. Although I enticed Mark to come to New York once to confer directly, the basic process was done entirely at long distance.

I had visited Mark, however, on a trip through the Bay Area just before I moved to New York, and we had hatched a subversive idea: to radically change the logo of U&lc. The old logo had gone through several minor revisions, but they were in the nature of repairs and subtle adaptations; in essence, it had remained the same bold, emphatic logo with the huge swash ampersand that Herb Lubalin had designed in the 1970s. We decided that this echo of the Seventies was no longer useful, and the 25th-anniversary issue seemed an excellent time to retire it in favor of a completely new design.

The logo that Mark came up with was more typographic, rather than calligraphic; restrained and functional, rather than exuberantly expressive. It not only reflected the new look of the magazine, but could be used in a variety of ways, both on paper and online. The old logo had forced everything around it to fit in with it; the new one clearly marked the magazine, but it was unobtrusive, not a major design element in itself. It debuted on the cover of U&lc vol. 25 no. 1, as part of a wraparound cover where Mark used a thin outline of the old logo and cavorting Seventies disco figures to celebrate the old look and the new.

Nothing that we did in my tenure as editor created as much of a stir as changing the logo. Readers were outraged. Many of them had been reading U&lc since their student days, and in their nostalgic eyes the old logo had become one of the eternal verities. Some even referred to it as “classic” – though that description might have caused Herb Lubalin to laugh. Lubalin had been an iconoclast, someone who shook things up; our remaking of U&lc was entirely within that changeable tradition. Nonetheless, the new logo (though appreciated by some) was a bone of contention to the end.

U&lc had a global reach, as I discovered. Even though its circulation had been deliberately cut in its later years (for a while there were even paid subscriptions), the magazine was read far and wide; it found its way into design studios all over the world. When I ran an article by Eileen Gunn about African typographer and educator Saki Mafundikwa and his return to his native Zimbabwe to start a digital-design school (ZIVA), Saki got queries and responses from many countries – including one from a designer in Harare who first heard of ZIVA from the U&lc article!

I made a deliberate effort to cross boundaries and to bring together people and ideas from varied sources in the pages of the magazine. The ZIVA piece was one of these; others ranged across a wide field – geographically, culturally, and technologically.

The 25th-anniversary issue featured my profile of John Warnock’s new company Octavo, and their efforts to make rare book editions available in electronic form as searchable PDF files. In the catalog issue, vol. 25 no. 2, Margaret Richardson wrote about two unusual letterpress printers, C. Christopher Stern & Jules Remedios Faye, in an article called “The Printing Farm.” (This gave Mark van Bronkhorst an opportunity to do some particularly imaginative design; for the front cover, he made use of one of Stern & Faye’s layered collages, replacing the magenta ink in the four-color process with a dayglo orange that made the image pop brilliantly, even on newsprint.) The Spring 1999 issue included a report from Moscow on the Russian type-design competition Kyrillitsa ’99 by Maxim Zhukov, accompanied by a collage feature of Cyrillic graffiti photographed by Russian type designers.

The very final issue ran an account by Michael Wiegers of his trip through Vietnam with John Balaban, the translator of Vietnam’s revered poet Ho Xuan Huong, and the project that not only brought Ho’s poetry into English but printed it for the very first time as type in the original Vietnamese writing system, Nôm. At the same time, in the same issue, Steven Heller wrote about the lettering of Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte.

That final issue (vol. 26 no. 2, Fall 1999) was designed by New York magazine designer Deanna Lowe. It seemed an unaccustomed luxury to be working with someone who was only a few blocks away, rather than across the country. Lowe turned in a wonderfully expansive design that presented the content well. Like Mark van Bronkhorst, who had first dealt with the reduced page size, she made the design look bigger than the page, which had the effect of exploding it beyond the limits of U&lc’s smaller format. The magazine remained visually striking from its first issue to its last.

Why was that the last issue? Not for any reason that had directly to do with U&lc. Mark Batty, the president of ITC for nearly fifteen years, maintained a firm commitment to the magazine’s existence and its continued publication. But ITC’s parent company, Esselte, a large Swedish corporation, had decided to divest itself of parts of its operation; and ITC was only a very small one of those parts. A type company had never fitted particularly well into Esselte’s other areas of interest, and even though it made a profit, ITC was by corporate standards too small to bother with. Rather than sell either the company or the magazine, Esselte decided to simply shut the whole thing down, in the fall of 1999. The employees were laid off, the offices were emptied, and I spent the last several weeks of my time there finding homes for the ITC archives (which might otherwise have ended up in a dumpster on East 45th Street). It was a sad end to a long story.

Ironically, at the end of the year Esselte changed its mind and sold the ITC name and type library to Agfa Monotype, where it remains a separate line of digital fonts; even U&lc Online exists, although in much-changed form, on Monotype’s ITC site.

ITC was first and foremost a product of the phototypesetting revolution; it was appropriate, though not necessarily inevitable, that it should end (or at least change beyond recognition) in the era of small digital foundries. U&lc started as a marketing device for a very different type industry, but it transcended its pragmatic purpose and became a reflection of, and a stimulus to, the whole world of commercial typography and graphic design. Each issue, on its thin newsprint, was ephemeral, yet from Herb Lubalin’s first issues to my final ones, each was conceived to make a splash and to last – to be worth reading and rereading, looking at again years later, not just as a historical artifact but as an expression of typographic creativity that is always new. This book presents a representative sampling of U&lc’s pages through twenty-seven years, but the real monument to U&lc’s endurance is those yellowing stacks of old issues so carefully preserved in so many designers’ basements and attics and archives.

U&lc has, indeed, influenced design and typography.