Type specimens

Type specimens have been published since the invention of moveable type, with the earliest well-known example being Antwerp printer Christopher Plantin’s 1567 Index Sive Specimen Characterum. The purpose of such a document in the 16th century was the same then as it is now: to showcase a typeface or typefaces in the various alphabets, styles and sizes available. A specimen functions as a catalogue, a printed sales pitch, designed to say ‘this is what we’ve got and this is how it can be used’

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However, in today’s world of increasingly digital communications, specimens can exist as PDF documents and be distributed digitally. Typefaces can be viewed, played with and bought on websites and now within software such as PhotoShop and InDesign. So it seems surprising that a huge number of creators of digital type still spend time and money producing printed samplers.

“Even in this digital age, it’s still an effective way of maintaining a relationship with existing customers, reaching new customers and sharing a tactile connection with someone whose only experience with us would otherwise be a website visit,” says Rich Roat of Delaware type foundry House Industries.

House regularly prints font catalogues but, rather than digital competition, its biggest headache recently has been increases in postal charges and materials. “Over the past ten years, paper, ink, printing and postage have become much more expensive, so we had to get really smart about how we create and distribute our catalogue,” Roat says. “Catalog 62, our most recent, is specifically designed to qualify for the US Postal Service’s automated standard mail pricing. We also print custom envelopes so the catalogue arrives unmolested and undeliverable pieces are returned completely reusable.”

House Industries understands that its target audience will appreciate the tactile, litho printed catalogues they send out all the more if they arrive in pristine condition. Graphic designers love beautifully printed items. Jason Smith of Fontsmith in London is on the same page: “Designers sniff paper and feel the textures of the print,” he says. “When we combine beautiful graphics and print with our beautifully crafted typefaces, our customers have so many reasons never to dispose of our booklets. All designers have a drawer or a shelf where they keep the special stuff. We often get designers phoning us to ask what stock we used.”

But is printing and distributing these items a luxury rather than a necessity? As many designers will be looking to buy fonts they can use for print projects, actually seeing a new typeface in print can be helpful and inspiring.

“Not everything that utilises type is digital and many people do actually want to see how a typeface looks in print,” says Jeremy Tankard who has been producing type samplers since the 1990s. His approach has changed over time as he constantly reappraises his continuing use of the medium. Tankard’s most recent sample books all follow a similar format (they fit snugly in a standard DVD case) and offer some level of textual information about the design approach as well as showing numerous text settings. “Some people will be happy to have a PDF [version] only, and some will like a printed sampler, it all depends on their sphere of work and level of interest,” he adds.

There is, of course, an enduring practical element to having a physical promotional object. They can be sent to customers and art directors and even entered into award schemes. Recipients can enjoy the tactility of a printed item and keep it to hand. Tankard, Paul Barnes of Commercial Type and Rick Banks of Face37 all say that they use printed type samplers they’ve made, whether posters or booklets, almost like business cards, dishing them out after lectures to people that are interested in what they do. “It’s very useful we found,” says Barnes, “as you talk about the typefaces and then afterwards [attendees] can actually look at the typefaces and hopefully come back.”

Printed type samplers should be expressive, tactile and covetable items that their recipients, ultimately, want to keep, otherwise they’re a complete waste of time and resources. Alex Haigh of digital type distributor HypeForType believes that it’s crucial to show not simply how a typeface looks but to show something of its potential for creative use. “Designers in my view can’t be bothered to look through sample books at fonts in their bare form, because you don’t really get a good grasp of how you can use the font,” he says. “The idea with our Little Black Font Book series is to take good fonts but most importantly show you how to use them well. I want designers to be inspired by the layouts, to look at a spread in the book and then decide that’s what they are going to use.”

Here is a selection of recently produced printed type samplers we just can’t throw away.