The language of computational typesetting is all adopted from letterpress, too. When graphic designers talk about kerning—the technical term the amount of space between letter and words—they’re building on the printers’ tradition of carving away space on individual letter blocks—“A” and “V,” for example—so they would fit together tightly on the press. Any student who has tried to make a paper appear longer by adding space between lines is using leading, a letterpress term that refers to the process of adding strips of lead horizontally between lines of type. What we know as the standard 12-point font was originally called a pika, the standard measurement for any given typeface in a printer’s drawer. The terms uppercase and lowercase come from the fact that those typefaces were literally separated in an upper and a lower case.
Letterpress has left its marks all over contemporary design. The grid is a cornerstone of graphic design, fundamental to any program in the Adobe Suite. While designing with a grid dates back to the ancient Egyptians, letterpress transformed how designers think about type within that grid. For letterpress printers, the grid works on both an aesthetic and functional level. When a line of type doesn’t fill the entire space on the grid, typesetters will add flourishes and dingbats to compensate for the extra space. In addition to looking better, the embellishments also help the letters print more evenly on the press—too much empty space and the rollers of the press will place extra weight on individual blocks, damaging the blocks and the print itself.
As letterpress printing began to be used for commercial fiction, newspapers, and playbills, typesetters started mixing different typefaces together, switching between roman and italic to add emphasis to different words. Of course, there is a practical explanation for this as well: A letterpress shop only has so many copies of the same letter. If, for instance, a typesetter is compiling a line of text in 24-point Franklin Gothic and needs eight uppercase ‘A’s but only has five—perhaps one word can be set in an altogether different typeface. In 19th-century design in particular, there’s a distinct style of alternating very small fine print with large bold headlines, leaving virtually no white space between. As advertising became more essential to printing, blank space meant lost profits.
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Since then, blank space has become a unique commodity in print. Minimalist design responds to the scarcity of emptiness, making a point of using as little material to say as much as possible. In the wake of national tragedy or political strife, it is not uncommon for entire pages of The New York Times to be bought out and feature only a few words, a short letter, or a list of names. The negative space indicates that this concise message is more dear, in both its meaning and its cost, than whatever would otherwise occupy the page.
Long before minimalism exalted the aesthetic and commercial value of blank space, the ordinary folk who operated printers held it in their hands, in the form of en spaces, leading strips, and the wedges of metal that hung off kerned glyphs. It didn’t take a turtleneck to see why blank space can be moving.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.