Tutorial no. 6—Tight but not touching kerning

This tutorial was sparked by “The Kerning Game,” my review of Kern Type in Imprint.

The 1970s were the heyday of what Hermann Zapf disparagingly called “sexy spacing” but what trade typographers called TNT (“tight but not touching”) typography. The designer who led this revolution was Herb Lubalin (1918-1981). Although the notion of “tight but not touching” typography is associated with the acceptance of phototypography in the 1960s and 1970s Lubalin’s exploration of the style began during his tenure at Sudler & Hennessey , an advertising agency specializing in pharmaceutical advertising, in the 1950s. It was accomplished using foundry type—adjusted in repro proofs. Some of this work can be seen in Typography by Aaron Burns (1922–1991) (New York: Reinhold Publishing, 1961). In discussing letterspacing, Burns advised designers working with reproduction proofs to “use a razor blade to ‘cut in’ and adjust bad letter combinations.” (p. 92). This was advice that Lubalin took to heart.*

In 1959 Lubalin spoke on the need for graphic designers to challenge the established rules of typography in order to meet the challenges posed by new forms of communication. “Television has had its effect on the reading habits of the American people. We are becoming more and more accustomed to looking at pictures and less and less interested in reading lengthy copy…,” he wrote. “These influences have created a need for experimentation with new graphic forms in advertising. One of the important results of this experimentation is what I like to refer to as the typographic image…. In composing a typographic picture, just as in composing a good photography or illustration, a tight-knit unity of elements is necessary. We have therefore had to take liberties with the many traditional rules and regulations which have come to be accepted as criteria for good typography. These deviations, which include wider measures, elimination of leading between lines, removal of letterspacing, and alteration of type forms have met with violent reaction from traditional typographers and designers to whom these rules are sacred.” (reprinted in Theses about Typography 1900–59: Statements on typography in the twentieth century edited by Friedrich Friedl (Eschborn, Germany: Linotype GmbH, 1986), p. 65).

Lubalin reiterated these ideas twenty years later when he was asked to guest edit the May/June 1979 issue of Print magazine dedicated to typography. He titled the issue “The Graphic Revolution in America: Forty Years of Innovative Typography, 1940 to 1980”. In it he stated,

Graphic Expressionism is my euphemism for the use of typography, or letterforms, not just as a mechanical means for setting words on a page, but rather as another creative way of expressing an idea, telling a story, amplifying the meaning of a word or phrase to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. In other words, typography to be used as an alternative to photography and/or illustration, or to be combined synergistically with photography and /or illustration to enhance the impact and memorability of a graphic statement.
Typographic expressionism is for a mass audience. The more intellectual Bauhaus style and the formalized Swiss approach to design had no appeal and did not relate to the rank-and-file American….
It is our responsiblity as designers not only to make order out of the printed word, but to make it memorable as well.

Print May/June 1979, cover. Design by Lubalin Smith Carnase.

The Print cover design is vintage Lubalin. It exemplifies the “tight but not touching” style of typography at its best. And it shows how much work goes into making such typography successful. Lubalin’s designs were only realized with the help of others. In the 1950s he relied on his type houses, specifically The Composing Room where Burns** was director of Design and Typography from 1952 to 1960. Later, his studio partners and staff, especially letterers Tom Carnase, Tony DiSpigna, John Pistilli and Ronne Bonder, were instrumental in seeing that his designs were executed as he imagined them.

The flag design is composed of ITC Machine, designed by Bonder and Carnase (1970), for the blue “star” field and Goliath (Photo-Lettering, Inc.) for the red and white stripes. (I had been unable to find this typeface on MyFonts, Fonts.com or in the 1982 VGC catalogue, but Nick Sherman identified it from the new Photo-Lettering website/service.) Both fonts have been heavily cut up to make the letters fit together so snugly. In the “star” field there is an HE ligature as well as a V partially overlapping a preceding E and a T with truncated arms.

In the stripes serifs are constantly merged together while some have been cut off entirely (see the I and N in INNOVATIVE and LUBALIN. There are two ligatures HE in HERB and NN in INNOVATIVE. Also note the way letters are tucked together: e.g. A and T in INNOVATIVE or RAP in TYPOGRAPHY. Not evident in this scan is a tiny hyphen hanging in the right margin after the O in INNOVATIVE. Despite these alterations, the smashing together of serifs and the sliver of spacing between letters the text is surprisingly easy to read.

The lesson to be learned from Lubalin and his colleagues is that the traditional concepts of good spacing do not apply to display typography. They were conceived with text typography, specifically books, in mind. In display typography the texts are shorter, type is larger and gaining attention is more important than quick readability. In it, good spacing means consistent spacing, whether tight or not—and “The Graphic Revolution in America” has it in spades.

*One reason that Massimo Vignelli says he welcomed the advent of Helvetica in the early 1960s was that its absence of sidebearings made it possible to set metal type tightly without having to cut up repro proofs. This tight letterspacing can be seen in the posters Vignelli did for the Teatro Piccolo in Milano.
**In 1970 Burns joined with Lubalin to form Burns, Lubalin & Co. and, with Ed Rondthaler of Photo-Lettering, Inc. as a third partner, the International Typeface Corporation (ITC).