Photo-Lettering, a historic New York City-based type house, is back in the form of a free iPhone app.

It gives you three free fonts for putting text over smartphone snapshots.

Extra typefaces can be bought for a buck a pop.

But the story behind the app is worth telling.

For decades, if you were a creative director in New York and needed type for a project, Photo-Lettering is where you went.

The studio’s creative director, Ed Benguiat, is responsible for some of the most iconic logotypes of all time, including those of publications like Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times as well as films like Super Fly and Planet of the Apes.

But the beauty of PLINC, as Benguiat’s outfit was known, was that it provided fresh type for advertisements, album covers, or magazine spreads at prices anyone could afford.

You could pick a typeface from the company’s catalog of thousands, call up its office in New York City’s Murray Hill neighborhood, and get whatever tagline or title card you needed, printed with cutting-edge photographic techniques, for an exceedingly modest fee.

The new app, which was created by House Industries, the digital type studio, has the considerable challenge of automating the old company’s process.

"We really wanted to strip it down to the things that we think foster good design choices," says Andy Cruz, a partner at House Industries.

"You don’t have to be a graphic design or type nerd to get in there and make it look good."

Co.Design

A Legendary Type Collection, Reborn For The Instagram Age

An app based on the iconic fonts of Photo-Lettering, the legendary New York typography studio, adds classic type to your photos.

For decades, if you were an art director in New York City and you needed lettering for a commercial project, Photo-Lettering Inc. was the place you went.

The studio’s creative director, Ed Benguiat, is responsible for some of the most iconic logotypes of all time, including those of publications like Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times as well as films like Super Fly and Planet of the Apes. But the beauty of PLINC, as Benguiat’s outfit was known, was that it provided fresh type for advertisements, album covers, or magazine spreads at prices anyone could afford. You could pick a typeface from the company’s catalog of thousands, call up its office in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood, and get whatever tagline or title card you needed, printed with cutting-edge photographic techniques, for an exceedingly modest fee. In 1970, 10 words only set you back $30. And now, with a new app, you can slap some of those same iconic typefaces right on your own smartphone photos for no charge at all.

In essence, the new iPhone app reinvents Photo-Lettering for the Instagram age. But for PLINC, it wasn’t one continuous run from the era of real-life mad men to Don Draper. The shop shut its doors in the 1980s, as the arrival of computers and desktop publishing made its process less relevant. Since then, the company’s catalog of typefaces has sat in storage. But recently, House Industries, one of the leading digital type foundries, contacted Benguiat about acquiring the lot, and the Delaware-based shop has slowly been digitizing the alphabets ever since.

The app, developed with the help of Baltimore-based Friends of the Web, comes with three fonts, with 20 more available for a buck a pop, which you can use to stamp words or phrases on anything in your Camera Roll. By adding text, you can turn your shots into personalized digital postcards, or old-school album covers. At a point where the same dozen filters have homogenized our smartphone snapshots, unique and beautiful text offers a new way to add a bit more personal meaning. "It takes the image, or at least the emotion of the image, somewhere else," says Andy Cruz, a partner at House Industries.

But there’s a significant challenge in that. PLINC’s typefaces still look great today, but during the company’s heyday, an army of artists and technicians made sure your type was set just right. The app has to automate all that--giving users enough control to get things how they want while still ensuring that the type looks good every time.

So that meant deliberately giving users a limited feature set. Unlike other apps that let users skew the text however they want, the Photo-Lettering app can only scale, rotate, and change the color of the text. "We really wanted to strip it down to the things that we think foster good design choices," Cruz said. "You don’t have to be a graphic design or type nerd to get in there and make it look good."

But the team is already thinking about new features for future updates, including a layering function for adding different fonts on a single image. That, Cruz says, is a dangerous one. "We’re trying to think, OK, what’s the best way to present that, without opening the floodgates up to create these design monsters."

Download the app here.

[Photo credits: "Foncé" photo by Marissa Long. "Camping" and "Pond" photos by Jessica Huddy. Car, "XOXOXO", "Pug," and "My New Dress" photos by Carlos Alejandro.]

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