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How Apple Helped Democratize Typography In The ’90s

In 1989, Apple hired Thomas Rickner to do something revolutionary: put print-quality typefaces on every computer.

How Apple Helped Democratize Typography In The ’90s

When Thomas Rickner decided he wanted to be a type designer after a lecture on the history of Baskerville at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s, his typography professor had some simple advice: Don’t do it.

“He told me it was a road to frustration,” recalls Rickner, who nearly three decades later is a font production manager at Monotype. “At the time, there was just no easy path to being a type designer. You couldn’t go to school for it, and there were only a handful of companies around the world that would teach you. He told me to become a book designer. That, he said, I could do anywhere.”

Clearly, Rickner ignored his professor’s advice. And it was a good thing he did. Over the next two decades, thanks to the advent of personal computers, type design–and, consequently, the ability to become a type designer–exploded. Now, not only do dozens of universities offer type design degrees, but it’s possible to freelance as a type designer, selling your fonts online, without ever being hired by a major foundry.

What changed? There are dozens of reasons why the last 30 years have seen a renaissance in type design. But when you talk to Rickner, you get the sense that one company played an outsized role in democratizing type during those years: Apple. And he had a part in it.

[Screengrab: via Low End Mac]

Rickner’s first type design job was at Imagen, a laser printer manufacturer, where he started in 1988. At the time, laser printers didn’t just print any font your computer had installed; instead, printers all had their own built-in fonts, custom designed for each individual model. Rickner’s job was to “hint” these typefaces, or write little programs that optimized the way characters were displayed at different font sizes on Imagen’s laser printers.

His experience with hinting led Rickner to a job at Apple, where he became lead typographer in 1989. It was an important time to be a type designer at Apple, because the Mac maker was about to do as much to revolutionize computer typography as it had done to revolutionize desktop publishing. Apple was aiming–in secret–to build a way to render third-party fonts right into the Mac operating system itself, radically changing the way computers dealt with text.

Let’s back up a second. When Apple first released the Macintosh in 1984, one of the many ways in which it was revolutionary was in allowing users to choose between fonts. These fonts were extremely limited, though. Until 1991, the Macintosh only supported bitmap fonts–or fonts made up of individual images, one per character. When you made a bitmap font larger or smaller, it became harder to read, either because it had become pixellated at large sizes, or because the operating system just shrank all the pixels down without doing any optical correction to make sure the letters were still legible. The Mac only natively supported a small number of low-res proprietary fonts. These were just good enough for someone printing out their grandma’s cookie recipes, or writing a family newsletter, but not for more serious type–let alone professional–aspirations.

When Rickner was hired by Apple in 1989, though, he was hired for a secret project: TrueType, an attempt by Apple to radically amp up MacOS’s font rendering abilities. Just like the laser printers Rickner had previously worked on, TrueType fonts didn’t use bitmaps, but instead, were based on outlines. In other words, when the computer displayed a font on screen, it didn’t just show you a selection of low-res image files. It actually drew the font on the screen, according to a mathematical formula dictating what it should look like. That meant TrueType fonts could scale to any size or resolution. Even better, they could be hinted, making sophisticated typography possible on off-the-shelf computers for the first time. It also opened the door for all sorts of classic fonts that had been used in print for years (like the first three TrueType fonts: Times Roman, Helvetica, and Courier) to finally make their digital transitions.

Apple debuted TrueType in 1991, and to make sure it became a ubiquitous standard, it even licensed it to Microsoft, which introduced TrueType fonts with Windows 3.1. Quite suddenly, it became possible for millions of computer owners to display and use rich, sophisticated, and scalable typefaces created by the world’s greatest type designers and type foundries. This–along with the rise of user-friendly font design programs like Fontographer, which made creating professional quality digital typefaces easy–was more responsible than anything else, says Rickner, in “the democratization of type design.”

“It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this was,” says Rickner. Before, if you wanted to use quality typefaces on a computer, you needed to buy expensive professional software from a company like Adobe. It was something only graphic design professionals ever bothered with. “With TrueType, Apple said: No, type should be part of the body of a computer, not just the clothes it wears.” In other words, type rendering needed to be a core part of every operating system, as integral to the machine as copying files, drawing graphics, or managing memory. Now, all of a sudden, the average computer user didn’t just have access to 8 or 10 low-res fonts. They had access to hundreds, every bit as good as the ones they saw in magazines and books.

Rickner left Apple shortly after TrueType shipped, and joined Monotype in 1994, where he has worked ever since. He was heavily involved in the recent creation of variable fonts–a single font that acts like multiple fonts, depending on the circumstances, which has the backing of Adobe, Google, Microsoft, and Cupertino. Ironically, this new standard is an extension of work he was doing at Apple when he left the company in 1992.

Today, remembering his professor’s caution that he’d never make it in this business, he says he’s surprised to find himself the oldest guy in a room full of Monotype’s young type designers, most of whom fell in love with type–and are capable of pursuing it as a career–because, in part, of a project he helped Apple with over a quarter-century ago. “I decided I wanted to be a type designer after attending a lecture on the history of Baskerville, and being blown away by the revelation that something so utilitarian that I took for granted every day could have been designed by someone,” Rickner says. Thanks to TrueType, it’s a revelation that has now been shared with a new generation of type designers.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.



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