Whilst tidying up some shelves at work I came across a rather dusty Letraset folder containing two dozen old marker pens and it gave me a back in the days moment… Letraset dry-transfer sheets…
Letraset, is a British company that made (and still makes) a variety of graphic art supplies. It was the quality brand of the industry and you couldn’t call yourself professional without using at least one of the company’s products.
There were plenty of other brands of dry-transfer type – Format, Chartpack, Meccanorma – but Letraset was not only the best made, they had the nicest type selection, too. Many Letraset-exclusive designs have become standards of the type world.
You could tell serious graphic designer by whether they had a special tool just for burnishing dry-transfer type. A ball-point pen would do, but there were a number of dedicated products for the task, including what amounted to a big ball-point pen with no ink in it.
Letraset had special dry-transfer sheets just for architects and if your company was big enough, there were custom-made logo sheets.
They even had clip-art sheets. Like almost all clip art, you couldn’t imagine ever actually using them, though I have to guess sometimes artists did, if only for comps. Let’s also not forget that in those days you were certain to burn through a lot of registration marks, which Letraset made in sheet and roll form.
If you were ultra-cool or worked at a big-enough design studio, you had your own special cabinet just for dry-transfer type. This was a good thing because the enemy of dry-transfer was dust or dirt of any kind. You had to treat the sheets with tender loving care or the letters would crack and peel.
But Letraset was a lot more than just dry-transfer products. The company made a wide range of graphic arts supplies, most of the sort that we don’t use anymore.
There were two distinct processes in those days: making “comps” and making camera-ready artwork. Back in the days, though, showing art in color was not all that easy. Making colored type, for example, was a complex process that rarely worked, and printing in color required layers of acetate overlays, one for each color.
Letraset’s products included border sheets, shading film, and various textures, which, when applied in enough layers, generated odd moiré patterns and printing disasters. The artist had to pick the resolution of the screens in advance based on the printing method being used.
No art studio would be complete without an assortment of toxic aerosol products, which were necessary for gluing and adding protective coatings to keep the dry-transfer type intact.
Letraset licensed the Pantone color library and manufactured a variety of Pantone products (colored art boards and transparent sheets, markers, etc.). Letraset was partially responsible for Pantone’s success in the graphic arts market.
Back in the days when the graphic designer had a toolbox filled with magic markers, rotary pens and tubes of gouache, a wad of crumpled Letraset sheets wasn’t too far from his or her clutches.
These were the days when Letraset formed the backbone of visual communication and, for many years, this dry transfer system was the means of creating anything from logotypes, headlines and copy in both design and advertising.
Of course there were alternatives but few had the desire or skill to spend their days under a Grant projector, zooming with one handle and focusing with the other to create the template for a carefully calculated line of copy. With the correct spelling and the desired kerning this then had to be copied onto the artwork to be inked in.
Letraset came in a wide variety of typefaces from typographers such as David Quay, Alan Meeks and Tim Donaldson. There were sheets of symbols too, in a range of colours and sizes. The sheets consisted of both upper and lower case characters together with numbers and symbols. There were more vowels than consonants, very few ‘Q’s and ‘Z’s and when the sheet became sparse an ‘A’ was formed out of an upside down ‘V’ and and ‘I’! Letraset was a way of achieving something relatively quickly but it was also limiting and undoubtedly took some of the shine away from the beautifully crafted artworks that preceded its invention.
Nowadays, the crumpled wads of Letraset sheets have become another discarded relic in the age of the digital revolution.