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How I made Letraset: an interview with Freda Sack

Over the next few weeks we’re featuring a selection of highlights from our Letraset book, our visual history of the rubdown lettering system that revolutionised typographic expression.

For our second extract, we have an interview with type designer and typographer, Freda Sack, who joined Letraset in the 1970s and worked in its Type Studio. While there she perfected the art of cutting master letterforms from Rubylith using tools that she made and customised herself. Adrian Shaughnessy talked to her about her fascinating career. (Our first post looked at how Letraset became a staple of the DIY attitude to music-making in the late 1970s early 80s.) Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution is available now from the Unit Editions shop. The negative film masters and various Rubylith samples shown here are from a collection held by St Bride Library, London.

Adrian Shaughnessy: When did you first encounter Letraset?

Freda Sack: I liked letterforms and I loved books and reading. I lived near Letraset in Kent, and I was offered a job interview there on leaving art college. At the Kent School of Printing, Maidstone College of Art, I was trained in traditional typography/ typesetting and print technology, and what we didn’t set ourselves, we hand-lettered. At that time in the early 1970s, Mike Daines was the studio manager at Letraset; he interviewed me and gave me my first job in the type industry.

The aim was to become a trainee in the type studio – but because it was unionised, and a ‘closed shop’ as they termed it, I had to ‘earn’ my union card by working in the photographic studio for six months, photo-retouching negative and positive films for the Letraset dry transfer lettering sheets, and even for Letratone sheets. Imagine that, painstaking work!

I finally made it into the type studio where I really started to learn about typefaces, by drawing and creating artwork for many, many typefaces, of all possible kinds. It was a process of analysis, hand and eye skills, and lots of patience. It was about a five-year ‘apprenticeship’, initially working with Bob Newman who taught me the skills, and encouraged independent ways of working to come up with better, more effective methods to achieve the meticulous artwork required.

At the time I could probably have identified any typeface you put in front of me. I think this created an innate understanding of the proportions and structure of type. My history of printing from Maidstone came in useful with knowledge of the classic typefaces that inspired me to create beautiful shapes.

AS: Can you describe the process of cutting letterforms out of Rubylith film?

FS: We learnt the proportions of typeface design through creating artwork for all the classics of type design (from enlargements of hot metal references that were in many cases very bad reproductions of the letterforms); and also for the many rather over-the-top and crazy faces (it was the 1970s!). The work was meticulous, and accuracy was essential.

The first thing we had to do was make our own knife – essentially a long piece of wood with a piece of metal type as a counter balance at one end, and a single-edged razor blade taped to the side at an angle to enable the edge, up to a certain level, and the point, to be manipulated freehand depending on whether you held the knife near to the blade end or at the far end of the ‘handle’ this would give access to a range of curves from very tight to long shallow sweeps – the knife being held relatively still while the Rubylith itself was pivoted around by your other hand. Sounds crazy – but it worked.

It was possible with practice and skill to trim off slivers of Rubylith measuring just the thickness of a hair – and that actually made a difference to the shape. We also had to make another tool, consisting of a pencil-like piece of wood with a blade honed to the right degree of bluntness to peel out the surplus Rubylith from around a character without damaging the cut. I’ve still got both knives. I think they could probably be termed industrial antiques now!

When starting in the studio we had to practise cutting circles freehand, and then to begin with just drawing missing characters. We were schooled in the principles of analysis – understanding how to break down a structure, and then build it back up again. Eventually, we ‘graduated’ to artworking entire typefaces – and then much later to designing new ones.

I think the entire collection of Letraset stencil masters was given to St Bride as part of the permanent collection of contemporary history of type. You may be aware that in 1996 ITC and St Bride created a publication celebrating the high standard of craftsmanship of the Letraset stencil cutters.

The foreword read: “This book is about creating typefaces freehand with a knife on a sheet of red film. It is about the quest for extraordinary quality through craft that aimed to free typeface design from the shackles of previous technologies and to promote innovation in typeface design and to essentially transform typography.” The book included contributions from Dave Farey, Colin Brignall, Mike Daines, Alan Meeks, myself and Peter O’Donnell – all of us involved with stencil cutting in the Letraset design studio.

AS: Can you describe the process of designing a Letraset typeface – from commission to delivery?

FS: Having measured and analysed all the different aspects and features of a particular typeface we would make a ‘jig’ as a template, draw the outlines, and then cut the Rubylith artwork as described above. We worked at between four and six inches cap height (for the benefit of younger readers 100 to 150mm). Although with more intricate designs – we worked at much larger sizes. Previously, I believe, they were artworking at ten inches. Although termed ‘Instant Lettering’ the creation of it was far from an instant process. It used to take one person around four to six weeks to draw, cut and space one typeface (that would be a headline character set of one weight/style).

If we weren’t working on the ‘classic’ range – the standard sans and serif ‘bread and butter’ faces that formed a large part of the Letraset range, sourced from existing type founders – it would be on ideas for typefaces sent in by type enthusiasts, or more developed references sourced from a small elite group of mostly lettering artists.

They held an international typeface competition where new designs were chosen by a panel for the Letragraphica subscription range. Or, we might be at a stage where we would be allowed to design typefaces in-house.

Most of the submitted typefaces were supplied to Letraset as quite rough smaller scale drawings, sometimes just as marker sketches, and all had to be drawn up, and in most cases a fuller range of letters designed. One of these was Masquerade, that designer Martin Wait sent in as an idea for a typeface. Letraset didn’t go for it, but liked the lettering on his letterhead, so he drew this up instead and it was my task to cut all the artwork.

They were complicated swash characters and so the artwork had to be larger than usual – quite a task to manipulate the cuts and very time-consuming. Each swash letter took two days to cut. An important part of the process was to space the typeface, and this was also done in the type studio on vertical light boxes – all by eye.

As far as the design studio at Letraset was concerned that was the extent of our involvement in the process. Basically the idea was to draw, cut, space then hand over to the photographic studio. It then went on to the printing processes in the factory. The master stencils then went through one negative stage before the final film that was used to produce the silk screen master for printing: then photographically sized and reproduced in the correct character frequency for the dry transfer sheets.

AS: What has Letraset contributed to the evolution of typography?

FS: Letraset catalogues were billed as graphic design handbooks. The catalogues showed everything a designer/architect/draughtsman could possibly need: from headline to text, Latin to non-Latin, body copy, rules and borders, symbols, pictograms, signage, marker pens and pads etc. You could even have your own sheets made of a company’s logo, and in several colours! Because they also commissioned designers (some of whom were not actually type designers at the time, usually they were lettering artists – I’m thinking David Quay et al here), and because they also looked at submissions, it enabled a new generation of type enthusiasts to make type design a career.

The innovative artwork process behind stencil cutting used in the Letraset studio, and the skills of their type-cutters, some of the best in the world, was emulated by other big type manufacturers in one way or another. It was a skill that was also sought after to produce the fonts for various photosetting methods – from two inch reel to reel fonts to high end Berthold glass fonts.

During most of the time that Letraset was producing typefaces, it was an accessible alternative to traditional hot metal typesetting. This continued into the photosetting era, when type was something that was ‘put out’ to a specialist. I suppose you could say it helped in the democratisation of type. Although at one time, for quite a period, use of Letraset was the industry standard for creating artwork, with an amazing array of typefaces for professionals. Though some people would also actually rubdown the spacing bars and leave them under the lettering – maybe resulting in the not too serious reputation that Letraset has.

Essentially it was all very serious – and many well-known designers were associated with Letraset, particularly when they released the Letragraphica range. These were sought after collections of type for display/headline use. Letraset pioneered the evolution of digital fonts through the development of the rst font creation applications – and digitisation of type. This was the start of a new owering of small type foundries where type designers could design and produce their own fonts. The process facilitated larger character sets and families of weights, and in turn this produced a greater range of ‘serious’ typefaces for typography/books/magazines, etc.

This interview features in Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution, which is available now from the Unit shop. The book tells the Letraset story from its early days as a difficult-to-use wet system, to its glory years as the first truly democratic alternative to professional typesetting – and features contributions from key members of the Letraset team and Malcolm Garrett, alongside in-depth Q&As with Freda Sack (above), Mr Bingo, Erik Brandt, Aaron Marcus, David Quay, Dan Rhatigan, Andy Stevens and Jon Wozencroft.

Freda Sack co-founded The Foundry with David Quay in 1989, in order to design, manufacture and license their exclusive typefaces, and has been co-chair of the International Society of Typographic Designers. As a fellow, past-president and board director of the ISTD she is dedicated to promoting typography in all of its forms. Currently living and working in London as a design consultant and education advisor, she is also a member of Letter Exchange and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.