We’re talking telephone numbers

Custom typefaces for telephone directories can have many advantages, some of which were highlighted in another article. An interested reader enquired about some of the sources for that information, which reminded me that, at one point, I was actually considering directory typography as a dissertation topic during my Reading studies, and had gathered a fair amount of reference material in preparation.

In the end, I wrote a lengthy study of the euro symbol (subsequently published in Baseline), but almost a decade later, I still think the topic is worthy of further exploration. After all, aside from the cost and environmental benefits achieved through streamlined design, directory typography is a perfect demonstration of both typographic choreography (the letterforms and the space around them), and period methods of font creation.

However, as everything moves towards electronic format—who looks at a phonebook when it’s so easy to call Information or reach for Google these days?—perhaps this is a topic reaching its twilight years. (Indeed, a study of mobile phone typography might be more timely.) Still, there’s no harm in sharing some of the collected references, is there?

Ring my Bell

The first directory-specific typeface was created by Chauncey Griffith in 1937. A commission from the Bell Company—on the strength of his previous work in the area of newspaper legibility—Bell Gothic was the result, and it continued to be used widely until the 1970s. By that point however, with so many changes in typesetting and printing technologies, Bell Gothic had started to exhibit all manner of problems. And as a result of this, in 1974, Matthew Carter was contracted to redesign the face. The four year design process—which resulted in the Bell Centennial family—was thoroughly documented in Type & Technology Monograph Number 1 (New York: The Center for Design & Typography, The Cooper Union, 1982). Much of the same material was published in TypoGraphic 38/9 (London: International Society of Typographic Designers [ISTD], 1990) and repeated in TypoGraphic Writing (from the same publisher, 2001).

Nick Sherman’s article provides a good overview of the Bell Centennial story, and itself points to a number of useful sources, notably an article for Linotype by my former colleague Andrew Boag (now no longer available). And interested readers might also refer to Margaret Re’s exhibition catalogue Typographically Speaking: the Art of Matthew Carter (Baltimore: University of Maryland, 2002), which includes a detailed section on the genesis of Bell Centennial.

Before the prancing ponce

In 1989, after three years of development, British Telecom (BT) published reworked directories for the London area, using a revised grid structure and custom space saving fonts. The typeface, dubbed Phonebook, was designed by Colin Banks and Eiichi Kono at Banks & Miles, and though it borrowed heavily from the preceding Bell Centennial work, was in fact an entirely new set of fonts, drawn from scratch to different criteria (this predates today’s more malleable outline font technologies, obviously). [See clarification from Eiichi Kono below.] Banks published the story of Phonebook’s development in the ISTD publications mentioned above, and a comparative story of Bell Centennial and Phonebook can be found in ‘Rediscovered design: phone directory’, reprinted in July 1990 from a Japanese publication entitled Evolution 1.

Ladislav who…?

The positive environmental impacts of the BT initiative were covered in Andrew Boag’s ‘The greening of BT’ (London: Graphics World, Sept/Oct 1989). That same article also mentions Ladislas Mandel’s Galfra, created in 1975 for the Italian telecom utility SEAT (and subsequently used in other directories on both sides of the Atlantic). Mandel was a prolific creator of directory-specific typefaces during his career, and wrote extensively on the topic – ‘Il nuovo carattere Galfra per gli elenchi telefonici italiani’ (Italy: Graphicus, no. 9, 1978), for example. Curiously though, he is usually absent from the type design honour roll; this student dissertation is as close to a monograph as I could find, and interested readers may also want to refer to Olivier Nineuil’s very thorough (though French language only) profile of Mandel from the October 1999 issue of Étapes (no. 55).

A Romanian who lived and worked in France for most of his life, Mandel was also the designer behind the Colorado face for US West Dex in 1978, which, in collaboration with Richard Southall, was noteworthy because it was one the relatively few real-world uses of the Metafont font description language. Southall documented the project in ‘Metafont in the Rockies: the Colorado typemaking project’, itself included in Electronic publishing, artistic imaging, and digital typography (Berlin: Springer, 1998). He also covered it in his later book Printer’s Type in the Twentieth Century: Manufacturing And Design Methods (London: British Library, 2005).

Damp in the Nethers

Most designers’ knowledge of Dutch directory typography starts and stops with Wim Crouwel‘s 1977 all-lowercase setting – a wet dream for all the Modernist/neo-modernist wannabees and revivalists out there. In actuality, it wasn’t a style-oriented design decision at all, but a limit on how many different instructions the typesetting system could execute for each entry in the directory. Insertion of capitals was thus deemed a lower priority than the insertion of tabs or changes in weight.

In the ISTD publications mentioned above, Jolijn van de Wouw provided a more thorough history of Dutch telephone directory typography, covering both layout and type design. Martin Majoor’s Telefont family was released subsequent to this review, in 1994, and, in concert with revised page layouts, was in stark contrast to the Bell Centennial work of twenty years earlier. Created by a team of two on everyday desktop equipment (Bell Centennial had been labouriously encoded from ink-on-paper drawings), Telefont needed none of Bell’s severe inktraps, proffered a distinctly humanistic letterform, and exemplified the Dutch penchant for large x-heights and reduced ascenders/descenders. Majoor’s site offers up a number of qualitative assessments of Telefont, as well as his own summary (which can also be found in Made with FontFont [Amsterdam: BIS, 2006]). Additionally, Robin Kinross’ Unjustified texts (London: Hyphen Press, 2002) includes a thorough review of Telefont’s creation.

Not so mellow Yellow

Debuting in Johnson Banks‘ 1999 redesign of the UK Yellow Pages, the Yellow typeface combined aspects of both Telefont and Bell Centennial: some of the latter’s severity, built upon some of the former’s structure, providing crisp, open letterforms with sufficient heft to function well at small sizes on low quality paper.

Yellow was attributed to Freda Sack and David Quay at The Foundry in London, although it would appear that Jürgen Weltin was also involved. It (well, the whole redesign) was lauded and awarded widely, although the only article I can locate now (without a St. Bride nearby, that is) is Helen Walters’ ‘A brighter yellow’ from Creative Review (London: Centaur, November 1999).

So… by way of non-conclusion

This list doesn’t claim to be comprehensive by any means, and by conspicuously excluding images of the typefaces, doesn’t really attempt any analysis or qualitative comparison either. Rather, I’ve simply tried to provide some small insight into the richness underlying this most utilitarian of typographic applications.

4 comments about “We’re talking telephone numbers”

  1. I have just come across this post…
    [… In 1989, after three years of development, British Telecom (BT) published reworked directories for the London area, using a revised grid structure and custom space saving fonts. The typeface, dubbed Phonebook, was designed by Colin Banks and Eiichi Kono at Banks & Miles, and though it borrowed heavily from the preceding Bell Centennial work, was in fact an entirely new set of fonts, drawn from scratch to different criteria…]
    The above is not a true record. My role was the feasibility study recommending Bell Centennial, designed by Matthew Carter, which was accepted by BT in 1984. This feasibility study is described in “evolution 1”. It is not a comparative story as you describe. I did not design, redraw, draw from scratch or alter Bell Centennial in any way. EK

  2. A subsequent email exchange with Eiichi Kono and further analysis of printed samples, clarified that since: “…Bell Centennial was originally formatted for typesetting only with Linotype Linotron typesetting machine, and was re-formatted by Monotype for Lasercomp for this BT job, there would have been inevitable tweaks as the formats of the two machines are different. It is possible that deliberate tweaks were imposed by an individual, maybe during the reformatting process.”

  3. The esteemed Paul Shaw looks at the topic of telephone directory typography here.

  4. Readers interested in learning more about Ladislas Mandel’s work should also see this 2016 presentation by Alice Savoie and Dorine Sauzet.

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