Selectric Days

My reputation compels me to deny that I ever spent adolescent weekends hanging out at Tannen’s Magic Shop or The Compleat Strategist, and I certainly never wasted sunny afternoons playing with the Ohio Scientific computer downstairs at Polk’s Hobby Shop (even if it did have Lunar Lander in 16 colors.) But having burnished my nerd credentials through a career as a type designer, it seems safe to admit that, as a teen, I sported an enviable collection of golf balls for the family typewriter, a beloved IBM Selectric II.

Yesterday, a conversation with my friend Tal induced a Proustian flash in which I recalled — and was actually able to find in the studio’s library — the above: entitled “GP Technologies Typing Element Handbook,” it’s a brochure from the early eighties that shows the complete range of styles available for the IBM Selectric typewriter. Sure, I had Courier, Orator, and both Prestige Pica and Prestige Elite, but it was more exotic numbers like these that I really went in for. A major coup was scoring Olde English, warts and all (let’s talk about that capital H some time), but my unattainable Philosopher’s Stone was Oriental, which no office supply shop in the five boroughs seemed to carry. What I would have done with the typeface is anyone’s guess (utility isn’t always relevant to the completist), but I can only imagine, given the font’s facile design and appalling intent, that it would have been something spectacularly ghastly.

Still, there are things to admire in old Oriental. Its ampersand is a model of efficiency, and the economy of its at-sign (@) is downright clever. That this goofball font was outfitted with such serious accessories as a paragraph mark and a set of fractions hints at the work of a wicked mind, not unlike that of the latter-day typefounder who soberly includes an fffl ligature in text face. Perhaps these are subtle absurdities that lie in wait for attentive eyes, or perhaps they really are useful things to have in a font. In either case, it seems evident that type designers of all ages are, in their hearts, completists. —JH

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