01-04-2022
Graphic Design

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Henk Lamers & Jeanne de Bont -

Early development of digital fonts at Océ

By 01-04-2022

In 1978 Gerard Unger was appointed as typographic advisor of Océ Research & Development in Venlo, the Netherlands. Océ was a producer of copying equipment. But why does a copying equipment manufacturer need a typographic advisor? Around 1980 a high-end laser printer was being developed within Océ Research & Development. The Océ 6750 document printer. One of the first laser printers to be produced in the Netherlands.

The specifications were promising at the time. The laser printer had a resolution of 508 dots per inch. The print speed was 23 A4 pages per minute. Furthermore, different fonts and font sizes could be used. So this printer needed fonts. An area of expertise that was lacking at Océ. In 1984, Gerard Unger called Jeanne de Bont if she was interested in setting up a typography group within Océ Research & Development. The answer was: ‘Yes! Of course!’

In 1984 it was not self-evident that typographers worked with computers. On the contrary, the graphic and typographic work generally consisted of manual work. When Jeanne de Bont started working at Océ, one of her first tasks was to make an inventory, together with Gerard Unger and Gerard Jacobs (the Océ project leader), which hard- and software they had to purchase to make the digital fonts.

At the time, the Océ 6750 technology was not yet capable of working with outline fonts. Outline fonts had to be converted to bitmap fonts. But where do you get digital outlines from, and how do you convert them to bitmaps? Which editor can you use to optimise the bitmaps? Bitmap editors that supported 508 dots per inch did not exist then. It was also necessary to find out which languages would be supported and the associated character sets of the fonts. What fonts and font sizes were used in an office environment? All things that a designer had never figured out before. So it was mostly pioneering and developing a vision. Which path to take in this new working area?

As a designer you were part of a research and development department. Scientists, engineers, psychologists and technicians work there. Everyone worked and communicated via network computers. You had no choice but to start working with computers. For example, the cicero slat, rotring pen and rubber glue were exchanged for a DEC VT200 terminal with VI editor or EMACS. These terminals could only display ASCII texts, you could not make graphics with them. In fact, writing reports, emailing and ‘Talk’ was all you did with it. Talk was a chat program. At the time, all emails were printed to manually add corrections. They were then typed in again and the email printed out to be saved in an analogue folder. Sometimes there was even telephone contact with the question: ‘have you already received my email?’

In the meantime, there were two suppliers who offered different solutions for digital fonts. URW Type Foundry and Bitstream. URW Type Foundry developed the in-house Ikarus software from Dr Peter Karow. This allowed you to convert existing fonts and logos into a digital format suitable for printers and plotters. But it soon became apparent that Bitstream best suited the requirements of the Océ technology. Bitstream was founded in 1981 by type designers Matthew Carter and Mike Parker and were based in Boston, USA. As a supplier they managed the entire process from outline to the generation of the bitmaps. They also managed the copyrights of the fonts. An important part, because every printer that Océ sold had a copy of the fonts on board in an EPROM. And Océ had to pay copyrights for that.

Bitstream had developed a toolbox with which you could manage outline fonts, generate and edit bitmaps. This toolbox ran on an Apollo Domain DN330 computer. To be clear we didn’t design new fonts, but optimised the bitmaps of fonts such as Times, Univers, Helvetica, Courier, Letter Gothic and Prestige. But there was a problem. During the conversion from outlines to bitmaps, the conversion program made errors. In the larger point sizes this is hardly an issue, but in the smaller point sizes the problem is clearly present. An outline always falls on a certain place in a bitmap pixel pattern. This causes problems with the letter form, especially in smaller font sizes. You cannot prevent these problems, but you can make them less visible.

For this we used a technique called halfbitting. You simulate, as it were, a slightly vertical thicker stem or a curve by alternately placing black or no (white) pixels. Also oblique lines in the letter form or serifs were often adjusted with halfbitting. In general you had more work on the serifs than on the sans serifs. Adjusting the generated bitmap fonts required strict rules. In this way, an even and consistent image was created across an entire font family (normal, italic, bold and bold italic), including the different font sizes. In the beginning there was still a font quality control by Bitstream. But soon they reported that this was no longer necessary because the fonts looked perfect. The final bitmaps were loaded into an EPROM from the Océ 6750 laser printer. And with this, Jeanne de Bont, Gerard Unger and Gerard Jacobs had defined a working method and they were able to get started on realising the Océ font range.

The typographic work package, including project work, meetings and describing everything soon proved to be too much work for Jeanne. Gerard Unger advised her to take in a student from Arnhem. ArtEZ, the Academy in Arnhem, had a type design department where she met Martin Majoor. He was immediately ready to help. Jeanne and Martin described the guidelines of the Océ font range. These consisted of two different groups: typographic-  and monospaced fonts. they also described the composition of a character set, the font family, the desired font sizes and a number of issues related to the editing process. These were, for example, the capital heights, stem thicknesses and letter widths. Figuring out all this and describing it in a report was also a whole new area for us.

Henk Lamers, who was working for Océ Research & Development on a freelance basis at the time, exchanged this basis for a permanent contract with the typography group. Later Fred Smeijers also joined. Thus, the typographic group continued to grow. Shortly afterwards, the team was again expanded with Evert Bloemsma, Ellemieke Vermulst and Jeanette Wassink. The very young interns Peter Verheul and Just van Rossum also joined the typographic group. As a team, we eventually got our own IT expert. That was engineer Ton van Geel, who provided overall technical support.

The typography group at Océ Research & Development was working completely digitally in four years and had grown to the same size as the industrial designers team. In 1987 an entirely new project followed in which we became involved. The Océ 6000 system, a document layout and printing system. More about that in a future article.

Henk Lamers
Jeanne de Bont

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