I remember experimenting with type on System 6, trying out options named after a handful of cities, loading and unloading their “suitcases” with the Font/DA Mover. The machine sat beside a dot matrix printer, and I remember listening to the printhead’s squelch and watching as the variations I set emerged from behind black ribbon. The result could be excessively three dimensional. London, Apple’s blackletter script, came out damp if the ribbon was fresh, and my gothic headlines buckled even after the ink had dried.
When dad replaced the SE/30 with a mid-level Quadra, I spent my life savings on the student edition of Aldus PageMaker, which I got about a year before it was acquired by Adobe (so many 3.5" installation disks). Aldus offered a rebate to buyers who mailed in a copy of the manual’s title page. For some reason I didn’t think I could get to a copy machine, so I cut out the page with scissors and sent it in with a handwritten note of explanation.
The rebate check never arrived. I theorized that some company stooge had trashed my claim, recognizing that without the original title page I could never satisfy their proof of ownership requirements. In hindsight I suppose that the request got lost somewhere in the corporate takeover.
Why getting PageMaker was so important to me at that age I don’t quite know. My uncle was a freelance designer in downtown Portland, Ore., where I shadowed him once or twice in the mid-1990s. That was later, though. I asked to see his work because I was teaching myself how to use one of his industry’s tools. I think he was even a Quark guy back then.
In any event, PageMaker was overkill for most of my English homework, something like shooting fruit flies with a shotgun. It did have a justifiable place in one teacher’s trademark assignment, the mock newspaper, for which we were asked to report on the events of a semester. I can’t recall what I wrote about, but I know my final submission aped an actual newspaper spread, tiled out over pages of tabloid paper and printed with a large format LaserJet I got special permission to use. At the time our junior high student newspaper still did page layout by hand.
So it was that my fourteen-year-old self felt buoyed by the advancing Unicode standard and could be rather vocal about his preference for Palatino over Times New Roman — not my most obnoxious trait in puberty, I’d wager, but still something high school taught me to keep to myself.
Some kids got access to computers before I did. An older neighbour of mine was one of those who compiled minor programs from the lines of code he copied from magazines, for example. It just happened that my first real encounter with computers made it feel like they were built for page layout. If I was a partisan in the Mac/PC wars that played out in schoolyards as more of my peers got computers at home, it was because I couldn’t think of anything else really worth doing on a computer. It was simple: I was not a gamer, and PCs were useless for desktop publishing.
And so the ubiquity of fonts today, thanks in part to Steve Jobs, seems to me both wonderful and mundane.
On the one hand, my uncle had to go to design school to learn about different tools and methods for printmaking. Events converged in my generation to allow the future of those tools to start showing up in kids’ bedrooms, to coincide with their learning to type on a keyboard.
Then again, today my own mother knows about comic sans. What was to me once the essential token of computer magic has become a source of irritation and a documentary and an invisible fact of life. Fonts are everywhere, and used by everybody, and I’ve hardly ever know different.