Interview with Doug Wilson

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson, director of Linotype: The Film

During Typo Berlin 2011, I had the opportunity to speak with Doug Wilson about the upcoming Linotype: The Film documentary.

Oh his site for the film, Doug writes, “The film tells the surprisingly emotional story of the people connected to the Linotype and how it impacted the world. We have discovered that the Linotype was more than just a machine – it was a career, a skill, and a passion. Even in the face of modern technology, many still believe it to be the best way to create beautiful typography. Although the film is about a machine from the past, we have found that the Linotype is still a relevant piece of printing technology that has something to say about the future of communication and news.”

To help wrap-up production work on Linotype: The Film, Doug has created a second Kickstarter campaign to help raise additional funds. There are some attractive incentives for donors available, and I contributed to the campaign myself, since this is a film I can’t wait to see.

Linotype: The Film, Official Trailer from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo.

Dan Reynolds: Out of all the machines and other technical advances in the history of design, what caused you to pick the Linotype machine as your subject? Why not choose the Monotype machine, or a specific printing process, e.g., lithography?

Doug Wilson: Six or seven years ago, I encountered a Linotype machine for the first time, and it was love at first sight. I saw it working and watched someone operating it, and I was astounded by the fact that I had not previously learned about its invention. At the time, I was studying graphic design at university. The more that I learned about the machine, the more I wondered why other people hadn’t learned about it either; it is a machine that has impacted the entire world, whether you know about it or not. The invention of the Linotype machine increased literacy and was very influential, yet its story hasn’t been told.

I love the Monotype; it’s an amazing machine. There is nothing wrong about it, but I’m not making a Monotype movie. There are plenty of other hot-metal typecasting machines, but I have to focus the film only on the Linotype.

Where did you see a Linotype machine for the first time?

In Springfield, Missouri, the town where I live. There is still one shop that has two Linotypes. I was studying graphic design and teaching myself letterpress printing at the time, and I visited a shop to see its equipment. The owner asked me if I had seen a Linotype before, and I said “no.” It all went from there.

What kind of work does this shop make?

It is a pure trade shop: die cutting, scoring, letterpress printing, etc. The Linotype machine belonged to the current owner’s father. The owner has a sentimental attachment to it, and has always loved the Linotype.

Did you have instruction in letterpress at university? Was there any letterpress equipment at the school?

I taught myself how to use the letterpress. My senior thesis project was to set up an old letterpress that the school still had, but had been shoved into a corner and was rusting. I had been looking at this equipment since my freshman year, wondering what it was. I created a print area, which is still running. Happily, students are still using the equipment today.

You interviewed several Linotype operators for the film. What kind of work are they doing? Where is the Linotype machine being used today?

Most of the machines left are not in use today. Many people collect them, but they are very complex to operate. Sadly, this means that most of them are not in running order. There are still people who prefer to print with letterpress, though, and who prefer to have their type set with hot metal. There is a guy in Iowa, for instance, who is producing an entire annual literary journal. It is very modern in its writings, but is purely letterpress-printed, with Linotype-cast type. Some of operators use Linotypes purely for nostalgic purposes, but a few of them use them to create new works. It is a strange thing, but there are still people who use them.

Doug Wilson

Where have you been filming for Linotype: The Film?

Mainly in the US, partially because of where I am based. It is also where most of the remaining machines are to be found. The Linotype went around the world; I would venture to say that there was once a Linotype in every country in the world. But there are more of them in the United States than in any other country. We are also filming in Germany as well, which was probably the second largest market of the Linotype, from the very beginning.

It is interesting to look at Great Britain, where there was also a Linotype company. Because of the strength of the British Monotype Corporation, I have the feeling that, whenever people thought about hot-metal composition, they thought about Monotype, and the Monotype machine, and the Monotype typefaces. The British Linotype typefaces seem to have had very little impact on British design.

There is this idea that type is always tied to technology. One of my interviewees talked about this, and I hadn’t thought about it before. So yeah, in Britain, they used mainly Monotype faces. British design uses more of these designs till this day, whereas America was a Linotype country.

The Linotype was worldwide and had a huge impact, but at some point in a film, you have to just cap it. I’ve been talking with people in Brazil, and I would love to get over to that country. Additionally, there is apparently an entire institute that is still teaching the Linotype, in Colombia, South America. But I have to finish the film!

How has Typo Berlin been for you?

Great! I am a huge type nerd, like everyone at Typo Berlin. It is nice not to be looked down upon when I stop and take a picture of something, like a typeface on a wall. Typo Berlin has been a great experience. I got to speak here, and I felt well received. I think my talk went well, and it was nice to be able to share with others. A lot of the people that I’ve met here haven’t heard about the film yet.

It is wonderful to bring this film to the attention of Germans. Before I flew over here, a friend of mine pointed out to me that I am an American going to Germany to tell Germans about a German that came to America to create this machine. It feels like everything is coming full circle, in a funny sort of way.

Have you had any discussions at this conference that will influence the final direction of the film?

I’ve found out more information about the European side of Linotype. It won’t change the direction of the film, but it will definitely inform the final product. Since I don’t live in Europe, it has been more difficult for me to find out this information first hand.

After the film has been released, where will we be able to see it?

The best way to find out any information about the film is via our website, We will be releasing the film on DVD and we are also planning an extensive screening tour for the film in the spring of 2012. It will tour not just in the United States but in Europe and hopefully in Asia as well. So possibly, conference-goers may be able to see the film at Typo Berlin 2012, too. I would love to have a screening here, and I want to show the film as often as possible.

Metrolite No. 2 and Metroblack No. 2, both at 18 point with four points of leading. Enlarged. Scan from the 1940 Specimen Book of Linotype Faces, Mergenthaler Linotype Company, Brooklyn, New York.

What are your favorite faces for the Linotype machine?

Metro, but only in the hot-metal version; the digitization is disappointing in some ways. Dwiggins had an interesting character, and so do his typefaces. An all-caps, well-spaced-out Metro looks really nice. I really like Excelsior as a text face. I like Memphis – I know that a lot of people don’t; there is something I like about that really quirky slab serif.

Excelsior, 8 point with one point leading. Enlarged. Scan from the 1940 Specimen Book of Linotype Faces, Mergenthaler Linotype Company, Brooklyn, New York.

Preview of the Memphis typeface, set in the original hand-setting version from D. Stempel AG. Cropped and Enlarged. Scan from the »Jahrbuch der Schriftgießerei und Messinglinienfabrik D. Stempel Aktiengesellschaft Frankfurt a. M., Leipzg, Wien, Budapest, Basel; 2. Jahrgang, Herausgegeben zu Neujahr 1930«. Not the unorthodox »y« in »Flytmedel«.

Excelsior and Metro have a real American feeling to them, I think. Memphis came from German Linotype and has a different character than the typefaces from Brooklyn.

It does. What I like about being able to access these hot-metal typefaces is that they are just not as used today. So Metro, which is a 60 or 70-year-old-face, looks somehow fresh today, because it’s not used. And it’s not Futura, which is a great face, but was an Intertype face, not a Linotype face. I like being able to go back to these metal faces and being able to say, “oh yeah! These were hell of a good faces.” We can still appreciate and use them today.

Oh, and Palatino! Actually, I had a really good discussion about Palatino here. Apparently, in Germany, Palatino was really overused. But in America, it was used very tastefully, and not very much. To me, seeing hot-metal Palatino letterpress printed is just gorgeous.

Palatino, 12 point with four points of leading. Cropped and Enlarged. Scan from an undated brochure entitled »Die Schrift im Buch: Aldus-Buchschrift und Palatino in ihrer Verwendung im Werksatz, Schriftgießerei D. Stempel AG, Frankfurt am Main«. Most likely from the 1950s or 60s. Many of the letters above take forms divergent from those in digital versions of Palatino. Particularly notable are the capital letters W and S.

In the Linotype archive we have the 1950 Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, which was the first printed application of Palatino. I guess that was the handset version. Palatino was adapted later for the Linotype machine. But the pages of the book give a very different impression, I guess, than the later digital version does. In the detail, in the color – it is something totally different on the page.

I don’t say that in a snobbish way, that everything has to be letterpress printed, and that new digitized versions aren’t good. I think that the digitized version is very nice. But there is just some kind of tactile sense – and I am not talking about the impression on the page – of hot-metal Palatino that I love. I think that it is a gorgeous book face, and I love that it was designed and worked so beautifully in a restrictive machine like the Linotype.

Linotype had its restrictions and difficulties for the type designer, and Zapf worked gorgeously with them. When people say that the Linotype machine couldn’t be used for bookwork, the problem was a poor Linotype operator. A good Linotype operator could do gorgeous bookwork, just as well as a Monotype operator could. But it definitely took a little more work.

The book faces on the Linotype are a little more open, perhaps, but still well designed.

What can a Linotype machine, and pieces set by a skilled Linotype operator, teach graphic designers today?

The Linotype helps inform on how design was made in the past. It was the desktop publishing system of 1886, or the Twitter of the day. News went from up-to-the-week to up-to-the-day with the Linotype. With Twitter, we are now at up-to-the-second. This speed increase was a huge impact.

For type designers, it shows that restrictions are OK. You will always have restrictions, and you can still do amazing work within them. I think that it is really important to know where types came from, and to know why a certain character looks the way that it does. If it was first designed for hot metal, it had to look this way for a reason. I think that people can learn from the past. Maybe this is an old man way of thinking. For people who don’t want to learn about the Linotype machine – that is OK, too. But the past can inform the future.

Linotype: The Film, Interview Excerpts from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo.

Read more about Linotype: The Film at and consider donating a few bucks to help get it made –

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