Letters & Ligatures: Something to PLINC About

I had to good fortune to kick off the weekend of the 5th by dropping by House Industries’ opening of their Letters & Ligatures Show at the 222gallery in Philly on Friday.

The show itself was pretty minimal, which bummed me out a bit. House does tons of great work in type design, hand lettering, and illustration, as well as industrial design. The objects on display were pretty focused on their recent release of Neutraface Slab family. Now, don’t get me wrong: I loves me some Neutraface, and the introduction of the slab branch of its family tree is a fantastic one. But I was hoping for more variety. The photos on their site cover a significant portion of the exhibit, aside from the nice little retail space where they had books, blocks, pillows, and other cool object on offer (most of which were well out of my petty cash range).

But, really, the reason I went was to chat with people who love design and create it. And House is one of the best firms/foundries out there, particularly given their passion for their niche of vernacular typography and lettering, as well as period illustration (some would call it retro). This was certainly the best part of the show for me. Because I arrived early on, before the place began to fill, I got a chance to chat with Rich Roat of House about their upcoming and long-awaited online custom Photo-Lettering tool.

They’d set up a kiosk with a demo version of their Photo-Lettering custom typesetter (I don’t know if it has a proper name, so I’m going to call it “PLINCer” for brevity and self-amusement). I didn’t even realize what I was looking at until Rich came up to me and started to run me through the demo and talk excitedly about its capabilities. (One of the things I love most about type is the people who do it. You don’t get into type because you kind of like it. You have to love it.) Rich was clearly very eager to get this baby out there in the real world. And I can see why. If PLINCer works the way he says it will (and it appears to) it could be the first step toward a completely new way of selling digital type; one that is very much in tune with the ethos of online digital content distribution as it’s developing today.

The basic concept behind PLINCer is pretty straightforward, but Rich’s demo showed me that this is more than a novel way to sell type from the library they bought. Photo-lettering, the original use, changed the way that type was set and sold, ultimately killing metal type as the standard, just as digital type killed photo-lettering. PLINCer takes the photo-lettering mentality of purchasing a specific type setting that can be stretched and sized photographically and brings that process up to date with a web-based interface and e-commerce storefront, driven by server-side multiple master scaling technology and OpenType dynamic typesetting.

Imagine that you want to use Ed Interlock to create a logotype. With PLINCer you can log in, take advantage of the full OpenType dynamic typesetting features (which substitutes the ‘custom’ interlocking character pairings based on the overall word form and surrounding pairings), test colors, and even things like drop shadowing, highlights, and other typeface-appropriate styling, then save that specific setting for later viewing, emailing to other people, whatever. And once you’re satisfied, you can then buy that specific setting as a vector graphic for around $7. The whole typeface is $160 (as part of a set of typefaces that come packaged). This is the iTunes model for type. This changes the game, which is currently all about licensing full typefaces and often entire family packages for potentially hundreds of dollars (and sometimes more).

I could go on and on about this new system, but I’ll spare myself the four additional hours of writing and just say this: if PLINCer succeeds (it’ll like also have a subscription option, by the way), the model it establishes could ripple out to every major foundry and retailer of type. I bet that designers and clients would be waaaay more open to exploring new type when the cost can be kept so low. So, you can see why this was a highlight of the night.

Unfortunately, I was short two wingmen (Alisa and Blackbird, who would’ve made the event totally awesome), so I didn’t hang around too long. But it was worth it to get a look at what House has cooking. For more info on PLINC, check out snappy-new-design-blog idsgn’s feature as well.

UPDATE: Looks like it will simply be called “Photo Lettering”. Keep an eye on this space.

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