Interview: Phil Martin

Written by Mark Simonson on May 18, 2004

Born in Dallas, Texas in 1923 and a bombardier in World War II, Phil Martin spent a number of years as a cartoonist before moving into commercial art and lettering. He also spent some time as a radio comedian.

In 1969, Martin founded Alphabet Innovations and, in 1974, TypeSpectra. These companies designed and produced over 400 film fonts for use in the VGC Photo Typositor, a machine for setting headline type. Later, some of these typefaces were licensed for use with text setting machines, and many of them are seeing new life as digital fonts through the efforts of Steve Jackaman of Red Rooster and others (including me).

Martin, now eighty-one, lives in Florida where he runs an eclectic personal website, publishes an electronic newsletter, and sometimes performs as a lounge singer. He recently started writing an autobiography, the current draft of which can be found on his website.

I first learned about Phil Martin’s work when I was in high school in the early seventies. A friend of my father’s was the in-house commercial artist at the company in which they both worked. My father’s friend knew of my interest in the graphic arts. One of the things he gave me was a specimen booklet for Alphabet Innovations. It made a big impression on me and is one of the things that got me interested in type design.


Alphabet Innovations specimen booklet (1972)

Over the years I learned more about AI. In my first job as a graphic designer, my boss had a complete collection of Alphabet Innovations and TypeSpectra sample books. At the time, I was only dimly aware of the person behind the faces. I became aware of Phil himself from his regular column in The Typographer, the now-defunct journal of the TIA (Typographers International Association).

A few years ago, I discovered that Phil was alive and well and had an internet account. He started to pop up regularly on the Typo-L mailing list. Recently, I agreed to digitize some of Phil’s old fonts, including his most recent—a redesign of Century Schoolbook called Grad he did for Re:Language, a newsletter he published in the early 1990s.

Mark Simonson: What made you want to become a type designer?

Phil Martin: By age 45 I had developed a love affair with language. My top art client was Fleming & Sons in Dallas, my home town, a manufacturer of egg cartons. I painted mock-ups to show their clients what the egg carton design would look like. So I painted with a brush almost every type style existing at that time. My constantly sore thumb and two fingers that held the brush fed a love of letterforms up my right arm and into my heart. Oh God, what a dream! Not only to love the language, but to create the shapes which allow the reading of it.

MS: So, you were working as a lettering artist? How long had you been doing that?

PM: In my general services as a commercial artist, I had developed a reputation for what we called hand-lettering at that time. You also reminded me that when I came out of WW II, I worked at two art studios before opening my own. First there was Whaley Studios with Earl Routsong as the lettering man, next Bud Biggs Studio with Lou Snell as lettering man. The fact that I can call their names today reminds me that I admired their work. Not at all in their class was I. Only at this moment do I realized Earl and Lou must have been the sparks that determined my future. Earl was a native Dallasite; Lou was from Ohio.

MS: How did Alphabet Innovations start?

PM: Always searching for a substitute for talent, I bought a Photo Typositor made by Visual Graphics and taught myself how to put my own letters on film strips. When I had a new face ready, I would set copy to show it off, make 35 photostats and mail them to potential clients, saying this look is available only from Martin Studios in Dallas. When I had a dozen faces ready, a Dallas typesetting company asked for a franchise. That night at home I gave myself 15 minutes to decide on the name that would replace Martin Studios.

MS: Who else was involved in AI and what were their roles?

PM: My secretary was Barbara Jameson. I averaged a new secretary every two years. My last one was Debbie Nugent. Then there was Wilson Jones who did the font opaquing. Film Strips of that time had pin-holes, requiring a little opaque to be painted on. Then there was George Brian who came as a beginner designer. When he left eight years later, I had become his student. He did more work than I on my most successful face — Souvenir Gothic — and my biggest flop — Scenario. More than half of those franchised typographers paying me royalty of 25 to 30 cents for every word set included copies of all their settings with their monthly royalty reports. Just imagine how this let me know what was selling and what was not. Upon George Brian’s leaving, George Thomas came to work for me. A technical genius in my view. He made my studio the branch office of Merganthaler. When type director Mike Parker quit Merg to found Bitstream and hire away all Merg’s type-knowledgable people, Steve Byers had no way to keep Merg in production except for what  George and I did for him. And Ed Kelton worked for me a short time doing “this and that.” Those are all of the personnel of AI and TS that there ever were. I got kidded that you had to have a first name for your last name, if you wanted to work for me. George Brian, George Thomas, my webmaster today is Don Thomas, my favorite cab driver today is Karl David Henry.

AI staff

AI staff meeting, c. 1975. Phil Martin at right.

MS: How did TypeSpectra come about? It seems to have replaced or displaced AI.

PM: Toughest question I will ever get. Even today I don’t know if forming the second company was a good decision. When my Chicago franchisee failed to take one of my offerings, thereby blocking me out of that important market, I decided my franchisees perhaps had too much exclusivity, too much power, and I would find a way around those who chose to not to stay with my guidance.

MS: How were your fonts distributed?

PM: In little boxes of rolled film by U.S. mail.


An AI master 2-inch film font: Fortura Biform Demibold (note opaquing and ruby masking tape).

MS: What I mean is, who were your customers and what kind of business arrangement did you have with them?

PM: My “customers” were my franchised typesetting companies, each of whom held exclusive rights to his (all but Betty in Seattle was a “his”) territory. They paid a licensing fee of around $20 a font plus royalty. I supplied the display booklets at my cost. Size of territories? One of my first franchisees Irving Hoffman in Boston held all the New England states. Ohio was broken into four territories. Distributor Manfred Leyhausen of West Germany supplied a German Postal Map to determine territories for the several German franchisees. Etcetera! No matter where the fonts were, they were licensed by me to be there, but I retained ownership of every one. There was a time my slogan was, “If I don’t have two lawsuits going at all times, I am just not doing my job. I fought quite a few lawyers, one in Toronto was the only one who ever beat me. United Bank of Illinois thought they could take the fonts of my bankrupt Rockford franchisee. I read them a letter I had in pencil that was to be typed that night. They turned my fonts over to my just-appointed Rockford agent immediately, to avoid receiving that letter.

There was a time my slogan was, If I don't have two lawsuits going at all times, I am just not doing my job.

Font: Semi-Stark

MS: What was in the letter you were going to send to the bank in Rockford?

PM: Let me back up and tell you how Toronto and Rockford had a connection. Monolino Typesetting the largest typesetting in Canada and my Toronto franchisee went bankrupt. Typically in a matter like this I would declare the fonts to be my property and order them shipped to whomever I selected to be the new franchisee. But in this case the estate hired a gunslinger (legal term) to come after me. He said, my client considers your franchise for the entire province of Ontario to be quite valuable. Place it with another company without paying my client and I will advise my client to sue that company. I knew he had me, so we worked out peaceful terms. I also realized this was legal terrorism. Anyone I might choose to try to do business with was marked for a lawsuit by my very approach to such a person. It was only 30 days later that my franchisee in Rockford Ill went bankrupt. During this period I had spies everywhere, because everywhere I had a franchisee, there was a competing typesetting company hoping somehow to become my franchisee. So when my wannabe Rockford company explained to me what had happened to my real franchisee and where United Bank of Illinois had all the equipment including my fonts stored, I got a guy from United on the phone. He said they would place everything with somebody who wanted to learn typesetting. The letter in pencil form that I read to him over the phone stated as follows. “So you are going to supply my fonts to a beginner, despite my worldwide reputation for quality. And he will be using my U.S. Registered Trademarks? Let me inform you the trademark statute provides treble damages, and to merely confuse the public amounts to damage in this case. As soon as I learn the name and location of the beginner you have chosen, I will sue him in Federal Court under the Trademark Statute and likely in other courts as well, depending upon other charges my attorneys may deem appropriate.” The fonts were delivered to my new franchisee before the sun went down. A bank holding company dead in the water, without a single word having to be keyboarded on a typewriter.

MS: Who did you consider to be your rivals and/or competitors?

PM: Please keep in mind that all designers knew I received a royalty per headline-word set. Therefore, if they chose any face of mine, they knew the bill would be higher. Well, that was true of Headliners and Lettergraphics franchises too. But they were no competition, because only I had my faces on film strips that allowed the typographer to make money from the jobs. The closest I had to competition was ITC. Nevertheless, enough type users worldwide were willing to pay extra for anything of mine, I hardly felt ITC’s breath. I consider typefaces to be a fashion business. In my view I had the hottest rags over a 20-year period. In changing styles, previous looks return to vogue. Pardon me while I sing two choruses of “Everything Old Is New Again” and did you know composer Irving Berlin wrote all of his songs in F-Sharp, the only key he could play his piano in?

MS: AI had a different business model from ITC. ITC licensed their faces to typesetter manufacturers whereas AI supplied fonts directly to type shops in exclusive arrangements. Could you comment on the relative merits of these strategies?

PM: Not sure I can comment with a clean mouth, but will give it a try. The ITC model did not work and ITC damn well knew it. They would sign a pirate company knowing full well they were signing a pirate company. The pirate would wait for Visual Graphics Corporation in Florida, manufacturer of the Photo Typositor, the machine that began the typographic revolution; they would wait for VGC to produce their outstanding film strips (almost as good as mine) and just make film copies of VGC’s work for their product.

MS: I have the impression that there was more money in the font business before the switch to digital type and selling fonts to designers rather than typesetting houses, but that it was a much smaller industry and harder to break into. Do you think this is true?

PM: Yes, I do. However, after I got many of my faces into text, royalty income from Merganthaler alone, not including their German subsidiary that eventually took them over, peaked at $40,000 a quarter, indicating my attractive garments had broken through with no problem at all.

MS: I know you had some trouble with others pirating your faces. Can you comment on that?

PM: Of course. Now you have located my competition. Copies of myself were very tough competition.

Of course. Now you have located my competition. Copies of myself were very tough competition.

Font: Helserif Medium

MS: I’ve read that this was one of the big problems with the film font business, that the strips were very easy to duplicate which made piracy easy. Looking through old type specimen books, I see a copies of most of your fonts listed — “Happy Sid (S/A Jolly Roger)” for example. Did you ever take legal action? If so, were you successful?

PM: The complete answer to your question is in the Heldustry PDF,
the last chapter of my book. The company I sued twice is the one that called my Jolly Roger, Happy Sid. Another pirate called Jolly Roger, Jolly Martin, to try to confuse the art studios and ad agencies as to which was the legitimate product. I had better success with this guy. I persuaded him to turn honest. Let me mention here that Jolly Roger and Introspect were my two most original designs.

MS: When you were doing AI and TS, did you know any other type designers? Did you have any favorites? What type designers influenced you?

PM: I did not, still do not know other designers. Designers of the past I familiarized myself with to get ideas. Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had his Cheltenham design taken to a new wave of popularity, when I chose it as the first tall ascenders face to get a higher x-height. Would you believe I can’t remember who I worked from to develop Martin Gothic? Are you aware Red Rooster only recently got their site open? Two days before it opened people from England found a way to break in and buy all eight of my Martin Gothic fonts. Forever on the Rooster record will be that first sale their site made.

MS: What was the typical process of creating a font at AI and TS?

PM: Quite often, just looking through a magazine, let an ad grab my eye, and take the challenge to try to get a new look from what I had seen.

MS: Could you briefly explain the process from a technical point of view? For instance, how was the original artwork prepared and how large were the letters drawn?

PM: In the beginning, pen and ink, cap letters around three inches high. Eventually shapes cut out of rubylith, cap letters down to about two and a half inches high. The larger the letters originally were, the less was the alignment error on the film strip. When my Phoenix franchisee Paul Morneau proclaimed my film fonts the best in the world, we cut down the original size a little.

MS: I understand that you did cartooning at one time. Did this have any influence on your type designs or the way you drew them?

PM: My all-caps lettering of the dialogue in the comic strip balloons was my first typeface, actually. Look at the comic strips in your local newspaper. Those are all little all-caps typefaces, each different from the next. Only Gasoline Alley does caps and lc.

MS: Looking over the output of AI and TS, I notice that, although you did many original designs, you also did a lot based on existing foundry faces. How were you able to base a design on an existing typeface?

PM: I think I have already answered this. Take the challenge to get a different look out of it. And remember my royalty per word on headline faces. No matter what earlier face I based my version on, users paying more to get my version made my version a respectable new skirt or trousers. And working from another face, there are always little refinements, ones the original designer would have included, had he or she had the feel of it clearly enough,

MS: I guess what I’m getting at is, many of these designs originated at foundries like Linotype or ATF. Did you (or did you need to) get permission from any of them to do derivative designs? I’m not trying to single you out here, obviously other outfits like Headliners were doing this also.

PM: I am happy to be singled out. No, I asked permission of no one. Nor would I do it differently today. If the type user is willing to pay more for my version, let Linotype and/or ATF find out what the marketplace is telling them.

MS: None of them came after you for selling versions of their type designs or even for using the names? This seems hard to believe, but maybe times have changed. Or maybe their lawyers have gotten smarter.

PM: The judgment capabilities  of sharp CEOs has not changed, nor have lawyers become less dumb. Give me the soul of the design world once more, and you will see the CEOs keeping their legal people silent, lest the corporations come off looking like the enemy of the design world. House lawyers typically fear looking out of a window for fear they will see rain. Mike Parker at Merg taught me this management philosophy. He may be gone now, but I ain’t.


Martin’s mutations of existing designs.

MS: In some cases, you expanded on an existing design by creating bolder weights (such as the Adweight series). In other cases you modified an existing design creatively for instance by adding swash characters or biform characters (such as Goudy Flair, Fotura Biform). Yet others were hybrids based on existing designs, such as adding serifs (Helserif), taking them away (Souvenir Gothic), or blending two different faces (Heldustry). Any comments?

PM: Yes. Thanks for your careful examination and explanation.

MS: Do you have stories about any of these? For instance, how did the idea for Heldustry come about?

PM: Eurostyle, also known as Microgramma, had a little popularity. Almost square letters. 75% Helvetica, 25% Eurostyle was the design plan for Heldustry.


Martin’s expansions of existing designs.

MS: What’s the story behind Cheltenham X23 (1969)?

PM: I designed Cheltenham X23, so named because I had raised its x-height 23%. I screwed up and didn’t make the “x” lowercase in the name. On my customized film machine, it took me one hour to create the master font of x23, and I was taking phone calls during the process. My idea and my one hour provided four, or more, years of work for International Typeface Corporation, as they upped the x height of every old design they could locate throughout the history of printed language.

Helvetica Flair

Helvetica Flair

MS: Did you really design Helvetica Flair?

PM: Not the Helvetica, only Flair. The font also had what I called commoncase characters.

MS: Let me rephrase this. Helvetica was the epitome of the Swiss school of typography — very cool and modern, almost antiseptically clean. The commoncase addition makes sense, being a modern innovation. But swashes are a very nineteenth-century kind of thing. Putting swashes on Helvetica is almost sacrilegious. It’s subversive, in a way, and seems almost like a typographic joke. My question is: What possessed you to put swashes on Helvetica?

PM: Ha! So you are a purist. I was accused of typographic incest before my first year of innovations was over. (‘Inzest’ in German, according to my translator Herr Kramm.) The angry typographers who missed out on getting my franchise called Alphabet Innovations, Alphabet Imitations. If you don’t like my Helvetica Flair, just term me the Marquis de Sade of letterforms.

MS: Oh, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. It’s just such a crazy idea and I wondered how you thought of it.

PM: The hell you didn’t! Clearly you expressed the belief that Helvetica and the Swiss are sacrosanct. Just being neutral in every war does not gain a sacred status.

MS: I think you misunderstand me (or maybe I was unclear in the way I framed the question)… I wasn’t expressing my personal opinion of Helvetica — I think it’s a fine typeface, but I don’t worship it, and I’ve never been a devotee of the Swiss school. I meant that, in the sixties it was a sort of sacred cow, and that adding swashes to it was a rather bold and audacious thing to do (and I’m all for doing bold and audacious things to type). I was just wondering, what gave you the idea to do it?

PM: I can’t imagine what you are seeking. To try to refresh my memory I looked the face up. One of a dozen efforts that comprised AI Volume One, copyright 1969, meaning anything in there may have been done as early as 1967. Now that I see and really examine what you are talking about, I judge it as just plain amateurish rather than audacious. However, the copy in it reading, “It’s too Hot to cook” is as nice a design as I have ever done. It was an ad I did for Dallas Power & Light.
     Oh, what memories. Every time I had a new face ready, it would become the look of my next DP&L ad. It gave Martin Studios a city-wide showing of a look you could get only by hiring Martin Studios.
     I’m glad you kept haranguing me, Mark. You gave me somebody else to thank for helping me become a type designer: Ray Ward, the DP&L company spokesman and ad man, gave me free range to give the ads any look I chose. AI Volume One shows ten DP&L graphics!

MS: You got pretty playful with some of your funny names, and I think this is one of the distinctive things about your fonts. A few examples: Dominance Overbearing (a shadowed style), Dominance Diffident (an outline style), Stark, Stark Naked (an outline style), Stark Raving, Baskerville Hound, Endowed Jones, Eightball/Cueball/Highball, Jolly Roger Raised, Franklin Minted, Son of Windsor, etc. Could you comment on this?

PM: Indeed! I was begging for attention. Endowed Jones was a form of Times Roman with flairs the end of which were phallic shaped. Endowed is a male sexual compliment. Available Jones was a popular character in the Al Capp Li’l Abner comic strip. Available would do anything for money. And of course the term is a play on the famous Dow Jones Averages.

AI Booklet 3

Quint and Frizbo

MS: I became aware of your work back in the seventies through the specimen booklets that were produced for AI and TS. Who wrote and designed the booklets? And what’s the story behind Quint & Frizbo?

PM: Your obedient servant is who. Q&F is just another one of my comic strips in a different artform from those in your local newspaper.

MS: What kind of comic strips did you do? Did you just draw them, or did you also do the writing?

PM: I was ghost artist on nationally syndicated Ella Cinders and Jane Arden comic strips, no writing. I wrote and drew Swing Sisson the battling bandleader for Feature Comics magazine at age 18. I wrote and drew Hap Holiday for Globe Syndicate who was not successful in getting newspapers to take it. Also wrote and drew Gail Friday that the New York Herald-Tribune turned down at the last moment. Those were the days when the execs called their secretaries their Gal Friday. Finally I decided to form my own syndicate which I named, American Advertising Syndicate. Using commission salesmen contacted by advertising in Opportunity magazine, I sold comic features to be sponsored by newspaper advertisers. Among my features I remember: Cartoon Quiz, Daffy-nitions, Crusty’s Wise Replies, and Linda Hand, Registered Nurse. I signed different names to my cartoons, so no one would realize it was a one-man show.

MS: What’s the “4KD kerning system” you sometimes refer to?

PM: It was developed to kern my Grad typeface on the XyWrite word processor if the user has a printer that can read negative figures. XyWrite said it could not be done, that I was fooling their machine somehow, that I would never be able to set justified type. When I proved them wrong, they studied my product, and made it run faster and quietly. My original version ran with so much noise, you needed ear plugs.

MS: Do you think typography is better or worse in the computer age?

PM: Far worse, but maybe better in the future. At least, let’s hope.
     I will bring up something that has not been mentioned. I am sometimes told I bring a lot of ego to the table. As a long time student of business history, it is my claim the majority of major corporations are run, correction, the majority is run, oh how a prepositional phrase between subject and verb can lead you into a plural verb despite your subject being singular, by someone with ego barely under control. And with public money used for PR firms, ad agencies, plus various forms of self-aggrandizement. I don’t have any public money to run my show. But to promote my product in this competitive world, I even invent imaginary characters like Carelton Smith to interview me when I have a new face ready. Carleton played a strong part in making my Criterion series successful. You gotta show the goods in the window before the gals will come in and try on the new duds. My newest gown is named Grad, Mark. You are its digitizer, soon to be its marketer. Time now to thank you for having been its Carelton Smith, to boot.

© 2004, Mark Simonson
Headline illustration by Norman Hathaway with Martin’s Helserif and Polonaise

[Update: Unfortunately, Phil Martin’s website went offline a few months after his death. There is an cache of his site, but some of the following links are no longer available. — SJC]

See also: Credit overdue.

Mark Simonson of Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a former art director and graphic designer who now makes his living designing typefaces — several of which are Typographica selections.


  1. Nick Shinn says:

    Helvetica Flair is the ultimate mash-up, proto-Post-modern, genre-bender. And Phil has no idea where it came from. What performance enhancers did those guys use? I�m impressed by the lack of critical awareness, they just did it. Or is that just the working stiff machismo schtick � only flakes get into arty analysis?

  2. geraint says:

    great interview.

    ps.have we lost the heading bit(caricature & ‘phil martin’)? it was up earlier today..

  3. Amanda says:

    Fun interview, Mark!

    Perhaps some generous Typographica reader would redesign Mr. Martin’s Web site?

  4. Thanks! It was Stephen’s initiative and Phil’s persistence that made this happen, and I thank both of them.

  5. Marc Oxborrow says:

    Loved the interview, Mark. What a character!

    Can you tell us more about Grad?

  6. Re: Grad. It’s still in the early stages of development. You can see a version of it in the addendum chapter of Phil’s Design For (a) Living book on his site (here).

    Phil did the original in the early nineties as a 300dpi bitmap font (36pt) for a newsletter he published at the time called Re: Language. His version only works with XyWrite on his old DOS PC. He had to send me laserprints since he doesn’t know how or where it’s stored on the old PC anymore.

    The design is based on Century Schoolbook with lots of little tweaks and ligatures and things, sort of turning it into a Venetian old style. Phil’s version was based on Bitstream’s Century Schoolbook. I’m going back to the ATF original as my starting point. I don’t want to be starting from anybody else’s digital font data.

  7. This being our first interview and first article with multiple illustrations it arrived on a bit of a bumpy road. That explains the false start during which I inexplicably claimed authorship. My error entirely. This article was all Mark and Phil. I just asked them to get together and share these stories with a wider audience.

    One of many things from the interview that struck me:

    More than half of those franchised typographers paying me royalty of 25 to 30 cents for every word set included copies of all their settings with their monthly royalty reports. Just imagine how this let me know what was selling and what was not.

    Imagine if that system were in place for digital type. What was it Licko said? “If I got a nickel for every time one of my fonts was used I’d happily give them away for free.” (Something like that.)

    geraint – The Norman Hathaway caricature will be back. Need to make some adjustments that I didn’t plan for.

  8. Hrant says:

    Mark: very good questions!

    So should we officially stop blaming ITC for introducing obese x-heights? :-)


  9. Nick, regarding Helvetica Flair: I knew about it for years, but didn’t realize Phil had done it until I did the research for the interview. My own theory is that it was one of those things that was in the air (metaphorically) in the sixties. There was a renewed interest in Victorian and Art Nouveau design, Bookman’s swashes were rediscovered and being retrofitted to other faces, why not Helvetica? It has a freewheeling sort of “flower power” quality to it. That’s my “arty analysis”, anyway.

  10. Mark – good job – a very interesting & entertaining read. Can’t wait to see more of these – Stephen you kick ass.

  11. William Tindall says:

    I encountered one of Phil’s faces once. It took me the longest time to figure out that he created it. The alternate ‘g’ was the kicker. It is forever forgotten from history due to URW’s half assed job at digitizing Phil’s amazing work. Such a shame when people like URW cut corners.

    Here is a link to the thread. It features a photo of the alternate ‘g’ in URW Agenda (one of Phil’s)

  12. Hrant says:

    That’s just Clearface Gothic with flares and a funny “g”. It’s a shame to see the often genial work of Benton swiped by a countryman of his no less.


  13. William Tindall says:

    I forgot to comment on how much of a great article this is. It is very entertaining. Is there going to be a new section carved into the site to single these articles out from the common bloggery?

  14. geraint says:

    common bloggery � heh.

  15. That’s just Clearface Gothic with flares and a funny “g”. It’s a shame to see the often genial work of Benton swiped by a countryman of his no less.

    He did a lot more than add flares and a funny g, but, yes, it’s clearly based on Clearface Gothic and I think it’s a very interesting point.

    As you can tell from the interview, Phil clearly believes that creating derivative typefaces such as this is perfectly legitimate and that he felt no need to get permission to do so. Legally, he’s right. at least in the US. Typeface designs can be patented in the US, but such patents usually hinge on exactly the kind of little changes that Phil made. They look at earmarks, and he tends to change the earmarks.

    No action was ever taken against him by the originators of the faces he based many of his designs on, while many others were hounded and successfully prosecuted as pirates. The key difference is that these “pirates” did nothing more than copy the fonts and change the name, wheras Phil created something new, even if it wasn’t totally original.

    Looking at that Type ID thread on Typophile, the conclusion was that the mystery typeface was Agenda, not Clearface Gothic. That seems to imply that it is indeed an identifiably separate typeface, not a carbon copy with a different name. End of debate? Not likely.

    Personally, I will always have more admiration for a good original design than a good derivative design. Would I have more admiration for a bad original design than a good derivative design? Probably not.

  16. Hrant says:

    Where does Agenda come from?

    > Would I have more admiration for a bad
    > original design than a good derivative
    > design? Probably not.

    We can -and should- “admire” different things, but we can probably agree that originality is good for culture while technical quality is good for business.

    In any case, I do think you did an admirable job of balancing tact and inquisition in the interview.


  17. Is there going to be a new section carved into the site to single these articles out from the common bloggery?

    Yes, that is a key part of the new design (coming soon).

  18. nick shinn says:

    Mark, how were Phil’s adaptations done?

    Nowadays, it is easy to start with pirated points.

    He could have made photographic copies and made new glyphs by painting/drawing on top — which would be the equivalent level of plagiarism.

    He could have started by tracing by hand, and then adding to or modifying his drawing.

    Or he could have eyeballed the whole thing from scratch.

    (He could perhaps have modified an existing font of his own, which is the way that many digital fonts are created, but that’s extremely unlikely.)

    Or is his m.o. a trade secret?

  19. Hrant says:

    Nick, I think the main point is it doesn’t matter.


  20. He said the original art for his fonts was 3″ tall (smaller later), but didn’t really say how the derivative designs were done. They are very faithful to the originals, so I don’t think they were eyeballed. More likely a combination of tracing enlargements and redrawing.

    However he did it, I do think the attitude in the type industry about this kind of thing has changed since then. I don’t think anyone but Erik Spiekermann could do “Meta Flair” and get away with it (well, maybe Erik couldn’t either :-).

  21. Thank you Mark… that was fun to read, and full of history. I could almost smell the corduroy flare pants, and white go-go boots.

  22. Ian says:

    What a splendid article. Phil�s an amazing character.

    I’d seen the name Happy Sid in a Transfertech dry transfer lettering catalogue from 1980. The catalogue has several more of Phil�s fonts:

    Jolly Roger is named Happy Sid
    Avalon is named Dashow
    Bluejack is named Bridger
    Stark is named Strike
    Introspect is named Looking Glass

    Threadgil (called Threadgill in the catalogue) is named Twistfin. There�s no crazy �g�, but there is a nice set of small caps.

    There could be more�

  23. I’ve got an old Transfertech catalog, too. Besides AI, they have “similar to” copies of faces from Headliners, ITC, VCG and some others. In fact, it seems like most if not all of the Transfertech library was pirated.

    The phrase “similar to” in a type catalog always means the only thing different is the name. In other words, a pirated typeface.

  24. Kent Lew says:

    Mark —

    Nice interview. Well balanced; nice capture of conversational tone, while keeping the topic moving.

    Phil’s work is always interesting. Unquestionably an important figure from the heady days of 60s/70s/80s, ad agency-centered phototype. The whole competitive, derivative climate was interesting back then.

    I must confess, however, that as a personality Phil Martin and his incessant self-aggrandizement are what drove me from Typo-L. Just couldn’t take it any more.

    — K.

  25. nick shinn says:

    >Nick, I think the main point is it doesn�t matter.

    Hrant, whether it matters or not to you, I would like to know, which is why I asked.

  26. Nice job, Mark.

    I appreciate you taking the time with each of your questions, and providing the clarity you did.

    And thanks to Phil Martin, for his interesting work over the decades, and finally telling the story of his career.

    And …the photos! :-)

    I’ve also interested to find out more about Phil’s techniques of the day, as Nick asked. Phil, in your piece, mentioned some camera-based reproportioning.

    I imagine the ‘Lacy Lucy’ (a mounted sliding tracing box) was used so extensively, it finally broke free of its wall mount.


    The Headliners International, Inc. (‘Headliners’), which began officially 1959-60, did have written agreements in place with most or all of the foundries whose designs Headliners’ large bullpen of artists chose to do weighted-up series of such faces, in addition to their own original designs.

    I was told that where no agreements existed, those foundries never complained. Why?

    In those days, Headliners’ phototypes (later called Headliners neo�-phototypes) were intended to help agencies and graphic designers to get the same typefaces they loved to specify in metal and then early text phototypesetting, in display areas such as headlines and subheads.

    The metal type producing foundries did not have the technology, and apparently never felt the need except in rare instances, to provide crisp, well kerned versions for display type sizes.

    They simply continued to focus on text, largely because ‘book composition’ was their largest market, not ‘advertising typography’, as the distinction used to be made by those companies.

    Metal typesetting (unkerned out of the caster or job case except for few available ligatures, as you are aware) generally stopped at around 36- to 48-point, and was in many cases, quite ‘open’ in set.

    And even as late as the late ’70s, the 48-point imaging from phototypesetters like the Mergenthaler Linotype V-I-P, the ‘202’, and others similar, were unkerned and fairly soft and looking at those proofs today, quite hideous. But it was the ‘bleeding edge’ of the day.

    Despite the best efforts of local type shops’ proofreaders, who more often than not had no esthetic training and had more than enough to do keeping up with proofing. But were expected to oversee selective ‘minus-tracking’ when a customer specified that feature to be invoked, regardless.

    Phil definitely made quite a name for himself in the ’70s with Cheltenham, Heldustry, and the Q&F reality distortions.


    Q&F was always good for a smile when a smile was desperately needed in the middle of a crushing deadline.
    (Thanks, Phil.)

    The ‘Transfertech’ copies of Headliners designs that Mark refers to were copies stolen by a company, who, according to what I was told by Headliners’ management, actually bribed a livery driver and similar workers like office cleaners, to go in on weekends and surreptitiously make ‘bruning’ (brownline or blueline) copies of proofs.

    The thefts apparently started about 1965, and at least in Headliners’ case, finally did at one point go to court, I believe in the Chicago area, around 1970.

    The first round of determining the suspects occured by investigating the pirated copies themselves.

    After the thefts were uncovered, Headliners actually produced a range of different filmstrips for each type family, with some letters changed, and adding some other identifying marks to filmstrips, for different markets.

    It worked. Suspects were detained, and lie detector tests were actually administered to get to the culprits.

    Not a pretty picture, since some of the suspects were Headliners franchise operators.

    That the copies were made from brunings explains why the letter quality suffered from so much ‘generation loss’ (a look similar to camera overexposure). They never, at least in the case of Headliners, got to the actual originals.

    I have no idea what the other companies who were infringed upon, might have done to protect themselves.

    The pirates Phil mentions (some of whom are much older but still no wiser, actually still active today in various parts of the US and elsewhere), in most cases were too greedy and too eager to get billable copies of set material to agencies, to bother trying to figure out how to touch up the resultant film-based copies. (Yes, some pirates were also trade typographers, themselves.)

    Then, by the late 1970s, with the advent of portable reel-to-reel filmstrip copiers, (produced by a company in the Toronto area, and which looked like a briefcase-sized reel-to-reel tape recorder, judging from a picture in a brochure from that company, here in our archives) the pirates started copying and recopying from each other, ad nauseum.

    That’s the reason why most of the pirated fonts available (even through ‘better’ trade typographers in the 1970s and ’80s who would do anything to get anything agency customers wanted) looked so ‘soft’ and out of focus. In the go-go ”70s and ’80s, people bought just about anything, as I’m sure Phil would attest.

    A midwest US company, to name one, still persists in offering autotraced versions of those out of focus copies (produced by hired high school students in the mid-1980s), hoping to capture as many sales from naive designers and art directors as possibly.

    ‘A family business’, they say they are.

    Thought this might be a helpful postscript to some of the subjects touched on in your piece, Mark.

    All the best to you, Phil.

    Have a great retirement.


  27. Miss Tiffany says:

    Hey, where’d my comment go? :^/

    Well, anyway, it is a very lively interview. Worth reading even though my eyes weren’t happy with me when I finished.

    Good follow up Mr. Treacy.

    I have a question. In light of the means by which these typefaces were created, and how current EULAs do not allow derivative work, well, do you think this isn’t setting a bad example for some people? Or maybe giving people excuses?

  28. Hrant says:

    > whether it matters or not to you

    No, not to me or you; I wasn’t being dismissive of what you’d like to know, I was trying to say that the details are secondary: I don’t Phil cares about them, and that’s a central insight of itself.

    > That�s the reason why most of the
    > pirated fonts available …. looked
    > so �soft� and out of focus.

    This is a very interesting observation.

    BTW, issue #46 of the APHA journal has a pretty detailed article on photosetting history.


  29. I have a question. In light of the means by which these typefaces were created, and how current EULAs do not allow derivative work, well, do you think this isn�t setting a bad example for some people? Or maybe giving people excuses?

    That’s a really good question and I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on it.

    My own understanding is that the digital expression of a font–the actual underlying code, the data that define the shapes, the font file itself–is what is covered by the EULA. I’m not sure that the visual representation of a font–the way it looks when you print it out or view it on-screen–is or can be protected in the same way.

    If I open a font in a font editor program and change some or all of the letter shapes, clearly this would be a derivative font in the sense meant by a EULA. If I set some words with the same font in Illustrator, convert it to outlines and make similar changes, I don’t think the derivative clause would apply since it is no longer a font, but some shapes in a drawing program. (In fact, this is how many people use fonts for logos and such.) If I now take those letter shapes and make a new font, I think the EULA might apply again, but it’s less clear. If I draw my own version of the font, perhaps introducing my own variations, using the original as a visual reference, things start getting very gray. Legally, technically, I think it’s okay. However, it is likely to garner disrespect from at least some other type designers.

    One thing’s for sure, this question was not as complicated when Phil was making Typositor fonts.

  30. BTW, issue #46 of the APHA journal has a pretty detailed article on photosetting history.

    Hrant, do you have a link for that? Or does it only exist in the physical world?

    Which reminds me: There is an article by Peter Bain online about film fonts from the St. Bride’s Conference last Fall.

  31. Hrant says:

    > I�m not sure that the visual
    > representation of a font�the
    > way it looks when you print it
    > out or view it on-screen�is or
    > can be protected in the same way.

    Well, it is in Europe.

    Plus I think we should be talking more about the ethical dimension instead of the legal.

    > do you have a link for that?

    APHA only has one or two past articles for download, I think. So yeah, it’s a meatspace thing.

    But here’s their site.

    (Stephen, you happy? ;-)


  32. Oh, Hrant, happy like a proud papa. Just needed to tag the “APHA” instead of making a new sentence and it’d be perfect. Now that you’ve mastered linking, you might find it helpful to use <blockquote&#62quoted text</blockquote> for quoting folks. Easer than the > line prefixes and better for readin’.

  33. Hrant says:

    Hey, easy. I don’t read manuals.


  34. Miss Tiffany says:

    Mark stated: … the digital expression of a font … is or can be protected … .

    I wasn’t trying to go back in time and judge Phil (or others) for the way they created the type. I guess I’m just wondering …. well, even if copyright isn’t the same around the world … and even if only certain parts of the font software are protected … don’t you (all) think there should be some sort of understood level of conduct? Even if it is done by others?

  35. Yes, I think there should be. But it’s a complicated question. I’m not sure exactly where I would draw the line.

  36. John Butler says:

    Mr. Martin sez:
    Pardon me while I sing two choruses of �Everything Old Is New Again�

    I wouldn’t mind hearing “Everything Right is Wrong Again.”

  37. Pondering this whole discussion of derivitive or hybrid fonts, last night I asked Phil this question:

    “What would you do if someone did a sans serif version of your Introspect?”

    Phil replied:

    “One of my greatest delights is to see a logo based on one of my font designs. Somebody saw it and figuratively said, ‘I can make something better from it.’

    “I would be thrilled to see that someone, anyone, could, would do a different version of any of my faces. Sorry, I simply cannot agree with those who would say, ‘My creativity is so limited, if I come up with anything worthwhile, I need a wide fence around it to last for my personal or corporate lifetime, in case I choose to fiddle with it again.’

    “I just can�t stomach seeing creativity fenced out.

    “Where to draw the line, Mark? The marketplace can handle that little job.”

  38. nick says:

    Prior to digital, some effort, expenditure and skill was required in copying font artwork, whether doing it straight, or for derivations.

    That is true for both photomechanical copies and tracing.

    And the quality of the copy was never identical to the original. It was forgery, not piracy.

    However, with easy access to BCPs, point piracy is now ridiculously easy.

    The ease of theft, the unlikelihood of apprehension and prosecution, the prevalence of P2P networks, etc., it all adds up to a huge problem for the digiverse in general, defining CHEATING as the hallmark of our culture.

    People will get away with whatever they can, and large corporations act with impunity.

    (declines to launch into usual tirade against Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe…)

  39. Hrant says:

    “The quattrocento was the painter’s
    century par excellence; our century
    is probably the sandwich man’s.”


  40. On one hand, we’ve got font piracy. This is a distribution problem having to do with the ease with which digital fonts can be copied.

    On the other hand, we’ve got “point piracy,” as Nick calls it. I would call it plagiarism–passing off someone else’s work as your own. This is more of an issue of creative integrity among font developers. It seems to me that this second problem is more difficult to define, but has a better chance of being addressed effectively.

    As it is, font developers have little but the example of others and their own conscience to guide them when it comes to creative integrity. I think some kind of professional code or guidelines would be useful. I think John Downer’s essay, “Call It What It Is,” has some ideas that could provide a starting point.

    I agree with Phil’s sentiment that creativity should not be stifled, but when he says to let the marketplace decide what’s right, I get just a tiny bit nervous. I’m all for the free market, but not free as in “free beer.”

  41. Mark said,

    �What would you do if someone did a sans serif
    version of your Introspect?�

    and I suddenly couldn�t resist asking (and meant playfully),

    What would you do if someone did a sans serif version of your Helserif?


    Also, Mark, if you get the chance, could you ask Phil to clarify the contextual meaning of this sentence:

    �But they were no competition,
    because only I had my faces on film strips
    that allowed the typographer
    to make money from the jobs.�

    I find after re-reading it several times, I still don�t think his real intention is coming through.

    Does he intend that he had his faces on 2″ filmstrips before anyone else?

    And by the way, I often wondered where the 2″ film stock came from.

    Was it exactly what was available previously, for filmstrip projectors?

    Or was it a special film or special cut that perhaps Kodak produced just for the 2″ film font industry?

    Thanks. – Joe

    Hi, Phil.

  42. Also, Mark, if you get the chance, could you ask Phil to clarify the contextual meaning of this sentence:

    �But they were no competition,
    because only I had my faces on film strips
    that allowed the typographer
    to make money from the jobs.�

    According to Phil:

    “VGC was the first to make film strips. I was the second. But I was the first franchise to do so. Headliners (after bragging, ‘no machine ever touches your job’) was forced to follow, as was Lettergraphics.

    “My first film strips were done on a new film from Dumont (or Dupont, not sure) that made a negative from a negative. When I had ten franchises and maybe 35 faces, every character of every film strip had been exposed individually. I personally did more than 75,000 exposures. My right arm ached as bad as my thumb and two fingers had stayed sore when I had been brush painting typefaces on egg carton mock-ups years earlier.”

  43. Hi, Mark. Hi, Phil �

    Thank you very much.

    Yes, I can imagine it was daunting and painful, Phil. Thanks for persevering.

    It�s my understanding that prior to the popularization of the filmstrip technology championed by VGC, that the popular method used by many, including Headliners (who believed they pioneered the technique) was like the old Formatt� cut-out, wax-backed lettering sheets.

    Base-aligned character sets were pre-printed on clear sheets (as on the more well known dry transfer sheets), and an adhesive was added (perhaps perhaps good �ol said-to-be-carcinogenic rubber cement).

    Headlines were composed by hand on a table, like other kinds of pasteups. The handwork was then shot in camera to negatives, which were then opaqued and retouched by hand, and RC photo paper prints and diazo (bluelines) copies delivered to customers.

    Literally composed by hand, that provided the ability to work with the customization of setting non-aligning, spontaneous scripts so wonderfully.

    It�s my understanding that by 1965 or so, it was the sheer popularity crush of headline typography at the emerging best providers, that caused the need to switch to the VGC photoTypositor-based (and similar) filmstrip exposure approach.

    There were, it seems, only so many people available who also had the esthetic eye and training to actually continue the former method with an ability to continue to guarantee the top quality that ad agency art directors, their type directors and others knowledgably demanded at the time.

    Thanks again very much.

    � Joe

  44. nick shinn says:

    This seems to be a good history of “photo-lettering”.

  45. Thanks, Nick. You must have missed that I posted a link to that article about 15 comments ago. But it’s a very good article, and a link worth repeating. :-)

  46. nick shinn says:

    Sorry for not paying attention.
    Please don’t deduct too many marks.
    This thread got long in a hurry, and I skipped checking out a few links!

  47. Norm’s dope caricature is finally back up. So sorry for the delay.

  48. geraint says:

    mmm, nice.

  49. Jef Tombeur says:

    I’m quite pleased to see a real OT font made out of Phil’s Grad. But I come now to understand why, when, with Gunnar Swanson, we insisted for him to write a book about design (mainly, if not exclusively typographical design) and typography, he would prefer to write (also) about (many) other things. Which he did (see his site). We see font as art, maybe Phil sees an ad as art (because of the words, the idea, and the global visual result), and the fonts used in it as just tools. Maybe because he did so many, and it was a physical process (I remember Albert Boton telling me about the way he worked, alongside a few others, under the supervison of Ladislas Mandel), rather “materialistic”, painstaking, physically. I don’t mean this is the reason why, but maybe part of it. Fonts were not made of pixels at that time. We do not see them as he did.

  50. Simon Hep says:

    Superb, friendly and thoughtful interview, many thanks. I was actually looking for information about CG Heldustry – really wish there was a propper bold and light version.

  51. Simon Hep says:

    Cheers Stephen – completely missed that (I’d stupidly been searching for ‘CGHeldustry’ rather than ‘Heldustry’). The URW Bold has now joined my type collection.

  52. […] (Link to entire interview) Share and Enjoy: […]

  53. […] Simonson conducted an amazing interview with Phil Martin in 2004, just before Martin’s death the following year. A bit of history […]

  54. Jerry says:

    Your article on Phil Martin brought back a lot of memorie as I ran the PT department in his New England Franchise. The first fonts were a little on the rough side but they greatly improved with his later offerings. I remember we used Jolly Roger in an ad and showed the complete alphabet. The company that copied it called it “Happy Sid” after one of its principals.

  55. karen says:

    great article. Unfortunately, I read that Phil Martin is deceased now. I have some of his original comic strip work and would have loved to have him sign it. but this history is wonderful addition …. thanks

  56. Stumbled on a great post about Swing Sisson, the comic Phil wrote and drew at age 18.

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