TEX – Digital Typesetting

[Original Post in German]

Facsimile of the 42-line Gutenberg bible from the copy at Berliner Staatsbibilothek Preuss. Kulturbesitz. Peagant, NY 1964

“Gutenberg has in fact invented nothing: Already in the middle of the second millennium BC it would have been possible to print books in that sense. All technical requirements (presses, ink, pagelike pads, also the art of casting negatives into metal) had been in place then. Nobody printed yet because they were not conscious that they would handle type when drawing letters.” Vilém Flusser, “Schrift”

The 42-line bible from Gutenberg’s printing shop is regarded as the first book to be printed with the newly invented book printing with movable type. Until today at least 48 copies have survived. The typography of this world-changing book is still viewed as one of the most beautiful to be typeset – if not the most beautiful.

Gutenberg’s typography shows indeed a significant difference to later typesetting: while later typesetters would use leading – small wedges of lead or brass – to adjust word-spacing to the length of the line, Gutenberg used a total of 290 different types, several for each letter, differing slightly in width. In respect to the page layout, Gutenberg kept thus much closer to the manuscript than later typesetters; aesthetically superior but far less efficient.

Above and below: Typography of the famous font-designer Hermann Zapf – set with TEX (Images from http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/).

When I studied mathematics in the early nineties, many of the newer text books were so ugly that I had difficulties to comprehend their content; the shabby quality of typography and reproduction in those times made the nerdy science of maths even more unattractive. The reason for this decline in publication culture lies in the change from hot type to photo setting. In the modern setting machines – still partly mechanic or based on not-so-fast computers –  creating such complicated formulae, multi-lined by indexes and superscripts, that characterise mathematics was not provided or just impossible. So usually it would be copying and binding simple computer prints or typewriter scripts with the formulae put in handwriting or drawn with a stencil. For the first time in 500 years publishers had departed from Gutenberg’s technology and some contemporary thinkers like Vilém Flusser even heralded the end of printing.

But not all books were that ugly. From time to time there appeared real pearls of typographic culture amongst the new editions – also in niche fields, in very small circulations, even with doctor or master theses there was a sudden surge in quality – at least regarding the look of the texts.

This is the merit of Donald E. Knuth:

His book “The Art of Computer Programming” gave the occasion for Donald E. Knuth to systematically explore digital typography. The result justifies the labour!

Knuth – on of the pioneers of computer programming – in a decade’s work had written a typesetting software, from which he requested at least the same power and quality as from the great Monotype hot-setting machines. The story of this software is told by Donald Knuth himself: disappointed by the bad quality of his book’s second edition, he had begun to work into typography and printing and not stopped before he would have been able to present the perfect solution – which he published under permissive Free Software Licence.

The notation of complicated formulae in TEX is easily to be learnt. The special characters are preceded by a \-tag. Superscripts and subscripts just come one after the other.

\sum makes the summation-sign Σ
\int the integral ∫
Greek letters likewise: \alpha makes α etc.
It is not difficult to create custom commands or macros in TEX – meanwhile there should be almost every alphabet of the world available as font for TEX

Here is an example for the simplified TEX-version built into Wikipedia: Riemann’s ζ-function.

In TEX-Code:

\zeta(s) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty\frac1{n^s} =1+\frac1{2^s} +\frac1{3^s} +\frac1{4^s} +\cdots

results in the image:

… or for s=2, with the famous relation to the circle:

\zeta(2) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac1{n^2} = \frac{\pi^2}6

What is special about TEX in my view is not so much its easy way to insert mathematical formulae into the text to look just like they did when engraved into steel. TEX typesets the pages in such an aesthetic way like the best hot-set compositors where able to do manually, and that with any type, font, symbol, right to left – just like the text would require.

Aside from the actual typesetting software, TEX comes with a tool for font management: METAFONT. Knuth represented – in difference from his predecessors – the letters not as bitmap, that means as grid of black and white squares, but describes the types as mathematical equations, as curves of functions. This approach is now followed by all typesetting systems – Adobe’s Postscript and pdf as well as Microsoft’s Truetype – with an important exception: in these the outline of the letter are prescribed by the curves, while Knuth prescribed the “stroke of a brush” – a centerline and the outline of the brush in the form of an ellipse.

“The Art of Computer Programming” by Donald E. Knuth is not only printed nicely but also bound nicely – cloth binding with thread-stiching, as it is good manners …

Typography was the most important and most demanding part of book production in all the five hundred years since Gutenberg. This had not been changed by the mechanisation with Linotype or Monotype – it was fine art to produce text with machines in a way that would at least cope with the value of the content. To command technology – and not the other way round – is as prevailing today as in Gutenberg’s time. TEX translates the essentials of this technology into digital media production.

After the content, good typography and layout are the second step, necessary for a valuable text. Then comes the actual production – from paper production, printing, to binding – respectively the display on screen – and the distribution. all theses steps pay into the value of a medium. In every of these carefulness is worthwhile.

“Never before, the progress has been so breathless as since the invention of the imaging contraptions.”
Vilém Flusser: “Schrift”

(the picture is taken from Donald E. Knuth, Digital Typography)

Digital Printing for Art Books

[Original German blog post]

During the debate about the changes in media and the future importance of the Internet, you could get the impression lately, that the age of printing would come to an end after 500 years. In deed many industries that make a living from printed media are in a state of retreat since the dawn of the digital era: newspapers, magazines, intaglio and even offset printing, shown in an impressive way by the financial downturn of global market leader Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG in 2009.

For classical methods the main effort to print is to produce the printing plates – typesetting book pages, engravings for figures or today the making of plate cylinders in offset printing. Effect: the higher the circulation, the lower the price to print per piece. Everybody who has let something been printed in the classical way is familiar to the print shop’s quote: “it’s the same price if you take 1000 or 2000 pieces.”

The consequence: also valuable books that will address only a small circle of readers are printed in stacks of thousands, although only a few hundred are sold for the targeted price. The remainder of some art catalogue for which its buyers are willing to pay 98 Euros, Dollars or Pounds, goes for 14.99 to the bargain bookseller. Everyone who bought an expensive book once and later found it – fresh from the press and in original wrapping – on rummage table at WHSmiths or Barnes and Noble, will think twice if it would not be worthwhile waiting. A catastrophe from the angle of marketing. And apart from that also ecologically dubious, to go one producing remainders, using toxic ink, wasting lots of energy and paper.

Digital printing technology like laser or ink-jet printing put text and images on paper without printing plates, directly from the digital file – a PDF, a Word-Document etc.

In the last thirty years the publication process had adopted the digital options initially. “Desktop publishing” was the buzzword in the eighties, database publishing in the nineties and during the last decade the Internet brought content management up to “real time publishing”, immediate and instantly from the laptop to the web site. Step by step, publishing was thus detached from paper.

Digital printing for a long time could not compete with offset printing – neither with speed nor with printing quality. But this has changed just recently.

During the last weeks I was involved in a large exhibition project: Hundred Masterpieces for Haiti – a charity event that was arranged with support by the Rotary Club in Munich in our Galerie Royal.

Such a short-term project profits especially from the possibilities of digital printing. The time for preparation of this charity is extremely short – due to the circumstances of a sudden desaster like an earthquake, the consequences of which should be eased.

First, forty artists had to be found, willing to contribute the one hundred works of art. The works had to be photographed, the pictures were processed and brought into the same resolution. The correct caption had to be formulated for each piece, the biography of every artist had to be looked into, a price had to be set in negotiation with the artists and these information had to be authored into an accompanying text to every image. Graphics and layout were at the same time developed by the graphic arts expert Gisela Knobel in close coordination with the specialized digital printing service provider MSDD that took on the printing and post production process.

The digital printing machines like the hp Indigo, on which also the substantial catalogue to this exhibition was printed, produce as fast as classical printing machines. A broad variety of different glossy and transparent paper qualities where deployed, as well as special colours giving a realistic and brilliant reproduction.

The production of this catalogue – creation of pictures, text, layout and prepress, finally printing, binding and finishing must not take more then ten days, or there would not have been a printed publication available at the exhibition. Such a time frame would just be impossible for classic printing.

Thereby for our catalogue we had been using only a small fraction of the additional options that digital printing provides compared to classical offset printing. Digitally printed books can be individually produced practically without additional costs, i. e. every book with exactly the content the buyer would want. For catalogues of large collections or museums, a number of special catalogues could be offered: didactic working books for schools that, e.g. would just cover one defined epoch; catalogues that show the exact hanging, i.e. the works of art in the very order, in which the visitor of the exhibitions will find them in the location – no limits are set to creativity. And the catalogues could consider always the latest acquisitions of the collection – they would never become outdated.

Books are useful, they do not need electricity, they are quite robust, get never blue-screened and they can be very well read even after centuries if taken good care. The materiality gives books their pleasing, haptical quality – they lie well in the hand. Printed books show a resolution and colour reproduction that cannot be reached by electronic screens today and for a long time into the future. However books seamed to become old-fashioned, slow and sluggish by the speed and the easy accessibility of digital publishing, particularly in the Internet.

Digital printing has been used mainly for job printing – personalized advertising mailings, leaflets, business cards and so on. Today digital production can revolutionize book printing – liberate the book from its ties to production and give to it wings, like Amor did with the turtle on our Emblem!

What remains of printing

[see german post]

Yesterday the printing house in our neigboroughood was getting rid of unuseful things. Lots of printing and typesetting tools, drawers and letter cases were on the street: bulky waste waiting for the garbagemen. Yesterday I already took a big “O” and three small letter cases with me to give them a new home. Today I came by the same place. The garbage pressing machine already hat eaten up and digested the bigger parts of the typesetting leftovers. The smaller ones which still lied on the sideway had been carefully picked up and swept away. Yet I found in the corners of the stone paving some minuscule leftovers – very tiny letters that had passed the brushes of the diligent garbagemen.

And looking at the tiny “ö” and the graceful “c” with the microscopic cedilla it touches me to think: How incredibly laborious it was to set types and to print. How incredible hard work it was to set all those so tiny little letters in their right place, to form words, sentences, whole books. And now I click on “publish” and everything is done.