I think a book could be written to adequately answer your question.
And, I'm working on it!!! But here is a short response. If you look at
typeface design as being technologically based, what works for one
technique doesn't work well for another.
What we call letterpress (mechanical writing) would initially have
been an attempt to capture the organic nature of the handwritten word.
Recent discoveries regarding the way punches and casting may have been
used by the early printers would seem to lend legitimacy to this.
Eventually, with the need no longer there, mechanical letter design
would begin to follow a more standardized approach better suited to
the technology of its actual production. While it could be said that
punchcutters did not consciously design a face for letterpress they
were obviously aware of what would work and what would not.
Offset lithography required a different method for design and a
different need with the printing method. Devices like thorns are often
seen in photo-offset where they were not used in letterpress. Ink
traps, which did show up in later metal faces, were as well not
uncommonly used in photo-offset faces. The optical variances in
generating photofilm and the differing printing application required a
different technical approach to typeface design.
In printing history, the term "type designer" shows up quite late.
Typeface design aesthetic is actually a relatively new phenomenon in
the sense that it could be seen as divorced from technical needs. But
it is not and I think the digital realm has created its own history
and is a bit misleading. But, essentially, a face that is designed to
perform well digitally is not the same as one that was designed for
letterpress or for photo-offset.
Specifically, letterpress presents two important technical differences
from other printing. Impression and accumulating ink gain. Digital
typefaces don't have to deal with this and most recreations of metal
faces have been altered for the digital environment. Those that
haven't, such as the Lanston faces, don't really work that well in
many digital applications, as they are too structurally weak and
spindly. They generally convert well to letterpress for this very reason.
So, the search for the ideal digital typeface has less to do with its
design than certain technical attributes to that design that will
allow it to perform well on the letterpress printed page.
Have I shed any light in this furtive response or just mucked up the
waters even more?
> Regarding the question of which typefaces are good for letterpress. . .
> Can I go out on a limb and ask something that may be incredibly naive?
> In my experience, I would say most typefaces work fine for letterpress.
> Those that I would say don't work for letterpress fail because they are
> poorly designed to begin with, and wouldn't work well for any kind of
> publishing. I'm curious to know if anyone can give a more general sense
> of what characteristics (rather than specific fonts) work well or
> poorly. Is their performance really specific to letterpress, or is it a
> more general design quality? If it is specific to letterpress, what
> part of the printing process reacts poorly with what characteristic of
> the type?
> Kim Vanderheiden