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100 years ago, it was the typeface of the future

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  October 8, 2013 08:02 PM

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Shadow type is a third grader's friend when he wants to make a book report spiffy. Now that relief lettering is found in every word processing program, it's fun to think about a time when it was cutting edge. In a new book, "Shadow Type: Classic Three-Dimensional Lettering," Steven Heller, cochair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts, and Louise Fili, a graphic designer, take a visual tour through the heyday of shadow type. "It started in the late 18th century when engravings began," Heller says. "Typography was looked at as more than just sitting on the page, it was looked at as jumping off the page." Shadow type originated in the 18th century but went mainstream in the first decades of the 20th century, when it became ubiquitous on signs, posters, catalogs, advertisements, magazine covers, logos, and trademarks. Shadow type even became the unofficial typeface of the fascists in Italy (see the second image below), which for a time made it a slightly less popular design option in America. Shadow type isn't novel anymore, but Heller explains designers still turn to it whenever they want "a bit of dimension or monumentality, or to echo the 19th or early 20th centuries."

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Images courtesy of Steven Heller.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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