How Letraset Transformed Graphic Design

Letraset in use in advertising design. Still taken from the documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production.

In an age before computers made layout almost effortless, Letraset revolutionised typesetting – letting designers create headlines in mere minutes. In this extract from Lawrence King's updated edition of 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, the authors chart the decades when a British company's rub-on lettering (and its knock-offs) were ubiquitous in every design and advertising agency in the UK, Europe, the US and beyond.

Presented at first as an alternative to hand lettering, dry transfer letterforms stood, for a brief moment, at the intersection of crafts and technology. Easy to use, the method nonetheless required some dexterity. Words had to be set carefully, one letter at a time, and rubbed down in perfect alignment. When done correctly, it could replace traditional typesetting. Anyone could feel the rush of composing elegant headlines within minutes.

For a graphic designer in the 1970s, holding a brand-new polyester sheet of 24 point Helvetica Medium Condensed, its neat rows of caps and lower cases ready to be applied on a clean surface, was pure ecstasy.

Letraset, a UK company specialising in art supplies, was the main provider of these handy alphabets, which were ubiquitous in design studios worldwide because they could be used to create high-quality camera-ready artwork. Even though setting headlines with these decals required a sure hand and a keen understanding of typographical rules (once the letters were down you could not move them), the result could be stunning: depending on how much pressure you had applied, the words or sentences could look letterpressed or silkscreened.

Letraset Ltd / Ahmad Sha'ath. Image shows a Hebrew version of Letraset.

The idea of transferring motifs from one surface to another used to be called ‘decalcomania’. It was popular in the nineteenth century for pressing decorative patterns on to everything from plates to guitars. The Surrealists used the same word to describe a way of applying uneven pressure on a thin layer of gouache to give it a mysterious looking texture. In the 1950s, ready-to  transfer cartoon characters were popular with children. But kids had trouble mastering the delicate process, involving sliding the wet images off their transparent backing onto a page, resulting in crumpled figures so bizarre they inspired the term ‘cockamamie’, a deformation of ‘decalcomania’.

Decals today are peel-off designs, their sticky backing formulated to bond permanently with anything from automotive parts, model aeroplanes and surfboards to mobile phones, computer cases, furniture and walls. Letraset is no longer known for its innovative transfer letters – the company went back to its craft roots, selling such products as self-sticking adhesive film and metallic ink markers.

Cockamamie is not dead, though. Wallpaper manufacturers are now proposing lines of mural-size rubdowns that reproduce eccentric or quirky patterns designed by artists whose sensibility is steeped in comic book culture. Domestic, a French company, publishes wall stickers by avant-garde European graphic designers such as Antoine+Manuel, Marti Guixé, Geneviève Glaucker and Ich&Kar.

Ich&Kar (2007)

100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design can be purchased in the UK and US from Lawrence King and worldwide from Amazon.

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