DTP Graphic Design book cover multi-typefaces poor design.

I was conversing with a fellow graphic designer recently and mentioned how today we enjoyed the many benefits of DTP (desktop publishing). The designer was somewhat taken aback (with good reason – as noted below). And I realized that the term DTP is almost never used any more, having slowly vanished from the lexicon of most graphic designers.

For the uninitiated, DTP seriously began back somewhere in the dark ages of the mid-1980s when personal computers were just starting to be powerful enough to handle typefaces and layout duties in a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) environment. (I know some historians consider the machines of the 1970s as DTP capable – but that’s sort of pushing the idea as they were slow, expensive, and not easy to use for the most part).

Of course the term DTP is a little misleading since before computerized layout came onto the scene, the ability to shoot plates from typed sheets of paper or the like for offset printing made it practical to cobble together paper versions of a book or newsletter and put it into print.

Small presses, self publishers, and others who could never afford big typesetting equipment assembled their publications with scissors and glue pots. This “DTP” was a matter of rubber cement, cut and paste — with scissors and real paper — and rub-on capital type that invariably was a little cockeyed to the page. Often an electric typewriter supplied the columns of type to be glued into place, with typos corrected by another layer of type glued on top of everything.

It was a horribly sticky process. And quite intoxicating.

Literally, due to the fumes from the glue.

So when computerized DTP became cheap enough for the masses, it was revolutionary. Columns became straighter, justification became practical, and there were no glued sections slipping around between the layout table and the print shop.

There were new eyesores.

Perhaps the worst resulted due to the growing wealth of typefaces (aka “fonts”) available to designers. Umpteen different ones could be placed on a page with ease, and for those typeface-starved folks in the 1980s, it was often too tempting not to add as many different fonts as the designer could manage.


Lots of fun.

And quite ugly.

Today all but the greenest of designers have learned to limit typefaces to one or two on a page, so that even though thousands of choices are available, only some of the classics are regularly used (with the possible exception of titling on genre books where weird and grungy is often acceptable if not expected).

So the DTP child once sick through the overindulgence of typeface eye candy, eventually got over the illness and learned to consume fonts with caution. Reason finally prevailed.

That said, I do still mix types once in a while, even within the words of a title. But I try to do so in subtle ways that hide the fact or allow me to achieve some weird effect, like a skull instead of an “O” in a mystery title. But even that sort of use is becoming a bit clich├ęd and likely will be laughable before long (fashion being that thing that looks great today and funny tomorrow.)

As for the acronym “DTP,” it’s pretty much vanished from the language of designers. That’s likely because of the somewhat negative connotation it gained. DTP brings to mind some poor rube cobbling together a monstrosity of typefaces and poor design in the old tradition of the good, the bad, and the (muli-font) ugly of the recent past.

Besides which, all graphic design for print is basically DTP for all practical purposes. That’s all there is today with the exception of those few brave souls still setting type by hand or on a typesetting machine.

Too, think how much more refined “graphic design” sounds when set alongside “DTP.”

I know which I’d rather be doing.

When not reminiscing about those heady days of rubber cement layout, Duncan Long works as a graphic designer, creating book covers and illustrations for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, Fort Ross, ISFiC Press, and many other publishers as well as self-publishing authors. You can find examples of his graphic design work at: http://DuncanLong.com/art.html