The joy of Letraset

  • 16 September 2013
Designer using early Letraset

Letraset, the rub-on lettering firm, has shifted manufacture from Kent to China and France. The thought of those plastic transfer sheets is enough to take you back in time, writes Kathryn Westcott.

Some products are inextricably infused with nostalgia. Letraset is one of them. Sheets of film that would be rubbed with the end of a pencil to give way to beautifully formed letters - as long as you had a steady hand and the patience of a saint.

Which child of the 70s could forget those Action Transfers? The rub-down pictures allowed you to create your own action-packed scene - anything from 15th Century jousters to deep sea divers (about to be devoured by an enormous squid, depending on how your composition panned out).

Letraset
Some people would give anything for this collection Photo: Christophe Stoll/ Flickr

Letraset launched its transfer lettering system in 1961.

Graphic designers and architects embraced it with gusto.

But so did amateur bedroom publishers. Letraset became synonymous with music fanzines and school magazines.

"I first used Letraset when editing the school magazine in the 1970s," says Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, "and buying new sheets was the equivalent of buying a new LP by T. Rex or Bowie - incredibly exciting.

"The problem was, applying it was much harder than it looked and it could be very frustrating on deadline. There were always bits that wouldn't transfer properly, and it was almost impossible to keep the words straight, and one would always run out of 'e'.

Early Mute logo
The original Mute Records logo came from a Letraset sheet of architectural symbols

"The range included all the standard popular fonts, but there was a sort of anarchic freedom to the wilder designs, something indelibly linked to the 60s and 70s and now much used in retro branding."

With their DIY philosophy, young punk rockers embraced Letraset for their gig posters and record sleeves.

On Twitter, the hashtag #Letrasetmemories, started by John Walters of graphic design magazine Eye, is being used to gather anecdotes.

@DansChirp recalls: "The creativity needed when running out of letters, like capital A, and having to invert and modify a capital V."

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