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What has ODI got to do with ET?

If you live in Highgate, near the cemetery, hearing a voicemail saying ‘I’ll be a bit late. I’m going via Marks & Spencer’, doesn’t necessarily mean what we’d assume it meant in any other part of the country.

We all know that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London. Less well known is that the tomb opposite Marx is that of Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher and biologist. So maybe they are taking the long walk home via the East Cemetery.

Of course, if it was a text message, we’d know if it was Marks or Marx. It would be ‘Marks & Spencer’, or more likely just ’M&S’. No-one would link the two Victorians together by an ampersand would they? I mean they weren’t a double act like Morecambe & Wise or Laurel & Hardy.

Marks & Spencer, when truncated to M&S, has spaces. Two people masquerading as one and are a single entity. So much so that we don’t think of them as people at all.

The power of the ampersand, is that it can be just an ‘and’, yet it can also carry so much extra significance. The ampersand shape derives from the Latin (and French) ‘et’ meaning ‘and’. It got played around with by different type designers, but the original ‘et’ can be seen clearly in the second and third examples above. It came out of the need to handwrite at speed. The symbol, ‘formerly known as And’, is unique in being almost a 27th letter. Of course there were other contractions and ligatures, which made writing and typesetting easier. Gutenburg’s type attempted to copy the forms of the scribes and in so doing copied their many contractions and shorthand tricks.

Ligatures (letters joined on one piece of metal type) were most commonly kept in the italic faces, where the slope of the letters made it hard to set them separately and still keep them close. Certain contractions survive, such as ff, fi, fl, ffl, not just because they are copies of the scribes writing, but because they read and look better.

The aim of the typesetter in justifying type is to maintain even word spacing. So, if even spacing is fundamental to legibility and ease of reading, why not range all text left? This is what Eric Gill advocated in his book ‘Typography’ of 1931, one of the simplest, yet most beautiful small books ever printed.

Ranging text left was not the only unusual feature. We think ranged left setting, especially in short measures avoids the overuse of hyphenation. But we still want to keep roughly even lengths of line. Gill decided to hyphenate and be damned. Harking back to the medieval manuscripts, which by necessity of saving vellum and the impossibility of rewriting lines, had a much more flexible approach to word-breaks. This was continued very noticeably in books by the ‘arts and crafts’ printers. They favoured the gothic and eschewed the classical. So, you see no centred title pages in Morris and his followers. What you do see is ranged left texts with (to our modern eyes) the most extraordinary word-breaks.

Gill uses (overuses) the ampersand wherever and whenever he sees fit, partly as an aid to creating more even word spacing and partly (I suspect) because he was so proud of his drawing of the &.

So, when Oxprint Design and Oxford Illustrators were joined as one in 1998, it was a great excuse to use the ampersand to seal their union in a way that ‘and’ would not have done.

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Written by Pete Lawrence