Generally speaking, ascenders and descenders should not touch each other in the text body. This is self-explanatory as it could lead to text that is difficult to read.

However, Erik Spiekermann points out that there are use cases that profit from partly overlapping letters, e. g. to render headings more forceful (Spiekermann 1986: 43).

He also provides an example (Spiekermann 1986: 42, arrows by me), which says:

There’s a rule according to which descenders and ascenders must never touch. There’s an exception to this rule which states that they may touch if it looks better.

In this example, the letter g touches the letters ü and R in the following lines.

Spiekermann 1986: 42

In digital typography, letters are not necessarily connected to the size of their “metal” block (which still exists virtually) anymore, e. g. in the font Amsterdamer Garamont, the lowercase h exceeds its block on the top while the lowercase p exceeds its block on the left and bottom side (Forssman and de Jong 2014: 86). The authors write (transl. by me):

In manual typesetting, this would not be possible; the overlapping parts of the letter would collide with the letters on the lines above and below, and break.

The question:

Before the invention of digital type, in manual typesetting with lead body type, how were overlapping letters produced, and how were the problems described above solved?

Works referenced:

Forssman, Friedrich and Ralf de Jong. Detailtypografie. Mainz 2014 (2002).

Spiekermann, Erik. Ursache & Wirkung: ein typografischer Roman. Erlangen 1986.

  • 6
    1986 isn't quite before the invention of digital type. In 1987 I was using a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to prepare the camera ready copy for my high school's newspaper. Professionals were able to to use devices like the Compugraphic 8400 and the Linotronic 110 since at least 1983.
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 19:58

3 Answers 3


Not all typesetting before the digital era was done using moveable metal type. In 1986, phototypesetting was already available, and had been since the 1950s.

Phototypesetting involved projecting letter forms onto strips of photographic film, for reproduction in offset lithography. The lines of text could then be cut and pasted onto the copy, and gaps between joining letters could be inked manually with a pen, then a negative could be imaged from the copy, then a printing plate made from that.

Example of how page layout and typesetting was done, before digital, but after the introduction of phototypesetting

enter image description here

And before you ask, yes I am old enough, and indeed it was how I learnt to do layout - just as digital methods began to be adopted widely within the industry in the latter half of the eighties and early nineties, and certainly by that time moveable metal type was viewed as a rather old fashioned technology.

  • Thanks for your answer. I can imagine how phototypesetting would yield a result like the overlapping letters in my question. But how would it be done using metal type? Spiral’s answer suggests it is impossible, at least in one pass, and if you leave out the overlapping letters at first, it would be very hard to manually fit them in afterwards.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 12:56
  • I'm not so sure. It's a little before my time! But since metal type was made of lead, which is quite malleable, I suppose it would have been easy enough to trim or file the metal type pieces down, so that they would touch. Two passes through a press are certainly a possibility too.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 13:14

Even when talking about metal type, letters were not all square. Take a look at this "f" for example, and you can see a bit that's protruding, and would make it overlap with the next character.

enter image description here

  • 2
    Does that mean that some letters would not fit next to each other? If you look at the picture in the question, there are parts of letters that overlap between the lines (though it was probably achieved via phototypesetting). Using letters like the one in your picture, this seems impossible to do in one print.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 12:52
  • 1
    I suppose there were also blank spacing blocks for these cases
    – Luciano
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 13:22
  • 1
    Yes, I suspect if there was an unwanted overlap, they'd add spaces
    – spiral
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 13:23
  • 6
    @Philipp the reason for the protrusion was to produce overlap; for uncommon pairs of letters, spacing would be required (for some common pairs ligatures were used). But the spacing was adjusted by hand anyway. This was horizontal though, as opposed to the vertical effect you show
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:17
  • 6
    @Philipp: Not only that, but type like the above needs to be set very carefully or else it will break. The overhanging part of the "f" needs to be over the blank part of another type piece or spacer. It can't be over part of another glyph, nor it can it be left hanging in space. Many type fonts used for lead-type printing avoid having any overhanging lead bits. Using ligatures like "Qu" can create the appearance of overhanging characters without having to actually have any lead outside a character block.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 19:44

I agree with @BillyKerr -- 1986 was at a minimum movable type and Photo Mechanical Transfers (PMT). In other words, absolutely hot type and not cold type. Also realize it was the early 80s when computers were starting to be in use. In the later 80s they were already becoming a staple of many workflows as the software started catching up. Photoshop, Illustrator, Freehand, Pagemaker, and QuarkXpress all existed by 1987. So it's also not impossible that the type was set on a computer in 1986.

But... if it had to be done with metal type..

A Double-Hit or Multi-Pass run would work

Remove the Gs.. print it.. put the Gs back, remove everything else.. hit it again.

Or just run every-other line once, then run the other lines as a second hit.

Printing presses are not restricted to doing everything in a single pass. In fact it is still very common today to see a multi-pass press run. Often varnishes or gloss is applied as a second pass, but you could just as easily run a second pass of ink. Some smaller offset presses only have 1 or 2 inkwells so they have to run a multi-pass system to print anything more than 1 or 2 colors.

It's impossible to tell in your attached image because it's a digital image, but when looking at a printed price on paper, in real life, not digitally.... with a linen tester/loupe... you can often see that the ink may be a touch more dense in the overlap areas... which would indicate a multi-pass of the ink.

enter image description here

  • Thanks, I really do appreciate the other answers for their information, but this one answers my question!
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 21:57
  • 4
    I was doing computer phototypesetting in 1983, and it had been available in some form since the late 50s. Read the Wikipedia article on “Phototypesetting” Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 5:16
  • 3
    I actually was in the field in the 80s as well. I'm old too :)
    – Scott
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 5:41
  • The image you show probably wasn't done in metal type-my guess is it's phototype, since it's Lo-Type which Spiekermann redrew for phototypesetting in 1980. For overlapping characters within a line, you could get ligatures in metal for many common combinations. Overlapping characters between lines (or a descender breaking into the space of another line) would be very difficult in metal. If you wanted to do that in metal you would probably have needed to draw a custom graphic.
    – Copilot
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 18:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.