Font for DEC indicator panels

Paul Koning paulkoning at
Tue Nov 13 07:38:27 CST 2018

> On Nov 13, 2018, at 8:08 AM, Toby Thain via cctalk <cctalk at> wrote:
> On 2018-11-12 9:51 PM, Fred Cisin via cctalk wrote:
>> [Top posted to avoid trimming information that might be useful to many]
>> IFF DEC used a commercial font, then it should be possible to find it.
> Another plan of attack could be to find the corporate standards manuals
> that applied during the period.
> DEC is known for strict publication standards and typographic attention
> to detail so it's likely that there existed an internal written design
> standard for front panels that spelled out the information we are
> looking for. Are the DEC archives accessible?

It would be great to find those but I haven't heard that they exist.

The information might not be clear even if it's found.  For example, there is a copy of the DEC color standard online.  But the color references it gives are largely in obsolete systems, not the well understood Pantone system.  So even if they can be translated the job is not easy.

As for fonts, one comment says that those panels are "typeset".  Don't count on that.  Those that come from the era of phototypesetting might be, but phototypesetting was only just starting to appear when the earlier of those panels showed up.  And while a phototypesetter might be used in the documentation department, it would seem like an expensive and underused tool for the department responsible for panel lettering.  Standard templates seems more likely.

Consider the history of the "digital" logo, as documented in the PostScript reconstruction of it.  That's clearly an example where the lettering was done by a draftsman and reused ever since.

Re Guy Dunphy's images: font_2 looks a lot like Microgramma, one of my favorite fonts.  But it's not an exact match because the horizontal and vertical segments are curved in letters like O rather than being straight.  font_3 looks like the "digital" blocks logo without the blocks, so you might grab the PostScript file to see if that works.

On font names: "grotesk" (or "grotezk" in German) is a technical term for sans-serif fonts, so it applies to things like Helvetica and Futura.  (Another term is "gothic" -- confusing to laymen who think of that as a term for "Old English" fancy fonts, which it is not.)  Up to the 1970s or so, you'd typically find a given font design with a single name, chosen by the original designer and used as the trademark by the foundry selling that font.  "Helvetica" and "Futura" are examples.  Later, people started copying fonts when computers made that easy, and US law allows this because it protects the name, as a trademark, but not the shape.  This is why early versions of CorelDraw shipped with hundreds of familiar fonts with unfamiliar new names, like "Swiss" instead of "Helvetica" , or "Gatineau" (?) instead of "Garamond".  Microsoft adopted this trick also, giving us Arial (Helvetica) and "Times New Roman" (Times Roman) among many others.  At this point, you're likely to find the most popular fonts with hundreds of names.  By the way, copies are often inferior (the CorelDraw ones for example) in that they have a lot more line segments since they are essentially tracings of the original rather than expertly constructed shapes.

If you can't find a good font, you can definitely trace the original images and make your own.  That's more work than you might expect but with modern tools it isn't hard.  I've done that with the DEC custom font that is used on the covers of the earlier PDP-11 handbooks and manuals, a long time ago with CorelDraw which isn't a good tool for that job.


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