ETAOIN SHRDLU, Such Sweet Sorrow

ETAOIN SHRDLU, Such Sweet Sorrow

Before the advent of computers, laying out a page meant truly laying objects out. Solid, tangible pieces to be arranged and re-arranged. Today, many designers are rediscovering how pivotal this physical process can be in design. We count ourselves among them.

Printing and drawing and scribbling things out, moving them around in physical space, revising in real time, in the real world. Computers are masters of efficiency and speed, but those traits don’t always play well with creativity and innovation. It helps to get out of the glowing box, out of your head, and start physically making things.

So it’s with wonder and no small amount of respect that we watched this swan song of the New York Times’ Linotype, Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu.

Clunky. Loud. Inefficient. Human. Look at the editorial and design process at 9:20. Old school layout. We love it.

You’re probably wondering, as we were, about the origin of the title. (Watch the documentary!) But as a spoiler: the left two columns of a Linotype keyboard contained the letters e, t, a, o, i, n and s, h, u, r, d, l, u, respectively. If a printer made an error in a line of type, they’d finish off the line with ETAOIN SHURDLU to let the printer know that they should throw that line away.

So let’s bid etaoin shurdlu for the Linotype, but hold on to the lessons its real world craftsmanship can teach us.

You can read more about the documentary and the transition from hot to “cold” typesetting in this article from Open Culture.