Aaron Burns

The impeccable typographic middle-man

Composing Room specimen booklet designed by Aaron Burns.

Aaron Burns was born in 1922 in Passaic, New Jersey, and began his career in design as an apprentice to a graphic designer after he left the Army at the end of World War II. That job led to other short spells in design until making the transition to the typesetting side of things. In 1952 he became director of design and typography at the Composing Room, an important and influential typesetting shop in New York, where he worked with some of the best typographic designers on the cusp of the typographic revolution. He eventually opened his own business in 1963, and in 1970 together with Herb Lubalin and Ed Rondthaler he founded International Typeface Corporation. ITC developed new typefaces and marketed them to subscribers, and was one of the first type companies to pay a royalty to the designer and also one of the first to focus on licensing typeface designs separate from physical typesetting equipment.

His time and position in the major New York typesetting shops gave him a platform for typographic experimentation. It is during that period that Burns developed into a keen typographic ‘middle-man’, whose great insight, taste, and interpretations would bridge the wide gap between the designer and typesetter, who impossibly expected each to know the minute details of the other’s respective craft. He was very active in educating designers about the potentials of typography, teaching about it in design schools but also creating forums for discussions about the state of type. He was chairman of the world’s first seminar on typographic design, “The Art and Science of Typography” in 1958, and in 1959 he chaired the “Typography U.S.A.” forum which presented some of the best typographic design in the country. He also sought to bridge the gap between American and European typography, helping to connect and inform each side of what was happening across the ocean. He co-founded the International Center for the Typographic Arts, which had more than 1,000 members in 33 countries.

Aaron left an indelible mark on the way typographic design was shaped. Without him the design and typography would have been starkly different, and much worse off.

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