A Brief History of Type

Since the beginning of time, and as far as Homo-Erectus exists, inscribing words, shapes, images, etc., called pictograms, has been the only way for people to send a written message – both among each other, and through time and history. The Mayas, Incas and Sumerians have given us a rich history of pictograms. They were sophisticated enough to baffle historians and linguists, and continue to do so even to this day.

As we know, Romans are those who actually gave us the written letters we know today. This is the legacy we still use. This is why most Western languages have their basis on the Latin (which had 22 characters). The difference between the written styles of ancient civilizations and the Roman culture is that for the latter each character represents a certain sound. In the ancient times before the Roman Empire, a pictogram would be a concept in itself. It had nothing to do with sounds.

Moving further in history, we come to the times when scribes would usually copy a book by hand. This process may usually take several years, especially for longer books like the Bible for example. Fonts were written in swirls, ornaments, colours, images throughout the text, heavy strokes, etc. To copy or write a book in those times was synonymous to art. Yet the only problem was that it took too much time and a lot of people had to do hard work.

The great revolution in the history of writing came with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. The year was 1440. This was a huge step forward, as copying a book would no longer require people to handwrite every word – it could finally happen mechanically. It was a quick and optimised process, which totally changed the world.

The printing press was basically a large machine using a mirror image of the letter to be printed, embossed on a metal block. To create this block, one uses a molten metal, poured into the letterform. Then these blocks are arranged and attached to a matrix that produces the final printed text.

The beauty of the handwritten letter from the old times continued to inspire the artisans during Gutenberg times. They tried to copy the curves and harmonic lines into the new typefaces for the printing press. As new horizons opened, artisans kept looking in different areas of history, and even towards ancient Roman texts for inspiration. They copied and varied the typefaces.

Historically, the invention of the printing press may have given the possibility for the protestant revolution to flourish. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to print all those copies of Martin Luther’s thesis and distribute them among the people.

The life of printers and artisans though wasn’t as happy as one may think. Many printers were hunted by government and authoritarian leaders who tried to stop them from printing sensitive texts and revolutionary ideas. These were hard times since change is never just for the best; it also questions the status quo.

As the printing press gradually became mainstream, many new similar inventions took place – the rotary steam press (which replaced labour work), photo-engraving, line-casting (reducing 85% of the time used by the original printing press), etc.

Linn Boyd Benton was the person to improve the punching mechanism (the heavy metal letter form). He introduced a technique, which could be used to flawlessly increase or decrease the size of a letter without the need for different punches for different sizes – he made the so-called pantographic device. Letters could be scaled proportionally without losing their readability. Thinner lines didn’t turn into ever thinner ones (and become virtually invisible) but actually could be made slightly thicker to balance the thick lines which remained thick in the resized version (proportionately to the letter itself).

And of course, we must mention the digital era. It all began in 1973 with the first PostScript to come to live around the 80s. Ink and laser printers also came to life and the newest technologies like Macintosh displays, computer operating systems, etc. took full advantage of the high-resolution printers. Since then many old-style, middle-age and gothic fonts were imported into these systems, and creating a font became accessible to almost everyone.

Back to the artisans, we see how each font has its own history. Claude Garamond was the founder of the popular font Garamond. He was the first artisan to actually make his typeface affordable and used throughout books and leaflets. He was inspired by the roman font Griffo.

Next in history, came the ‘transitional’ font. It was called this way because it was literally a transitional letter type between the old-style and the modern typeface. Popular representatives of this style are Baskerville and Fournier. Transitional font quickly moved to modern and it was easy to confuse one for the other. Bell and Bulmer are less popular transitional fonts.

The modern fonts Didot, Bodoni and Walbaum set their beginning around the late 1700s. The independent designer Giambattista Bodoni was considered the most influential among artisans in those times. There are many current-day interpretations of his font.

Later, letterforms like Sans Serif and Slab Serif became commonplace around the 1820s. A lot of variations came to life and today we still use these styles, although the earlier forms are long forgotten.

Besides these above fonts, which are mainly used in official texts, books and other printed materials, there are also decorative fonts. They are much more artistic and beautiful, but people are discouraged to use them for long texts (like books and articles). These changes began around 1820s. During the Victorian era, the 1880s, the Art Nouveau came to life. It was asymmetrical, lively and organic.

One of the latest (and most recent) trends among typefaces is the so-called ‘grunge’ type. It’s a brave mixture of the Art Nouveau styles (like Bauhaus) with a touch of the Dadaistic letter styles. The founder of the ‘grunge’ typeface is Carlos Segura. Many of today’s typefaces often challenge the old perceptions and can even go against the norm, sometimes to an unreasonable extent; other times to challenge the old rules and welcome fresh thinking.

New fonts and styles continue to flourish and come to life. Many people create fonts just as a hobby, others are professional designers. In any case, the typefaces continue to evolve and change, but the basic rules persist – the text should be readable. Every other font will remain decorative and will be used only for titles or mixed with visual design and imagery.

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Updated 14th May 2020