Typography is a term that refers to the usage of reusable parts of metal or wood to print a letterform – a type.
Before that, calligraphy was the method used to communicate all social events.
Nowadays, typography represents both the technique and the computer produced-text applied to design. It’s also an independent design field of study.
Even though it was invented in the 15th century, and over time gained new interpretations, the History of typography starts with the visual representation of language.
As such, on this page, we will see it from both lenses. Firstly, by presenting some of the History, and secondly, from a technical point of view.
If you would like to know more, please check the links on each section. Most likely, there is (or will be) an in-depth post on each of the subjects.
The invention of writing and Alphabets
At the beginning of the Sumerian writing, symbols were a representation of animated and inanimate objects. However, over time, they became ideographs – exhibiting abstract ideas.
As cuneiform writing gave way to rebus, symbols became more phonograms than ideographs.
Design History: key moments you should know
The discovery of printing and invention of movable type
Besides being one of the best creations in Human History, printing made typography a possibility.
Even though it was invented in China, movable type wasn’t viable for producing thousands of characters from the Chinese language.
On the other hand, in Europe, the production of books was slow and expensive, so printers were looking for alternatives.
In 1450, Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg from Germany was the first one to produce and print a typographic book, the forty-two-line Bible.
Garamond is a notable historic figure in typography.
In 1530, he established an independent type foundry and started to sell cast type without being linked to a print shop. In a way, he was a freelancer.
With his work, type moved away from being calligraphy-based and became more type-process influenced.
Romain du Roi
The French king Louis XIV assembled a committee to develop a new typeface in 1692. He wanted a type that was designed by scientific principles, to be used only by the Imprimerie Royale.
Thus, the Romain du Roi was designed on a grid with an even balance. It was the first step towards a bigger verticality in type.
Civil war, religious persecution, and censorship created a harsh environment in England. As a result, design ideas and materials were mainly imported from Holland. That was until William Caslon appeared.
After training as an engraver of gunlocks, Caslon learned type design and casting, with almost immediate success.
In the next sixty years, all English printers used Caslon’s fonts and popularized them around the globe. His work notoriety was due to the legibility and sturdiness compared to types like Romain du Roi.
Baskerville was not only a skillful type master but most importantly, he was involved in all the steps of bookmaking. Designing, casting, setting type, and publishing his printed books were some of the many things that he was involved in.
His types, which are still known today, mark the transition between Old Style and Modern Type design.
However, Baskerville’s work was not appreciated in the British Isles as it was considered amateurish and of poor quality.
Bodoni was the son of an Italian printer.
He was determined to travel to England to work with Baskerville, but was asked to be in charge of the Stamperia Reale, and became the private printer of the Italian court, instead.
At that point, all forms of design were moving away from the Rococo style to something more modern. Bodoni helped to lead that new idea in typeface and page layout.
In his mind, it was time to standardize units to construct and measure type and to end decorative work that risked efficiency.
The Didot family became an important house of printers, publishers, and typefounders. It was first established by François Didot in Paris.
Their experimentations led to the inventing of the thin (maigre), and fat (gras) styles, that became our condensed and expanded fonts.
In the middle of the 19th century, presses could produce twenty-five thousand copies per hour. However, each letter had to be set by hand, making the process slow and costly.
To change that, Ottmar Mergenthaler, invented the first machine that composed type – the Linotype machine – in 1886.
And even though this new technology created thousands of new jobs, it also threatened several hundreds of hand-type-setters, skilled in this field.
Moholy-Nagy was a law man that turned to art.
He experimented with many areas, but his contribution to typography is one of the most important.
He wanted to create a new language that showcased typography as a tool for clear and legible communication, followed by esthetics.
Jan Tschichold and the new typography
Inspired by Moholy-Nagy and his work in the Bauhaus School, Jan Tschichold is another personality to keep in mind when it comes to typography.
Tschichold believed in using typography without ornaments. As a result, he was an avid defender of using sans-serif type in several weights and proportions. The core of the new typography was to develop form through function and to react against German and Swiss types from 1923. Clarity was the most relevant aspect of the text.
Contrarily to his early work, in the 40s, he conducted an international revival of traditional typography, with his work for Penguin Books.
Type in the first half of the 20th century
The enthusiasm for Tschichold’s work and the use of new typography gave way to the creation of multiple san-serifs styles during the 1920s.
Eric Gill was a multifaceted designer that shaped typography’s History.
Around 1925, he challenged the Monotype Corporation to design type and developed his first type, Perpetua.
Gill’s work became appraised due to his original take on historical influences.
Another Great designer, Paul Renner, who worked for the Bauer foundry, designed Futura, one of the most widely used geometric sans-serif family.
The international style
In the 50s, a new design movement called Swiss design or International Type Style emerged from Germany and Switzerland.
The practitioners that defended this movement believed that sans-serif expressed a progressive age and that grids are the best means for organizing information.
Ernest Keller was one of the leading professionals of Swiss design. He defended that rather than applying a style, the solution to a designer problem should be connected to its content.
In the 50s, several new sans-serif type families emerged due to the popularisation of the International Typographic Style.
Fonts such as Univers designed in 1954 by Adrian Frutiger and Helvetica, designed by Edouard Hoffman and Max Miedinger, were born in this period.
Helvetica: the story of the most famous Swiss typeface
Forty years after Tschichold and his new approach to typography, Wolfgang Weingart begin to question the absolute order and cleanness of type use.
In his work, he moved away from type-only design and embraced mixing techniques such as collage to create new unique visual expressions.
His approach spread to America, where designers were starting to shift away from sans-serif and grid compositions.
David Carson and the personal computer
In the early 90s, designers were exploring the unprecedented possibilities generated by computers and computer software. David Carson was one of them.
Carson, who started his career as a professional surfer and high-school teacher, became a self-made designer in the 80s and a controversial professional in the 90s.
His work pushed type to new directions, sometimes even crossing the line between eligibility and visual expression. And while the younger designers loved his work and were inspired by it, experienced professionals weren’t so easily impressed and questioned his ideas.
Digital type foundry
An explosion of new typefaces occurred during the 90s when font-design software for computers became available.
Before the digital age, when designers developed new types, they had to consider the constrictions of equipment into account.
However, with digital, they started to think about different output devices and different usage contexts since the production of type documents were no longer reserved exclusively to designers.
Digital type foundries decentralized the creation, distribution, and usage of type fonts which resulted in both beautiful new and innovative fonts as well as very poorly design specimens.
Calligraphy, lettering, and type
Although used as synonyms by many people, including designers, these terms concern different methods and should be used accordingly.
Hand painting signs: making a strong comeback
Knowing letter anatomy has many advantages, not only to type designers but all areas of design.
It allows for placing a font in a specific period and increasing the changes to correctly font pair.
How to font pair effectively: tricks and tools
Readability and legibility
These two concepts might appear to be the same, but they present different aspects to think about when you’re working with typography.
When it comes to applying type for the web, there are several things at stake. Preloading, usage of font systems, and accessibility are only a few.