A Brief History of Typography

A brief history of the art of Typography


Typography, just what exactly do we mean?


Typography is the name given to the creation of letters used in everyday printing such as signs, newspapers, books and magazines to name but a few.


Many people often confuse typography with fonts or typefaces and believe all three to be the same thing and largely interchangeable, which is untrue.


Fonts are a pack of letters and symbols, they come as a complete set and are the nuts and bolts used to get your message across in print to your audience.  However, a typeface is the design of the font, the specific look and feel of it, how it looks on the page.


The creation and evolution of typeface has been, largely down to advances in technology, going from the practical fonts used on the original printing presses through to typewriters, word-processors and the internet.


Johannes Gutenburg


In 1456 a man by the name of Johannes Gutenburg released for public use, a forty two line Bible (the name referring to the amount of lines per column) which experts are agreed was so technically efficient in its construction that it was clearly printed as opposed to handwritten which, up until this point, all written works had been by necessity.


This was to change the way print was consumed forever as previously, books and works of print were very time consuming and costly to produce with scribes being paid for each page they were able to write out per day.  The printing press was to change all that.


The Bible was printed in a medieval typeface entitled simply ‘blackletter’ and was widely adopted as the standard for it was practical and dark in appearance, although sometimes rather difficult to read, especially when Gutenburg used the same to produce his second work, the Catholicon which condensed the font more than the Bible, giving the typeface a blurred appearance as though each letter were bleeding into its neighbor.




It did not take long for printers to decide that another typeface was needed, one that was to be more legible than the standard blackletter.


Nicolas Jenson felt inspired upon seeing inscriptions engraved upon ancient buildings of the Roman era and stepped up to the challenge and created a new typeface.  Roman Type quickly became the favored method, replacing the largely illegible blackletter.


Saving money

In the early 1500s, a man named Aldus Manutius hit upon a way to fit more words onto the paper without compromising the ability to read the letters clearly.  This saved the print-houses money by saving paper and wages by giving them the ability to print far more onto each page.


Manutius was running his own print-house in the beginning part of the 16th century and had working for him as a cutter and designer a man named Francessco Griffo who made Manutius’ company a leading name in print with his new typeface.


Thus Italics were born.  This highly decorative, slightly sloped typeface is used today for emphasis on certain words or to add creative flair to greeting cards and decorative works, however its creation was, again, the product of the evolution of the printed word.


For over 200 years, little advancement was made in the creation of new typefaces as both Roman Type and Italics were used to great effect and as such, no new solutions were needed.  That is until the mid 1700s.


The 18th and 19th Century


In 1734, William Caslon saw the need for a straighter variant of both the Italic and Roman Type typeface structures thus giving a better contrast between bold and thinner strokes.  This collection of straight serifs quickly became popular and evolved into what we would recognize today as Old Style typeface.


This new and innovative typeface was cut and set in blocks that was easy on the eye and made reading the text a lot easier than the highly elegant, but at times inappropriately decadent italic typeface.  Indeed, it was so well received that Benjamin Franklin introduced Old Style typeface to the Americas where a Baltimore printers produced and released official copies of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America using the Old Style typeface.


Seeing that new typefaces and the need for variations was a popular move, this led to many advancements in typefaces including John Baskerville’s Transitional Type.  Based around the Roman style but borrows from the Old Style with a collection of contrasting thick and thin lines.  This style was far more angular though with sharp serifs giving the impression that Baskerville, a professor in the art of calligraphy, wished to bring a far more aesthetically pleasing aspect to the design over the functional and practical typeface designs of the recent past.


As a book designer, John Baskerville tended to put far more emphasis on the typographer than the illustrator within his works, wishing that the words themselves became a celebrated piece of art in their own right and achieved a heightened level of contrast through the use of special papers to produce his most famous printed work, the Cambridge Bible in 1763.


Giambattist Bodoni and Firmin Didot took the contrast far further with their more modern Roman typefaces, giving the font a much fresher look overall.  Paving the way for Vincent Figgins in 1815 who pioneered the Egyptian typeface, sometimes known as the Slab Serif which were far more boxlike in appearance.


The early foundations of today’s Sans Serif typefaces were first showcased by William Caslon IV in 1816 when he unveiled his serif-less typeface.


It was at this time that many typefaces were created, too many to keep track of individual creators, and was largely to meet the demands of the rapid growth in the advertising industry.


A rising tide of newspapers and magazine productions, specifically in the field of entertainment for women, along with the creation of small comic books and short stories such as the Penny Dreadful series meant that printers needed more and more varieties of typeface to keep their readers interests.  From plain, easy to read fonts imparting the news, to the more emotional and fanciful text for woman’s romance, health and housekeeping magazines, all added to the constant evolution of the art of typography.


The 20th Century and Present Day


The 20th century saw the rise of far more aesthetically pleasing works as the creation of typefaces became far more about the essence and style of the actual words on the page rather than the information that they were being used to convey.  This was hugely apparent in the rising arts and crafts movement of the early 20th century with the famed William Morris adding his creative endeavors to the world of modern book production with his works having a huge influence on typeface designers at this time.


Artists began experimenting with different uses of typeface, and one such typographer, Bruce Rogers, a trained artist, produced what is now considered to be one of the most beautifully published Bibles ever produced in English; the Oxford Lectern Bible, completed in 1935 and incorporated the use of his highly decorative, ornamental typeface Centaur throughout the majority of the book.  Although deemed far too complicated and elegant for everyday use, this typeface added an aesthetic to the book, this making the publication a work of art in its own right.


By the 1920s, it was clear that typeface design had well and truly taken hold and Frederic Goudy was named as the first ever type designer, creating many innovative and unique typefaces on a full time basis.  These included Goudy Old Style, Copperplate Gothic and Kennerly, to name but a few.


Goudy also penned a number of written works on the subject of typography, in particular, two journals entitled Ars Typographica and Typographica where he attempts to explain his views of the use of lettering in art and design and went on the produce more works based on his theories of typography including The Alphabet and Elements of Lettering.

As with many publishing and creative endeavors, typography was halted during the horrors of both world wars as print became far more functional and published works were to convey news of the war effort and were no longer a place for masters of the craft to showcase their abilities.


However, once the wars had ended, the art thrived once more as many typographers took up the craft thus allowing for further evolution.


In 1957 a designer from Switzerland named Max Miedinger developed arguably one of the most used and recognized typefaces of all time.  He called it Helvetica and was a throwback to the simpler, more minimalistic forms of typeface.  He is often given credit for the creation of Futura typeface also, as this was also produced around the same time as Helvetica, however there is no concrete evidence that Miedinger was responsible for both typefaces.


Thanks to the technological advancements of word-processors, computers, specialized arts packages such as Indesign and Photoshop, and the rise of blogging sites like The Blog Starter, we now have hundreds of varieties of typefaces to choose from.  As programs and hacks are commonplace it has opened up the world of typography to everyone who wishes to indulge in the art and as such has given us far more scope in our levels of design that simply would not have been possible a mere few hundred years ago.