Writing is one of the most fundamental forms of communication, and it traces its roots back to hieroglyphs or pictograms. Used by ancient civilizations of the world to represent ideas, these images soon evolved into alphabets and phonographic writing, which led to the development of various typographic systems.
Typography has an “illustrious” history and is obviously a crucial aspect of graphic design. Sure enough, typeface designers need to have a thorough understanding of typography—especially its evolution over the centuries—in order to incorporate or revive older or even extinct typefaces, depending upon their requirements, and give the letters a modern touch.
Let’s go through the evolution of typography briefly to gain a bit of insight. We will not delve fully into the rich history of typography (as it can go on endlessly) but cover some essentials that changed the course of typography.
Ancient Era – Saying it with Pictures
Ancient cave paintings that date back to 20,000 B.C. are perhaps the very first recorded written communication. However, formal writing is said to have been developed by the Sumerians at around 3,500 B.C.
As civilizations advanced, the need to communicate complex concepts grew—hence the development of Egyptian hieroglyphics. By 3100 B.C., the Egyptians began incorporating symbols or ideograms into their art, architecture and writings. Also, by 1600 B.C. Phoenicians developed phonograms, or symbols used to represent spoken words. At present, we have a number of phonograms laced in the English alphabet such as % to represent “percentage” and # to represent “number” and so on and so forth.
It is Phoenicians who are credited with creating the very first alphabet and around 1000 B.C.—the same alphabet was used by the Greeks. In fact, the word Alphabet is a combination of the first two Greek letters, Alpha and Beta.
The Romans, after several years, used this Greek Alphabet and on the basis of the same, styled the Uppercase Alphabet, which is still used today. They also refined the art of handwriting and fashioned a number of different styles of lettering. Additionally, they also introduced different scripts – formal and informal for official and unofficial writings respectively.
The Middle Ages – Handwritten and Well-Illustrated Manuscripts
The Middle Ages were all about hand-written and well-illustrated manuscripts. It led to the evolution of a wide range of writing styles. Unicals and half unicals were prominent features, with rounded, elaborate lettering. The art of Calligraphy along with page layout and lettering forged new ground. Calligraphy masters travelled across the known world to share their knowledge with the educated elite.
Gutenberg and Modern Typography
As we all learned in history class, the development of moveable type and the printing press in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg was a turning point for the modern world—and, of course, modern typography. During this time, both practical and decorative typefaces appeared en masse, along with a lighter, more ordered page layout with subtle illustrations.
By the Industrial Revolution typography was all about communicating with the masses. Through signs, posters, newspapers, periodicals and advertisements, typefaces became larger and catchier, with bolder lettering and shading—as well as experimental serif and sans serif typefaces. Ornamental typography was another major highlight in this era. In the 1800’s, medieval art and hand crafted individual art has become commonplace, and international artistic styles developed considerably.
Shifting to the Present
Graphic designers these days have the luxury of endless tools and technology to create a wide range of typographic styles and even entire families of font families and typefaces. Armed with the knowledge of typographic history, graphic designers can expand their horizons and enhance their skills to produce a much more refined body of work.
Understanding the various visual communication principles in typography since the beginning of time can help designers determine which elements have more or less remained the same and which ones have evolved with time—as well as the factors that contributed to their success or failure.
From ancient typographic styles to classic movable type, the history of typography can help designers develop a more informed and cohesive style that builds on the past. There is so much to learn from the past, and so much inspiration to be discovered.
History also allows designers to learn from the past mistakes, understand common threads, reinvent classic letterforms and develop innovative typographic styles, which they can proudly add to an existing portfolio or body of work.
The practically-endless body of work that represents typography makes it impossible for graphic designers nowadays to become familiar with each and every typeface design that exists. However, it is important that to be well-versed in typographic styles, iconic typefaces from the past, and the origins of common typefaces. It’s not just about theoretical knowledge, either; a strong foundational understanding of typographic history helps designers understand and meet the needs of their clients more effectively.
The years between the mid-15th century and the early 18th century proved to be a time of many changes and developments in the world of typography. The development of the printing press influenced the development of full typefaces and their production rather than the job-specific approach that most typography was developed for. Nicholas Jenson was responsible for the development of the first full roman typeface, which was based on humanistic characteristics and was highly legible. Aldus Manutius proved influential in the world of printing and production while his punch cutter Francesco Griffo developed the first italic as a handwritten style designed to conserve space so that the books Manutius published could take a smaller form.
The Italian Renaissance of roman typography influenced the French which led to a period in which many developments occurred in both typography and printing. The push towards a higher quality of printing was led by several printers including Robert Estienne, Simone de Colines and Geofroy Tory. Apprenticing for de Colines and Estienne, Claude Garamond learned the trade of punch cutting and printing. After Estienne died, Garamond became the first to produce and sell typefaces to other printers. His style of type design moved even further from the style of calligraphy and his type designs were further developed by Jean Jannon who produced a set of roman and italics which were mistakenly attributed as Garamond’s all the way into the 20th century because of their resemblance.
An early sample of one of Jenson’s first Roman typefaces, published in 1475.
All printers and book publishers during the time produced samples of their typefaces for publication in small specimen books. The most notable is from Pierre Simon Fournier whose details of the practices of book publishing, punch cutting and typography provided a historical reference for the development of the trades. He also developed a system of type measurement, which was further developed by Francois Didot into the point based system that still exists today. Francois’ son, Firmin Didot, was one of the typographers responsible for the development of the modern roman style of type design, which is emphasized by a high contrast of strokes and hairline serifs. Giambattista Bodoni was the other typographer responsible for the development of the modern roman style and was instrumental in chronicling, developing and refining the production and use of metal type. He based his work on four properties that mad typography beautiful, uniformity of design, smartness and neatness, good taste, and charm.
In the early 18th century William Caslon led an effort to remove the English dependence on the production of Dutch typefaces and produced several types that, while somewhat retrogressive and more related to classical roman styles than the modern styles of Didot and Bodoni, quickly became the standard in the expansion of the British empire. The British empire spread the Caslon typefaces across the world and it was the standard of American printing for many years. An English businessman by the name of John Baskerville designed type that was based on the style of engravers rather than based upon handwriting. His transitional style bridged the gap between the classic roman and modern roman typefaces.
A specimen of an early typeface developed by Baskerville.