A look into the history of typography

DATE:December 5, 2016

Typography has been around for hundreds of years but especially came into prevalence with digital age, when thousands of typefaces became easily accessible to the general public. For this reason, it is important for graphic designers and marketers to be familiar with the different styles and even the history of the typefaces to better understand how and when to use them.

800 AD

  • Chinese monks invent the first style of printing in 868 called “the Diamond Sutra” which uses wood blocks to transfer characters onto paper. The Europeans later use this method, which they called xylography, until the invention of moveable type.
  • Early fonts are based on handwritten figures. 

1400’s

  • Johannes Gutenberg invents moveable type in Germany, in 1450, leading to his development of the printing press. This changes the entire speed and production level of the printing industry across Europe. Moveable type is invented in China around the same time.
  • The prevalent font in Germany is a long and narrow calligraphic style called Blackletter, known today as Gothic. Modern fonts in this style include Gutenberg and Fraktur.
  • In Italy, gothic style fonts were given a softer spin, becoming the Humanist style. This features stout letters with firm, straight crossbars, like those found in Centaur and Jenson today.

1500’s-1700’s

  • Typographers begin experimenting with designing their own typefaces, resulting in a style called “Old Style” which includes fonts such as Garamond and Goudy Old Style. These fonts still have calligraphic tendencies, with letter strokes closely relating to how a scribe would hold an ink pen.
  • During the 1700’s, called the Transitional period, letters become more curved and elegant, with stark contrasts between thick and thin strokes, similar to the font Baskerville.

1800’s

  • Posters become prevalent as one of the first printed forms of advertisement, used to promote political parties, recruit soldiers, advertise products and spread ideas to the public. It becomes common to see many different styles of bold typeface used in one poster to better attract the eye of a passerby.
  • The Slab Serif typeface is born in Britain around 1810. These thick, blocky letters are widely used in print material, from newspapers to pamphlets and posters.
  • The first successful typewriter is created by Milwaukee newspaperman Christopher L. Sholes in 1874.
  • The era of the newspaper begins in the late 1800’s and fonts are created bolder but with thick, blocky serifs and a very uniform stroke to make the newspaper printing process faster. This style is called Slab and features fonts similar to Rockwell and Clarendon.

1900-2000’s

  • Sans-serif (without serif) typefaces are created in this period and are initially thought to be ugly compared to the elegant stroke of the calligraphic-inspired fonts of past years. These characters featured geometric-inspired shapes with no or very little stroke contrast. Typography styles sans-serif developed during this time include Humanist, Neo-Grotesque and Geometric. Franklin Gothic, Helvetica and Optima are a few fonts that were invented during these periods.
  • The first website is created in 1990, beginning the rise of the digital age and web fonts. Today, the internet allows typographers access to endless typeface usage and creation.

Now that we’ve briefed you on a condensed history of typeface, check out some of our other posts about fonts, including the language of typography, choosing the right ones for your marketing campaign, and how they can influence your audience.

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