A Brief Historical Overview of Typography Trends

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Typography has existed for thousands of years in various forms. Before we dive into the historical progression of this art, however, let’s start out with a solid definition.

What is Typography?

Typography is simply the art of letters and arranging type. That is, the evolution of type faces over time and how handwriting transformed into printed type.

Aside from the typeface, the other vital facets that make up the art of typography are known as point size, line length and leading. Further aspects to take into consideration are tracking (space between groups of letters, or words) and kerning (the space between individual letters).

Beginnings of Typography

Credit: oldmantravels

Around 5000 years ago, prior to the printed letters we typically think of that constitute typography today; the ancient Chinese, Sumerian, and Egyptian civilizations were communicating with each other using pictographs; a simplified set of images used to communicate messages to one another. This progressed into ideographs, which used more abstract versions of pictures and symbols respectively to describe objects and happenings. Eventually this progressed to hieroglyphics, which were developed by the Ancient Egyptians and utilized drawings to represent objects, events and even sounds.

Phoenicians to the Romans

The Phoenician alphabet was the first to include letters alone and was developed around 1200 BC The Greeks took this and added vowels. Finally, the Romans created their own alphabet with 23 letters that was a derivation from both Etruscan and Greek languages. Romans also added serifs, or strokes at the ends of letters. By the year 1500, the letters U, V and W were added as were punctuation marks.

The Role of Printing

Credit: NYC Wanderer

The very first system for allowing moveable type was developed in ancient China around 1040 AD by Bi Sheng, who crafted the clay method of printing. Barely any records of Sheng’s life exist, but what is known about him; aside from creating moveable type, is that he had no official stature or occupation. Moveable clay type soon evolved into the wooden form, allowing for printing to be done on a larger scale.

In the 1400’s, Johannes Gutenberg crafted the moveable type using lead, tin and antimony components, making it possible for materials to be printed in mass quantities. Using this revolutionary method, Gutenberg created the signature Gutenberg Bible in 1456. It was the first ever book to be printed and the finished product established the metallic method of moveable type as the definitive form of printing from then on. In fact, it is widely considered to be the most important invention of the second millennium.

The History of Typefaces

Several typefaces or fonts have been prevalent in modern history. Claude Garamond created the Garamond typeface, which was the first font to have the characteristic blocky look we associate with text today, rather than all previous typefaces that looked like handwriting.

John Baskerville was next, creating a Roman-esque typeface that included both thin and thick strokes with incredibly sharp serifs. And then Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni came up with the Modern Romans in 1780, which use vertical stresses and super thin strokes. William Caslon IV created the very first sans serif typeface in 1816 and received harsh criticism for it.

By the time we get into the 20th century, however, there are numerous kinds of typefaces, many of which were developed by Frederic Goudy, who worked on the task full time making fonts like Broadway and Goudy Stout.

Modern Typefaces and Fonts

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One of the most popular typefaces of modern times is Helvetica, which was created by Max Miedinger in 1954. Once computers came into existence, typefaces and fonts expanded even more. Adobe created Postscript to describe fonts with math rather than pixels. The first fonts to be included on the Laserwriter included Helvetica, Courier, Times and Symbol. Each iteration of Laserwriter after that included more and more font selections. Type 1 postscript fonts are still the favored font types today because they are professionally designed and clean in format. Truetype is another kind of font technology, but it is not as reliable and often rejected by printers.

Now that the digital age offers the art of typography on the Internet, the scope for experimentation has never been wider. However, not every web browser is equipped to view every font. That’s why web designers are required to select web safe fonts like Times New Roman, Arial, and Courier New when developed text for the web. Otherwise, it could appear pixelated, blurry or, even worse, display unwanted coding.

It wasn’t until the Netscape browser was introduced in 1995 that diversifying fonts became a possibility. This was all thanks to the tag, which became standardized with the arrival of HTML 2. As web standards progress, the ability to utilize various, and customized, web fonts is becoming ever more of a probability; especially now that cascading style sheets (CSS) are common practice amongst web designers, developers and even those less savvy in style sheet language.

It could be argued that today’s typography trends tend to favour sans serif styles, due to its modern aesthetic. In web design, especially, sans serif fonts are used over serif in order to avoid the messy pixilation that is typical with many serif styles. While serif will never completely die out, its popularity has be considered as the progression and usage of digital technology evolves over time.

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Catalin is the founder of Mostash - a social marketing boutique - and he's always happy to share his passion for graphic design & social media.