Most people do not think much about typefaces (often referred to as “fonts”) on a daily basis. They do not consider the differences between the different typefaces, let alone the reason for those differences or the history of how they came to be the way they are today. But for designers, these details are both interesting and informative. This article details a brief history of how typography has evolved into what it is today.
First we need to understand what typography is. Typography is the study of typefaces, and the history of printed letters. While most people think of typography as beginning with the invention of movable type, the truth is that it includes handwriting as well, as these letters are the basis of the type we know today. Letters are defined as a written symbol or character representing a speech sound and being a component of an alphabet. By this definition, Egyptian hieroglyphs are not considered letters, as they are pictures that represent ideas, and letters are abstract symbols. So what we consider letters did not appear until the development of Egyptian Hieratic around 3,000 BC. After that came Phoenician around 1,000 BC, and then Greek around 600 BC.
The roman capital alphabet had been perfected by 100 AD. This alphabet is what our modern alphabet is based on. As part of what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne decreed that a standardized lowercase alphabet be developed. The style was known as Carolingian miniscule, became the official style of the Holy Roman Empire. The style was chosen because it was simple, clear, and easy to read and write. Many ancient manuscripts were rewritten using Carolingian Miniscule.
While most people think that movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s, the Chinese had been using moveable type for about 400 years before that. Bi Sheng invented wooden moveable type in 1040 AD which we know through the works of Shen Kuo, who was a Chinese scholar. The Chinese eventually began using clay instead of wood because wood would leave imprints of the wood grain in the ink. Clay was also preferred because it provided a more even surface and was less prone to swelling when dipped in ink.
While Johannes Gutenberg did not invent moveable type, he did perfect mechanical moveable type in the 1440s. His invention made it easier and faster to reset type, which brought the cost of printing down and made it more economical to mass produce books. This mass production of books is often marked as the beginning of the modern era.
Shortly after the printing press was invented, Bookhand and Human style typefaces were developed in Italy. These typefaces are very similar to our modern lowercase alphabet. Claude Garamond was also very influential in the typing world. Garamond developed typefaces based on Greek letters, and made them available to printers at affordable prices around 1541. In 1600, Aldus Manutius developed the Italic typeface. This typeface became very popular both as in print and in writing.
In 1932, Victor Lardent at the English branch of Monotype developed the Times Roman typeface because of criticism of the British newspaper The Times’ antiquated typefaces. Lardent worked in the advertising department of The Times.
All of these developments of typefaces have led to where we are today. Now we have access to hundreds of typefaces on our computers without knowing the history or the context of how they got there.