A History of Typography


We live in a world full of millions of different typefaces. Most people probably don’t stop to think about what font they are using, but typefaces are everywhere and there is no avoiding them. Each one has been handcrafted and specially designed into a system that most of us probably gloss over each day. However, did you know that each font has its own personality?  

First off, what exactly is typography, and what is the difference between a typeface and a font? 

- Typography refers to the art of creating and designing letters, packaging them into collections called fonts. 

- Fonts are collections of letters, each in a different style. Most of us are probably familiar with a few of the most common font names, such as Arial, Times New Roman and Courier New. 

- A typeface is the design and look of a particular font. 

Typography has come a long way, from its humble roots in the birth of the written word to a million-dollar industry today. Here’s how typography has evolved over each different era. 

Early Civilizations

The earliest form of writing discovered was a series of pictures that told a story, known as pictograms. They were commonly discovered on tablets or on cave walls. Pictograms were then refined into ideographs, which used symbols to represent objects, such as a wave to represent the sea and a star to represent the heavens. Today, modern Chinese characters are still based on ideographs. 

The ancient Egyptians developed their own system of ideographs, known as hieroglyphics. Apart from using symbols to represent objects and ideas, they also used objects to represent sounds. 

When the Phoenicians gained their independence from the Egyptians, they developed the first alphabet that comprised exclusively of letters – no drawings or symbols. The Greeks then adapted the Phoenicians’ language and added the first five vowels to them. This writing became the roots of our modern language today. 

From the Greek alphabet came the Etruscan alphabet, and then the Roman alphabet. The Roman alphabet consisted of 23 letters, written with short finishing strokes at the end of letters that were called serifs. Roman letters were the first to feature a mix of thick and thin strokes. 

Caroline Miniscule

Around the year 732, a system of writing called the Caroline Miniscule was developed under the patronage of Charlemagne. These letters were the first lowercase alphabets. All lowercase letters prior to the Caroline Miniscule were just smaller versions of their uppercase counterparts, much like the small text we have today. 

Invention of the Printer

In the 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first moveable typeface, making it much easier and cheaper to print writing – especially in bulk. Previously, all writing had to be done by hand. As such, written materials were often very expensive. In printing his 42-line Bible, Gutenberg also carved the first typeface in the style of Blackletter, or what we know as Gothic script today. It was dark and intense but difficult to read. 

Nicolas Jenson created the Roman Type in 1470, which was inspired by the lettering on ancient Roman buildings. Since Roman Type was much more readable than Blackletter, the new typeface caught on quickly. 

In 1490, the Frenchman Claude Garamond developed the first printing typeface. It was not derived from handwriting but instead designed based on rigid geometric principles. He was also the first to begin the tradition of naming typefaces after their creator. The font Garamond was used as the dominant typeface for the next 200 years and is still in use today. It is one of the fonts that uses the least amount of ink when printed out on paper. 

The Development of Font Styles


Aldus Manutius created the italic typeface in 1501 when he invented the concept of pocket books. He found that using an italic typeface allowed more words to fit onto one page, thus saving the costs of printing. 


The first cursive typeface was invented by Robert Granjon in 1557, which was intended to simulate the style of handwriting. 

Straighter Serifs

The next milestone in typography was in 1734, when William Caslon created a typeface with straighter serifs and more distinct contrasts between thick and thin strokes. These days, we call this typeface “old style”. 

Transitional Roman 

In 1757, John Baskerville introduced Transitional Roman, which had very sharp serifs, increased contrast between thick and thin strokes and a nearly vertical stress in the counters. 

Early Modern Typefaces

In 1780, the Italians Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni created typefaces with even more extreme contrasts between thick and thin strokes, named after themselves as Didot and Bodoni respectively. The typefaces had a cool and fresh look and similar font styles can still be seen on magazine covers these days. 

We see slab serif styles in many modern fonts, but the first emergence of Slab Serif, also known as Egyptian, was in 1815, created by Vincent Figgins. The serifs of the typeface had squares or boxes instead of thin strokes. 

Serifs had been widely loved all these years so much so that when the first typeface without any serifs at all was created by William Caslon IV in 1816, it was widely ridiculed at the time. However, the Sans Serif typeface would resurface some decades later. This was also the period when advertising began to explode and many typefaces were being created to accommodate for the increased demand. 

20th Century Typefaces

The 20th century saw many typefaces being developed, most of which we still use today. 

Frederic Goudy became the world’s first full-time type designer when he designed numerous typefaces in the 1920s. He is well known for typefaces such as Broadway, Copperplate Gothic and Goudy Old Style. 

The Bauhaus font was created by Herbert Bayer in 1925, when he was appointed head of the new print and advertising workshop at the Dessau Bahau.

In 1931, Stanley Morison was commissioned to create an easy-to-read typeface for The Times’ newspaper publications. The resulting typeface was Times New Roman. 

The sans-serif Helvetica was created in 1957 by Swiss artist Max Miedinger. At the time, the use of white space as a design element began to be championed and many minimalistic designs surfaced, such as the typeface Futura. 

In 1955, Howard Kettler designed Courier as a monospace font for IBM. Courier became a well-known typeface and was used on typewriters for three decades. 

The well-known Arial was developed by a 10-person team for IBM in 1982. 

Digital Fonts

The first digital typesetter was invented by Rudolf Hell in 1964, called the Digiset. Digital Grotesk was the first digital font produced on it. Adobe then continued with digital font development in 1985, inventing Postscript which used mathematical calculations to define typefaces. Although Adobe offered Postscript to both Microsoft and Apple, it was rejected by both companies, which instead jointly developed the Truetype font format (.ttf) in 1989. Truetype fonts were not as clean and reliable as Postscript, but resulted in an increase in font design. 

Adobe and Microsoft then developed the OpenType font format (.otf) as a versatile format that could work cross-platform. OpenType also supported a wider character set and layout features. 

Adobe also began its own development of fonts, notably by Carol Twombly, who produced many well-known typefaces while she worked for Adobe from 1988-1999. Some of these are Trajan, Adobe Caslon and Myriad. 

In 1996, Matthew Carter created Verdana and Georgia for Microsoft. These fonts were made to be extremely readable even when set to small sizes on a computer screen. 

One of the most widely used and recent fonts is CalibriTypography, which was designed in 2002-2004 by Luc(as) de Groot for Microsoft and replaced Arial as the default typeface from Office 2007 onwards.


1256 Words


Feb 27, 2020


3 Pages

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