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Typography Through the Ages

typography history Like any other creative pursuit, the design of letterforms is determined by the prevailing cultural climate and thus in a state of constant flux. Typography now functions as a kind of weathervane for the zeitgeist, with typographic analysis a leading design issue. Indeed, as designers have sought to express themselves and define their time, type has increasingly come to have its own intentions, beyond those of verbal communication. From its first printed appearance in the West, type drew on existing forms, with the results then impacting on future designs. The letters printed in Renaissance Europe by Johann Gutenberg were a direct interpretation of the ornate gothic handwriting of the day; black-letter, in movable, reusable hot metal. Black-letter would also influence the first italic type cut by Francesco Griffo, which was largely informed by 16th century Italian handwriting. But it was the renewed interest in classic Greco-Roman culture, rather than technological development, that would see our standard roman alphabet find its definitive printed expression.

The early Humanist faces derived their majuscules from stone-carved Roman capital letters (hence the serifs) while their minuscules were adapted from the formal calligraphy of scribes. The more successful types revealed an ability to differentiate the written from the printed character, as evidenced by the letters of Nicolas Jenson. Extremely well-proportioned and unified in form, Jenson�s type reconciled capitals with small letters and provided the blueprint for future letterpress faces.

Our more familiar Baroque types of the 17th century were designed by Claude Garamond and, later, William Caslon. Displaying low stroke contrast and a diagonal stress derived from Italian cursive, they were elegant and highly legible, their dominance only challenged by the work of John Baskerville in the mid-18th century. His strongly vertical Neoclassical faces were based on earlier French grid-based designs and introduced the contrasting stroke weights which were to reach their apotheosis in the coming Romantic faces of Giambattista Bodoni and Firmin Didot.

The influence of calligraphy now diminished as punchcutting evolved and letterforms began to echo their metal origins. Improved technologies had gradually facilitated fine detail like unbracketed hairline serifs and high stroke contrast. As a result these sophisticated designs earned type a newfound importance in their ability to command attention. This was timely as the next phase would require and produce various distinctive faces, though the beauty of their form would be contested.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century ushered in another typographic development not directly caused by technology. Advertising and commerce demanded that type work harder, resulting in heavily scaled novelty and display faces. Grossly inflated Romantic faces became fat-faces and Realist types emerged in the form of vertical, sturdy slab serifs or egyptians � their block-like forms anticipating the clarendon faces of the mid-1800s. But most significantly, monoline sans serif or grotesque faces appeared, with Hermann Berthold's Akzidenz Grotesk of 1896 becoming the first widely adopted sans in the wake of this typographic profusion.

Bulky wooden type was used in conjunction with the existing metal technology which, although accurate and efficient, was struggling to keep up with exhaustive typographic demands. It remained, however, until the invention of mechanised typesetting at the end of the century with the Linotype and Monotype machines. By this time type had become increasingly crude, and excepting notable achievements like Morris Fuller Benton's Franklin Gothic of 1902, such forms surely helped trigger the rationale behind the impending designs.

The early 20th century saw the progressive designers at the Bauhaus ally themselves with the machine age in a vigorous attempt to define the modern. Rejecting both calligraphy and ornamentation in favour of purity and elemental form, they embraced refined sans forms and delivered Geometric Modernist types: grid-based, modular, often unicase alphabets like Herbert Bayer's 1925 universal. Design was now being driven by a socialist ideology, with the new technology providing a functional aesthetic. Forms were tested to their limits and obliged to convey meaning along with content � even more so than Postmodernism would demand in the future.

In 1927 Paul Renner released the radical Futura, dubbing its modern geometric form 'the typeface of our time'. The first sans designed as a text face, it heralded the arrival of the Swiss Style � a movement that would remain influential for the next 50 years. This milestone was paralleled by the 1928 release of Gill Sans by Eric Gill. Unlike Futura, this humanist sans serif was based on roman proportions but would also have an immediate impact and lasting popularity.

The Lyrical Modernism of mid-century saw an enormous range of types break free from recent dogma. Sans were stressed into glyphics and slab serifs refined alongside the invention of expressive new script, brush and period faces. Pre-existing designs were revived and hybridised � Stanley Morison's Times New Roman of 1932 being noteworthy as a fusion of Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic elements; it became the most widely read and commercially successful text face. But it was the modern sans serif that was in demand and in order to compete commercially, the Swiss typefoundry Haas commissioned Max Miedinger's infamous neo-grotesque, Helvetica, in 1957. Neutral, adaptable Helvetica (with its large family) prevailed from the 1960s on and it has not yet lost prominence.

The photosetting of the 1950s had used light to project and scale typefaces which often resulted in distortion, but Letraset dry-transfer lettering soon arrived to physically return type the the hands of the designer. Quick and cheap, this intermediate technology mirrored Pop Art in its brash, fun display faces. However, as computers increased their presence, type began moving definitively away from these physical restraints towards the pliancy of the digital; Neue Alphabet by Wim Crouwel and the OCR fonts of Adrian Frutiger in the late 1960s were inspired by and custom-designed for screen display hinting at things to come.

The design, production and distribution of type changed irrevocably in the early 1980s with the advent of desktop publishing and the Apple Macintosh. Efficient, user-friendly software democratised typography but simultaneously allowed designers to produce ill-conceived and badly drawn faces. An exception was the prolific Neville Brody whose geometric, authoritarian faces would define the decade. Ironically, Brody's pre-digital types were hand-drawn yet they fully expressed the geometry of bitmaps.

The new technology also resulted in the proliferation of digital type foundries like Bitstream and Emigre. The latter's Zuzana Licko was a pioneer in exploiting the low-res bitmap forms of the early Mac, while her later fonts would present timely challenges to legibility and provoke heated typographic debate.

Type's newly prominent status made for a highly creative period in the 1990s, with experimental design leading the way and technology coming a close second. Postmodern sampling resulted in hybrids loaded with self-indulgent typographic theory, subjective revivals and faces with both serif and sans versions. The distinct move towards vernacular references was an antidote to the 'perfection' of the new technology and grungy, raw typefaces expressed a metanarrative, best exemplified by Barry Deck's Template Gothic of 1990 � declared the 'typeface of the decade' by its publisher Emigre.

A once arcane craft, typography is now widely accessible and highly visible. But good typography requires an understanding of proportion, rhythm and gestalt � objectives that become harder to see for the surrounding technology. Although our digital fonts retain the earmarks of the chisel, the pen and the metal punch, the new tools have rendered type far more elastic.

Recent innovations, both technological and conceptual, appear to have effected a renewed reverence for classic form as revivals flourish and obscure historical faces are digitised. Still, typographic design remains essentially commercially driven, with some dedicated enthusiasts experimenting alongside. Advertising has developed a pronounced preference for typefaces with the friendly, rounded forms that originated in 1979's V.A.G., while in the midst of the ongoing war between the modernists and the traditionalists, the search for the definitive sans serif continues, moving from Helvetica to Frutiger to Meta to Akkurat. Elsewhere, experiments in dimensional typography, randomizing and onscreen time-and-motion type remain for a select audience.

In light of history, the current approach to typography appears sober, yet it may anticipate a phase of radical invention akin to the excesses of the late 20th century.

Did you know...

  • Arial was originally known as Sonoran Sans Serif. It acquired its current name when Microsoft started to include it in Windows.
  • Helvetica is the Latin name for Switzerland
  • Times New Roman is a serif typeface commissioned by the British newspaper The Times in 1931
  • Action Signs uses Myriad as its signature typeface.
  • Action Signs uses Tahoma as its screenfont for its website, the same as Microsoft Windows