Type is everywhere – street signs, magazines, the web. Every typeface you see around you has been painstakingly and carefully planned out, and each has its own personality and vibe. But have you ever stopped to wonder how the typefaces we encounter everyday came to be? Who invented them, and why? If you’re interested in learning more about typography, you’ve come to the right place.
What’s the difference between a typeface and a font? Before you jump in, let’s clarify the terminology used. Typography is the art of creating the letters we use everyday. It’s designing them and creating them and making them real. A font is a collection or set of letters – they’re the mechanism you use to get your message across to your reader. Every letter and dash and semi colon would be considered part of a specific font. A typeface is the design you see – the style and look of a specific font.
Throughout history, typefaces have been influenced by technological advances, culture shifts, and just general boredom with the state of typography. Here’s how it all went down:
1400’s: Guttenberg invented movable typefaces, giving the world a cheaper way to obtain the written word. Up until this point, all written materials were done by hand, and were very costly to purchase. Guttenburg also created the first typeface, blackletter – it was dark, fairly practical, and intense, but not very legible.
1470: Nicolas Jenson created Roman Type, inspired by the text on ancient roman buildings. It was far more readable than blackletter, and caught on quickly.
1501: Aldus Manutius created italics – a way to fit more words onto a page, saving the printer money. Today, we use italics as a design detail or for emphasis when writing.
1734: William Caslon created a typeface which features straighter serifs and much more obvious contrasts between thin and bold strokes. Today, we call this type style ‘old style’.
1757: John Baskerville created what we now call Transitional type, a Roman-style type, with very sharp serifs and lots of drastic contrast between thick and thin lines.
1780: Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni created the first ‘modern’ Roman typefaces (Didot, and Bodoni). The contrasts were more extreme than ever before, and created a very cool, fresh look.
1815: Vincent Figgins created Egyptian, or Slab Serif – the first time a typeface had serifs that were squares or boxes.
1816 William Caslon IV created the first typeface without any serifs at all. It was widely rebuked at the time. This was the start of what we now consider Sans Serif typefaces. During this time, type exploded, and many, many variations were being created to accommodate advertising.
1920’s: Frederic Goudy became the world’s first full time type designer, developing numerous groundbreaking typefaces, such as Copperplate Gothic, Kennerly, and Goudy Old Style.
1957: Swiss designer Max Miedinger created Helvetica, the most loved typeface of our time. This was a return to minimalism, and many other simplistic typefaces such as Futura surfaced around this time period.
Present: With the internet, we have such a vast variety of old and new typefaces available for us to peruse and use. All these typefaces give us an abundance of options and looks for our designs today, and we’re not limited by just one or two typefaces like we would have been a few hundred years ago.
Ben Barrett-Forrest, a Canadian graphic designer, put together this beautiful and clever video that brings the history of typography to life:
Hello! I just came across your blog post while doing research on typography and it was really helpful. But I wanted to point out one (common) mistake you made. Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he did NOT invent movable type. That was actually a Chinese peasant named Bi Sheng, who invented movable type way back in the 1000s. A lot of our Western history books don’t tell us that, but it’s a generally accepted fact by historians. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bi_Sheng
We will definitely be looking into this; thank you for your feedback!
He did invent the first mechanical movable type. History does give credit to the Chinese for the beginning of it, but there invention was not used in producing printed publications in Europe. It was not until Gutenberg’s improved version was created was movable type really used in printing.