Type Fast: The Quick History Of Typography
The printing press —in operation by the year 1440—allowed for mass production of texts via strategically placed blocks of letters (as seen in Photo 1) pressed into paper. It was with Gutenberg's new contraption that the alphabet took on a whole new life.
To fully comprehend this history, you’ll need to understand some terms used to describe characters.
* “Serifs” are the tapered corners at the end of a stroke. They derive from the marks of chisels once put to stone.
* “Sans-serifs” are typefaces without these features. (Compare the sans-serif font Helvetica with serif font Times New Roman for a visual explanation.)
* The “x-height” is the height of the type body, which is equal to lower the case x.
* The “stress” of a letter is its general tilt, backwards, upright, or forward.
Keeping these terms in mind will help you better understand style differences throughout history.
Owing much to hand-crafted lettering, combined with technical refinement, Old Style encompasses typefaces from the 1500’s through the mid 1700’s. These typefaces are very legible and used for large amounts of body text. University book presses, newspapers, and magazines still use them. Garamond is a popular typeface from this period.
Old Style letters have little contrast between thick and thin strokes (compared to later styles). They have wedge-shaped serifs, a low x-height and a stress angle that tilts back, to the left.
Transitional typefaces mark the period between classic styles influenced by hand lettering and modern styles of the mechanistic age. During the mid-to-late 1700’s, print technology and design was dramatically improved through the work of John Baskerville.
Baskerville (and other typefaces from this period) gave text a heavier weight with strong serifs and perfectly vertical stress. The x-height increased as well as the contrast between the thick and thin strokes.
The first Modern typefaces, also called Didone, were developed in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s by Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni. Elegant and bold, these types have a marked sophistication. There is a striking contrast between thick to thin strokes and a vertical stress. The serifs are extremely thin and flat, not wedged.
These typefaces are often seen in the fashion industry. For example, Harper's Bazaar magazine uses a version of Didot and Vogue a version of Bodoni.
As the modern mechanistic age advanced, the early 20th century saw letter forms stripped of non-essential flourishes. This new attitude sought beauty in absolute simplicity, which brought radical changes.
The serifs seemed to disappear. The x-height increased and there became no variation between thick and thin strokes. A style of brevity and uniformity developed.
The most widely used type of this class is Helvetica, released in 1957. It's so popular that you probably don't even notice it. Airports use it for signage. Transit systems such as New York City's subway and Chicago's "L" use it. It is the default font used in many Apple and Microsoft products. Don't forget the US Postal Service, either. That purple "5" on your five dollar bill? Helvetica.
We've just covered 500 years of typographic history in about 500 words. Consider it a teaser for the fascinating subject that lingers behind every printed word you have ever read. Or will read. Even on the screen. Like this one.