History of Fonts

Without the creation and use of fonts, we would not be able to communicate ideas and messages through books, letters, newspapers, magazines or E-mail. Everyday objects, from currency to street signs, also use fonts to deliver a message. The fonts we use today can be traced back hundreds of years. The methods in which we create fonts have also evolved over the centuries.

The Beginnings

Before Johannes Gutenberg, who was a German printer and goldsmith, letterforms were handwritten by scribes. Some of the first letterforms, written during the Middle Ages in Germany, embodied a gothic look. These are called Blackletter forms.

During the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg invented a mechanical movable type system in Europe along with the printing press. Movable type is a printing system that uses movable parts to reproduce individual letters or punctuation marks.

Before movable type, people used woodblock-printing mechanisms, which were slower and less durable. Wooden movable type was originally developed during the 11th century in China. Metal type pieces were used in Gutenberg's system of movable type. Metal movable type was more uniform and it paved the way for typography and fonts.

Movable type changed the style of type from Gothic to more transitional in Germany. In Italy, Gothic styles were replaced by humanist styles during the late 15th century. When movable type was introduced in Italy, the humanist style solidified and was called the humanistic miniscule, or Venetian. Movable type also allowed for the transition from humanistic to Roman type in Italy.

The Styles of Typefaces

Old Style is derived from Humanist typefaces. Old Style type moves away from mimicking handwritten letters to a more refined appearance and geometry. This change was influenced by punch-cutters. The first italic type also appeared in the 1500s. Italic type was created for smaller formats and pocket books in order to conserve space.

While Humanist type was short-lived, Old Style was used for over two centuries. Some continue to be popular today. Old Style faces later evolved into Transitional typefaces and finally into Modern Type. What distinguishes these typefaces are the thick and thin strokes and verticality.

Type Foundries

Typefounding is a three-stage process of designing and producing a font that includes punch-cutting, the matrix, and casting. A type foundry is a company that manages this process and sells different fonts to the public. Some examples of type foundries include Adobe type, Monotype, International Typeface Corporation, Microsoft Typography, Font Bureau and many more.

The Printing Industry

The history of printing goes back to 200 AD when woodblock printing was introduced in China. Since then, printing has gone through several years of advancement. The original printing press was invented in 1454. Lithography, the rotary press, offset printing, screen-printing, phototypesetting, and digital printing are some hallmark advancements in this timeline.

When printing became an actual industry between 1890 and 1980, typography changed as well. Before the Industrial Revolution, type foundries cast font in lead alloys. When typesetting was introduced during the late 19th century, the casting of fonts became automated and faster. It also became easier to change the size of fonts. The Linotype was the first typesetting machine.

The number of typefaces being designed and produced grew with the onset of industrialization. Fonts such as Futura, Helvetica and Times were a result of new printing methods. With digital typesetting, this number has grown even more.

Digital Fonts

Today, the systems used to design and produce fonts are digitized. It is less time consuming to produce a font on a computer. As a result, we now have thousands of fonts available for purchase and sharing on the web.

A digital font works in two different ways. One form of digital font stores the overall image of a single character as a bitmap font. The other form uses a mathematical equation that describes lines and curves and stores it as an outline font or vector font.