Typography, calligraphy and lettering

The History of Typography: From 11th Century China to the Digital Age

Discover how, throughout history, typography has been used to communicate more than just the words it spells out

Typography is sometimes easy to take for granted: you’re reading these words, absorbing their meaning, but probably aren’t paying close attention to the letterforms that compose them.

Other times typography can be impossible not to notice, like when a wedding invitation is written in Comic Sans, or a sign is hard to read because of an unfortunate font choice.

The history of typography is about more than how easy something is to read or write. It reveals how the design of letterforms has shaped societies and transformed the meaning of the written word.

So, where did typography come from and what do typefaces have to tell us?

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg introduced Europe to the printing press and moveable type, kicking off a printing revolution that changed the world. But he wasn’t the first person to use typography.

In fact, ceramic moveable type was first invented in China during the 11th century. Previously, Chinese printers had used woodcuts, carving each individual page out of a piece of wood, a highly laborious and time consuming process.

And Gutenberg wasn’t even the first to use metal moveable type. Over 200 years before Gutenberg’s press, in 1234, a Korean civil minister named Choe Yun-ui was commissioned to print Sangjeong yemun, a book outlining the customs of Korean court from antiquity till that point. By altering a method used for minting bronze coins, Yun-ui was able to create individual characters in metal.

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Illustration of Chinese press with moveable type

The advent of moveable type in the West changed the way people accessed and shared information. Initially, however, the change in what that text looked like wasn’t so radical.

The first Western printed books mimicked the design conventions of what writing was “supposed to” look like.

Western printers used Fraktur, a typeface modeled on a lettering style first used by scribes because it was easy to replicate. Rather than develop a new typeface, they mimicked the design conventions of what writing was “supposed to” look like.

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An extract from a Bible with Gothic type

Even as new styles of typography began to emerge, many typecutters based their designs on handwriting and historic texts.

Renaissance scholars, influenced by inscriptions on Roman monuments and the rediscovery of a series of Latin texts written in a calligraphy style developed during the rule of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, developed a new Roman-style type that used straight lines and regular curves.

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Roman-style type with straight lines and capital letters

Visually different to the rigid, fractured lines of Fraktur, Roman represented more than just a new typeface.

Before German unification, language, more than nationality, was the symbol of Germanic identity. Writing was part of that. For many Germans like Martin Luther and later Otto von Bismarck, Roman type represented the Catholic Church and foreign identity. In the few occasions it was used in German texts, Roman was applied to non-German names or places to demarcate their otherness. This nationalist association continued into the 20th century, with Fraktur and Black Letter featuring heavily in Nazi propaganda.

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Fraktur and Black letter was commonly used in Nazi typography

Typography remained significant to national and cultural identity under colonialism, as the work of prominent English type-cutters like Willaim Caslon spread throughout the British empire. This can be seen in most of the printings made by American founding father Benjamin Franklin, which used typefaces developed by Caslon.

With the industrial revolution came the invention of the paper making machine and steam-powered printing press, accelerating the quantity of printed material that could be cheaply produced. As the populations of cities grew, so too did the amount of posters and advertising material printed to attract this influx of spending power. During this time, colorful and creative fonts turned typography into the marketing tool it continues to be today.

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Different typographies became new tools for marketing and advertising

The early 19th century would see more dramatic shifts in typeface design. With the debut of the first sans-serif latin typefaces, serifs (those small feet along the edges of letters) were shaved off, creating a font that was more commercially useful for large signage.

A detail originating from the Roman inscriptions that first inspired Renaissance scholars, serifs represented a stylistic tradition that had existed for millenia. In contrast, the newly developed sans-serif came to reflect modernity.

As advertisers and even art movements like Bauhaus played with new and attention-grabbing ways of using typography, others began to look for simpler, cleaner shapes. In 1957 Helvetica, one of the world’s most popular fonts, known for its clean modernist design, was born.

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Helvetic is one of the most popular fonts in the world

The next major shift came with the advent of the computer, which originally used crude and blocky bitmap fonts. While designers continued to look to the past for design inspiration, carrying over familiar Roman fonts into the digital space, these early pixel limitations challenged them to create new fonts that were more readable on screen.

Today, it’s easier than ever to design a new typeface. Unlike typecutters centuries ago, designers no longer need to melt metal or create molds to bring new fonts to life, but their power to transmit a message goes beyond words.

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