The History of Type

Typefaces like Helvetica are comprised of sets of one or more fonts—characters, numbers and letters designed in a similar style and size. Initially created as pieces of cast type for use in print presses, fonts and typefaces are now digitized and used in laser printing, on screen and in desktop and Web publishing.

The history of typesetting and printmaking dates back thousands of years and encompasses a range of continents and technologies. From wooden block printing to PostScript Helvetica, you can view a visual and textual history of font design, printmaking and typesetting.

East Asia: The Birthplace of Type and Print

The earliest printed book in existence is a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, found in a Chinese temple and dated 868 A.D. Printing designs with woodcuts in China dates back even further—to the fifth century A.D.—and in Korea, Buddhist writings were being printed by the 900s.

A print of the Diamond Sutra, with characters and illustrations of people
Diamond Sutra

A print of the Gutenberg Bible, with lettering and decorative illustrations around the border
Gutenberg Bible

A page from Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), with lettering and illustration
A page from Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed by Aldus Manutius (Venice, 1499)

A specimen sheet of typefaces and languages by William Caslon  (1728)
A specimen sheet of typefaces and languages, by William Caslon I, letter founder; from the 1728 en:Cyclopaedia.

A black-and-white illustration of people working at a typesetting machine
Typesetting machine, constructed by Charles Kastenbein (Patent: 1869)

A comparison of the lower-case 'a' in Helvetica and Arial
A comparison of the lower-case "a" in Helvetica and Arial

In the 1000s, during China’s Song Dynasty, a man named Bi Sheng invented what is now known as movable type. Carving characters out of blocks of clay and wood, he was then able to set, print from and reuse the type, making it even easier to print books. By the 1230s, books were being printed in Korea using metal movable type.

Gutenberg: Europe’s Press Pioneer

Paper, though invented in China in 105 A.D., did not reach Europe until centuries later. By the time Europeans began to print books, the Chinese and Koreans had already been doing so for hundreds of years.

In the late 1440s, German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg popularized his version of the printing press, revolutionizing the production and accessibility of printed matter. Prior to this, most books in Europe were painstakingly penned—and copied—by hand. Referred to as movable or foundry type, Gutenberg’s press used individual, mobile pieces of type. Each letter or number was cast onto a piece of metal, hand-arranged to form sentences and then inked and printed accordingly.

The Renaissance: Roman Revivalist Fonts

The Renaissance paved the way for font development. Before Gutenberg, most European letterforms were written in what is now referred to as Old English, Gothic or blackletter. Influenced by ancient Roman typefaces, Renaissance fontmakers created a new Roman font called Antiqua, which later became known as Old Style. Lighter and more readable than Old English, Antiqua was also well adapted for use as movable type. As the printing industry grew in Europe, so did the typeface design industry. Other early Roman-style fonts of this era include Garamond, which is still popular today. Many of the traditional Western typefaces that are still in use were developed in the period between the late 1400s and the early 1800s.

The first italic typeface was created by Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo in the early sixteenth century as a result of the burgeoning trend of cursive lettering. Italic—“from Italy”—was popular with printers because slanted words took up less space on the page, allowing books to be smaller. The word “italic” soon became synonymous with any slanted or oblique type.

The Transitional Age: Times and Points

The eighteenth century heralded the introduction of a new style of font, now referred to as Transitional. Sandwiched between the era of Old Style and the Modern typefaces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Transitional fonts include well-known serif typefaces like Times Roman. Common features include straighter, more trimmed-down designs with a greater distinction between horizontal and vertical lines and between thicker and thinner strokes. Times Roman remains one of the most common fonts today.

French typographer Pierre Fournier le Jeune developed the Pica system in the mid-eighteenth century, which standardized the measurement of type. The system, which is still used today, measures type in points. Lead pieces of type were traditionally cast in sizes that measured 72 points to one inch. The most frequently used type size remains one pica, or 12 points, which equals one-sixth of an inch.

Modern Fonts: The Sans Serif Revolution

In 1816, British printer William Caslon IV developed the first widely known sans serif typeface, the Egyptian font. Sans serif typefaces, which lacked the small serif features at the end of each character’s strokes, were a dramatic departure in the world of typography. At the time, people were so unaccustomed to seeing type without serifs that a popular early name for sans serifs was “grotesque.”

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the dawning of the Modern, or New Antiqua, age of font design. Not all Modern-era fonts were sans serif; fonts like New Century Schoolbook, for instance, provided an innovative take on transitional serifs. But it took the popularizing of design movements like Germany’s Bauhaus in the early 1900s to influence type design towards a cleaner, more functional and stripped-down look—as exemplified by sans serif fonts such as Futura, one of Helvetica’s predecessors. Sans serif, the public soon realized, was simply easier to read.

Adventures in Typesetting: From Mechanical to Photographic

In the 1880s, Ottmar Mergenthaler developed a method for mechanized typecasting. The linotype machine used a keyboard device to operate lines of cast type, which was then pressed into a mold and printed. Mechanical typesetting was far more efficient and faster than handset printing.

By the mid-1900s, mechanized typecasting had been replaced by phototypesetting machines that used spinning disks of film and strobe lighting to project type onto photographic paper. Developed in 1949 by Rene Higonnet and Louis Moyroud, phototypesetting enabled the printing of more than 28,000 characters per hour and soon became an industry standard. By the 1960s, it had been improved to incorporate a cathode ray tube for photocomposition.

Everywhere and Nowhere: Helvetica or Humanist?

Helvetica, developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Edüard Hoffmann for the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland, elevated sans serif typography to ubiquity. The rise of different media forms and the modern advertising industry increased the need for a readable, easily displayed typeface. Overused to the point of exhaustion for some, considered classic and utilitarian by others, Helvetica soon found its way to prominence in forms, signs, logos and ads around the world.

But popularity comes with a price. By the 1970s and 1980s designers were craving an alternative to both traditional serifs and sans serifs. Frutiger, a typeface that arrived on the scene in 1976, “humanized” Helvetica’s stark design by adding subtle-yet-smoother features, such as slightly jagged and varying widths. The result was a warmer font that preserved sans serifs’ legibility. Humanist sans serifs are also exemplified by the Meta family of typefaces, developed by German designer Erik Spiekermann in 1984.

Type Today: The Rise of Digital (and Arial)

Today, most typesetting is handled by computer. Phototypesetting has been replaced by laser printing and digital technologies have expanded printing techniques and made them more cost-efficient. While letterpress and movable type is still practiced, digital production technology has been widely used since the 1960s.

Arial, considered a lesser sibling of Helvetica, can attribute its popularity to the computer age. In the early 1980s, Adobe licensed four fonts—Times, Helvetica, Courier and Symbol—to feature in its new PostScript language. But a company called Monotype soon released a cheaper Helvetica substitute called Arial, for use in Microsoft’s new TrueType font format. The two fonts are similar, but not entirely identical. With the rise of Windows and personal computing, Arial has replaced Helvetica as a digital standard, particularly on the Internet.

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