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Brief History of Type

With the advent of the modern era, we are equipped with access to thousands of fonts and with the ease of software today designers can make custom fonts conveniently. For understanding type and to understand the subtleties of what notion the type conveys and signifies, we will go through a brief history of how type can to be and evolved.

Origins of Type

Before the creation of letters, words depicted images. Pictographs as they are known today were symbols which represented objects. So a pictograph of a house would look like a house and the pictograph of an ox would resemble an ox.

Humans then moved on the a more complex idea of representing ideas with symbols which are known as ideographs. This gave humans the ability to represent thousands of ideas. However in order to communicate through these glyphs one would need to remember thousands of glyphs.

Phoenicians simplified this by developing letters into a sound system and created an alphabet for all sounds they knew. The modern alphabet evolved from this system.

The Greek adopted this method around 800 BCE as they realized that this method was effective not only for trade but also to pass down and preserve knowledge. They worked on this system and made modifications to some letters and added vowels to this system.

From Greeks, the Romans also adopted the Greek letters and made adjustments to the letters.

As the Roman influence spread throughout the Europe, North Africa and west Asia, so did the Roman alphabet system.

Square capitals were used on important Roman monuments and another version of capitals was developed, known as rustic capitals. Rustic capitals took much less space than square capitals but compromised on readability.

However letters were not only used on important documents but also for trade documents and everyday transactions. For this a looser cursive type was developed to write faster and efficiently.

In 15th century, Johann Gutenberg developed the metal movable-type printing press, which could press large number of copies of pages per day in contrast to hand printing and hand copying. Movable-type printing basically involves movable components which were letters casted on a mould. Ink is then applied on the mould and the mould is pressed on paper.

A similar system was developed by Bi Sheng in China in 10th century. It did not take off as quickly as Bi Sheng likely due to the large number of Chinese characters.

During this time a style called ‘Gothic’ or ‘Blackletter’ was primarily used in Northern Europe and this was the typeface Gutenberg designed. It has strong vertical stress.

During the same time humanistic hand type was used in Italy. They rejected the Blackletter and developed humanist hand which had lighter, rounder forms.

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