A brief history of typography
What we think of as modern typography is clean and legible. The history of typography is anything but. It is a bloody and violent battle between ornament and utility; connotations vs denotations. What it means versus what it is.
Many would argue that Johannes Gutenberg is the father of type. This is partly true. Gutenberg is responsible (or one of those responsible) for the innovation of mechanical movable type. Gutenberg’s technique however is just touching on the root of modern printing.
We can trace the history of typography back to the Mesopotamian Cuneiform. This was the technique of carving glyphs into a clay tablet. This form of writing was in use as early as 4000 BC and were in use up until about 600 BC. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were in use between 3500 and 400 BC. Both these forms waned as other languages became more popular within the region. Even before these ancient writing systems, proto-writing laid a foundation for written communication and it’s estimated that the earliest forms of proto-writing date from between 6600 and 6200 BC. They resemble signs more than actual writing, and were carved into tortoise shells, which were found in a burial site at Jiahu, Henan Province in China.
Within the Asiatic region ideogram based languages developed beginning with written Chinese, which is at least 3300 years old (1300 BC.) From that Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese written languages evolved.
Around 1600 BC the Phoenicians developed a system of characters that represented sounds instead of ideas or objects. This was later developed by the Greeks, and is the basis of the Latin alphabet we know today, as its spread was proliferated throughout the Roman empire.
So Gutenberg is a father the lineage of typography, but he was not the chicken, nor the egg.
It is not so easy to dismiss Gutenberg, however. His printing press essentially fueled the renaissance. With books being printed at a much faster rate, ideas were able to spread throughout Europe like wildfire.
The first typeface used by Gutenberg was based on the ornate handwritten style used by scribes working with feather quills. This was a blackletter typeface. This typeface is characterized by thick vertical lines and thin horizontal lines. It creates very thick blocks of text, which in smaller point sizes makes it difficult to read. So soon after the invention of movable type and the printing press, readability became a priority to publishers and printers. Among the first to answer this call was a French engraver by the name of Nicolas Jenson who developed the first roman typeface. Roman type is one of the original 3 main classifications of type and by a long shot the most popular type of typeface. Jenson’s work was emulated by typeface designers throughout the 600 plus years, including the father of modern design himself William Morris, and his Roman typeface is widely regarded still as a perfect typeface. Meanwhile Blackletter and Italics may still have their place though they are not practical for printing large bodies of text, and even rarely show up in headlines.
While it is crucial to look forward with design, we should not forget its history. While Jenson isn’t always the best choice, it is still a solid workhorse design that in this designer’s opinion works much better than Helvetica.