Contemporary typographers view typography as craft with a very long history tracing its origins back to the first punches and dies used to make seals and currency in ancient times. The basic elements of typography are at least as old as civilization and the earliest writing systems—a series of key developments that were eventually drawn together as a systematic craft. Some historians view the parallel development of technique in China as separate from that in mid-15th century Europe, while others view them as connected.
Typography, type-founding and typeface design began as closely related crafts in mid-15th century Europe with the introduction of movable type printing at the junction of the medieval era and the Renaissance. Handwritten letterforms of the mid-15th century embodied 3000 years of evolved letter design, and were the natural models for letterforms in systematized typography. The scribal letter known as textur or textualis, produced by the strong gothic spirit of blackletter from the hands of German area scribes, served as the model for the first text types.
Johannes Gutenberg employed the scribe Peter Schöffer to help design and cut the letterpunches for the first typeface—the D-K type of 202 characters used to print the first books in Europe. A second typeface of about 300 characters designed for the 42-line Bible ca. 1455 was probably cut by the goldsmith Hans Dunne with the help of two others—Götz von Shlettstadt and Hans von Speyer.
Cultural tradition ensured that German typography and type design remained true to the gothic/blackletter spirit; but the parallel influence of the humanist and neo-classical typography in Italy catalyzed textur into four additional sub-styles that were distinct, structurally rich and highly disciplined: Bastarda, fraktur, rotunda, and Schwabacher.
The rapid spread of movable type printing across Europe produced additional Gothic, half-Gothic and Gothic-to-roman transitional types. Johann Bámler's Schwabacher, Augsburg appeared in 1474. The half-Gothic Rotunda type of Erhard Ratdolt ca. 1486 was cut to suit Venetian taste. In 1476 William Caxton printed the first books in England with a so-called Bâtarde type (an early Schwabacher design), but soon abandoned it.
In their enthusiastic revival of classical culture, Italian scribes and humanist scholars of the early 15th century searched for ancient minuscules to match the Roman inscriptional capitals. Practically all of the available manuscripts of classical writers had been rewritten during the Carolingian Renaissance, and with a lapse of three hundred years since the widespread use of this style, the humanist scribes mistook Carolingian minuscule as the authentic writing style of the ancients. Dubbing it lettera antica, they began by copying the minuscule hand almost exactly, combining it with Roman capitals in the same manner as the manuscripts they were copying.
Upon noticing the stylistic mismatch between these two very different letters, the scribes redesigned the small Carolingian letter, lengthening ascenders and descenders, and adding incised serifs and finishing strokes to integrate them with the Roman capitals. By the time moveable type reached Italy several decades later, the humanistic writing had evolved into a consistent model known as humanistic minuscule, which served as the basis for type style we know today as Venetian.
Some time before 1472 in Venice, Johann and Wendelin issued material printed with a half-Gothic-half-roman type known as "Gotico-antiqua". This design paired simplified Gothic capitals with a rationalized humanistic minuscule letter set, itself combining Gothic minuscule forms with elements of Carolingian, in a one step forward, half step back blending of styles.
Around the same time (1468) in Rome, Pannartz and Sweynheim were using another typeface that closely mimicked humanistic minuscule, known as "Lactantius". Unlike the rigid fractured forms of Speyer's half-Gothic, the Lactantius is characterized by smoothly rendered letters with a restrained organic finish. The Lactantius a departed from both the Carolingian and Gothic models; a vertical backstem and right-angled top replaced the diagonal Carolingian structure, and a continuous curved stroke replaced the fractured Gothic bowl element.
For details on the evolution of lower case letterforms from Latin capitals, see Latin alphabet.
The Jenson roman was an explicitly typographic letter designed on its own terms that declined to imitate the appearance of hand-lettering. Its effect is one of a unified cohesive whole, a seamless fusion of style with structure, and the successful convergence of the long progression of preceding letter styles. Jenson adapted the structural unity and component-based modular integration of Roman capitals to humanistic minuscule forms by masterful abstract stylization. The carefully-modelled serifs follow an artful logic of asymmetry. The ratio of extender lengths to letter bodies and the distance between lines results in balanced, harmonious body of type. Jenson also mirrors the ideal expressed in renaissance painting of carving up space (typographic "white space") with figures (letters) to articulate the relationship between the two and make the white space dynamic.
The name "roman" is customarily applied uncapitalized to distinguish early Jenson and Aldine-derived types from classical Roman letters of antiquity. Some parts of Europe call roman "antiqua" from its connection with the humanistic "lettera antica"; "medieval" and "old-style" are also employed to indicate roman types dating from the late 15th century, especially those used by Aldus Manutius (Italian: Manuzio). Roman faces based on those of Speyer and Jenson are also called Venetian.
The "Aldino" italic type, commissioned by Manutius and cut by Franceso Griffo in 1499, was a closely-spaced condensed type. Griffo's punches are a delicate translation of the Italian cursive hand, featuring letters of irregular slant angle and uneven height and vertical position, with some connected pairs (ligatures), and unslanted small roman capitals the height of the lower case t. The fame of Aldus Manutius and his editions made the Griffo italic widely copied and influential, although it was not the finest of the pioneer italics. The "Aldino" style quickly became known as "italic" from its Italian origin.
Around 1527 the Vatican chancellery scribe Ludovico Arrighi designed a superior italic type and had the punches cut by Lauticio di Bartolomeo dei Rotelli. The more modular structure of Arrighi's italic and its few ligatures made it less a copy of the cursive hand than Griffo's. Its slightly taller roman capitals, a gentler slant angle, taller ascenders and wider separation of lines gave the elegant effect of refined handwriting.
Surviving examples of 16th century Italian books indicate the bulk of them were printed with italic types. By mid-century the popularity of italic types for sustained text setting began to decline until they were used only for in-line citations, block quotes, preliminary text, emphasis, and abbreviations. Italic types from the 20th century up to the present are much indebted to Arrighi and his influence on French designers.
Swiss art historian Jakob Burckhardt described the classically-inspired Renaissance modello of dual case roman and cursive italic types as "The model and ideal for the whole western world". Venetian pre-eminence in type design was brought to an end by the political and economic turmoil that concluded the Renaissance in Italy with the sack of Rome in 1527.
After about 1550 this Swiss/German tradition was gradually overwhelmed by French influence. Towards the end of the century, the Wechel family of Frankfurt was producing fine books which used French typefaces in conjunction with heavy but resplendent woodcut ornaments to achieve a splendid page effect; but soon after 1600 there was a general, marked decline in the quality of both skill and materials, from which German printing did not recover until the twentieth century.
The de Colines roman of 1531 resembled Griffo's 1499 roman but did not copy it closely. Narrower forms and tighter letter fit; a with low angled bowl; elevated triangular stem serifs on i, j, m, n and r; flattened baseline serifs, delicately-modeled ascender serifs and graceful, fluid lines characterize the French style. Robert Estienne's roman of 1532 was similar to the de Colines face, which Estienne complemented with a fine italic type based on that of Arrighi. The craftsmen who cut the punches for the romans used by Estienne and de Colines remain unidentified. In 1532 Antoine Augereau cut the punches for a roman type very close to Estienne's. The lower cases of the Estienne and Augereau types became the basis for post-Renaissance old style typography, and were copied by French typographers for the next 150 years.
The svelte French style reached its fullest refinement in the roman types attributed to the best-known figure of French typography—Claude Garamond (also Garamont). In 1541 Robert Estienne, printer to the king, helped Garamond obtain commissions to cut the sequence of Greek fonts for François I, known as the "grecs du roi". A number of roman faces used in Garamond's publishing activities can be positively attributed to him as punch-cutter. From the dates of their appearance, and their similarity to romans used by Estienne, Christoffel Plantijn and the printer André Wechel, the types known as "Canon de Garamond" and "Petit Canon de Garamond" shown on a specimen sheet issued by the Egenolff-Berner foundry in 1592 are generally accepted as Claude Garamond's final roman types.
Transitional roman types combined the classical features of lettera antiqua with the vertical stressing and higher contrast between thick and thin strokes characteristic of the true modern romans to come.
The roman types used ca. 1618 by the Dutch printing firm of Elzevir in Leyden reiterated the 16th century French style with higher contrast, less rigor and a lighter page effect. After 1647 most Elziver faces were cut by the highly-regarded Christoffel van Dyck, whose precise renditions were regarded by some experts at the time as finer than Garamond's.
From mid-16th century until the end of the 17th, interference with printing by the British Crown thwarted the development of type founding in England—most type used by 17th century English printers was of Dutch origin. The lack of material inspired Bishop of Oxford Doctor John Fell to purchase punches & matrices from Holland ca. 1670–1672 for use by the Oxford University Press. The so-named Fell types, presumed to be the work of Dutch punchcutter Dirck Voskens, mark a noticeable jump from previous designs, with considerably shorter extenders, higher stroke contrast, narrowing of round letters, and flattened serifs on the baseline and descenders. The design retained a retrogressive old-style irregularity, smooth modeling from vertical to horizontal, and angled stressing of rounds (except a vertically-stressed o). Fell capitals were condensed, even-width, with wide flattened serifs; all characteristics of the definitive modern romans of the late 18th century. Fell italic types were distinguished by high contrast matching the Fell romans; wider ovals; a split-branching stroke from the stems of m n r and u; and long, flat serifs—prefiguring modern. They repeated the non-uniform slant of French models, and the capitals included swash J and Q forms.
The first major figure in English typography is reckoned by type historians to have ended the monopoly of Dutch type founding almost single-handedly. The gun engraver-turned-punchcutter William Caslon spent 14 years creating the stable of typefaces on the specimen sheet issued in 1734. The complete canon included roman, italic, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic etc. Caslon's Great Primer roman and English roman were retrogressive designs that very closely followed the Fell types and the roman of Miklós (Nicholas) Kis ca. 1685 falsely attributed to Anton Janson. Like the Fells, Caslon's slightly bracketed serifs and old-style irregularity gave it a homely charm—its precise cut and perpendicularity place it firmly in the eighteenth century however. Caslon's italic structures follow the Fell italics, but at a condensed width and with conventional branching from stems.
William Caslon's prodigious output was influential worldwide. Caslon type and its imitations were used throughout the expanding British empire. It was the dominant type in the American colonies for the second half of the 18th century. Caslon marks the rise of England as the center of typographic activity.
Fleischman was held in great esteem by his contemporaries, his designs exerting a decisive influence in the last quarter of the 18th century. Renowned French punchcutter Pierre Simon Fournier (1712-1768), confessed to having copied Fleischman's design, and was first to dub "contrast" types like the Fells, Caslon and Fleischman "modern". Fournier's rococo-influenced designs—Fournier and Narcissus—and his Modèles des Caractères (1742) continued the romaine du roi style and adapted it for his own modern age. Like Baskerville, his italics were inspired by handwriting and the engraved lettering known as copperplate hand. Fournier also published a two volume Manuel Typographique, in which he recorded much European typographic history, and introduced the first standardized system of type size measurement—the "point".
The roman and italic types of John Baskerville ca. 1772 appeared later than Fleischman's but are considered transitional and partly retrogressive with a return to lower contrast, smooth transaxial modeling, finely-modeled bracketed serifs, and long stems. The exquisite design and finish of Baskerville's roman however, combining elegance and strength, was modern. His roman design, and especially his italic, were rococo-influenced. His designs did not visibly quote any previous types. They were informed by his prior experience as a writing master and the influences of his time. The types of Joseph Fry, Alexander Wilson, and John Bell closely followed Baskerville, and through his correspondence with European type founders Baskerville's influence penetrated most of western Europe. Baskerville was a meticulous artist who controlled all aspects of his creation, devising more accurate presses, blacker inks and paper sealed with hot rollers to ensure crisp impressions.
Of particular note, the lower storey of his lowercase g does not fully close. Derivatives of Baskerville are often identified thus. A modern revival of Baskerville, a font called Mrs. Eaves, is named after Baskerville's reputed mistress.
True modern romans arrived with the types of the Italian Giambattista Bodoni and the French Didots. Completing trends begun by the Fell types, Fleischman, Fournier and Baskerville, the so-called "classical" modern romans eschewed chirographic and organic influences, their synthetic symmetric geometry answering to a rationalized and reformed classical model driven by the strict cartesian grid philosophy of René Descartes and the predictable clockwork universe of Isaac Newton.
The "classical" appellation of modern romans stems from their return to long ascenders and descenders set on widely-spaced lines, and a corresponding light page effect reminiscent of old-style—occurring at a time of classical revival.
Bodoni was foremost in progressing from rococo to the new classical style. He produced an italic very close to Baskerville's, and a French cursive script type falling in between italic type and joined scripts. The roman types of Francois Ambroise Didot and son Firmin Didot closely resemble the work of Bodoni, and opinion is divided over whether the Didots or Bodoni originated the first modern romans. At any rate the Didots' mathematical precision and vanishing of rococo design reflected the "enlightenment" of post-revolution France under Napoleon. Francois Ambroise also designed "maigre" and "gras" types corresponding to later condensed and expanded font formats.
The Spanish designer Joaquin Ibarra's roman was influenced by Baskerville, Didot and Bodoni, but hewn nearer to old-style and used in the same classical manner, including spaced capitals. In England modern romans resembling Bodoni's were cut for the printer William Bulmer ca. 1786 by the punchcutter William Martin, who had been apprenticed to Baskerville and influenced by him. Martin's italic mirrored the open-tail g and overall finesse of Baskerville's.
Above all the 19th century was innovative regarding technical aspects. Automatic manufacturing processes changed the print as well as the graphical illustrations. The illustration of printed matters could be considerably standardised due to the lithography technique invented by Alois Senefelder. Finally, another invention was photography, whose establishment at the end of the century led to the first halftoning and reproduction procedures. The step-by-step development of a modern mass society provided a growing demand of printed matters. Besides the traditional letterpress beginnings of a newspaper landscape as well as a broad market for publications, advertisements, and posters of all kinds appeared. The challenges had changed: since printing and typography had been a straightforward craft for centuries, it now had to face the challenges of a industry-ruled mass society.
The 90 years between 1890 and 1980 coined typography until now. The craft of printing became an industry, and the typography became a part of it as well. Both stylistically and technologically this epoch was really tumultuous. The significant developments were the following:
Since impressionism the modern art styles were reflected in graphic design and typography too. Since 1890 the Art nouveau became popular. Its floral ornaments, the curved forms, as well as the emphasis on graphical realisation inspired the type designers of the turn of the century. A popular art nouveau font was the Eckmann designed by graphic artist Otto Eckmann. Furthermore, the influence of art nouveau was expressed in a lot of book illustrations and exlibris designs.
Altogether the return to the roots of book art become stronger at the turn of the century. It was initiated by British typographer, socialist, and private press publisher William Morris as well as by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which refers to him. Essentially this movement initiated three things: a return to the antiqua-models of the Renaissance, clarity and simplicity of book illustrations, and straightforward technical processes during the production of printed matters. An immediate consequence of the Arts and Crafts Movement was the establishment of the private press movement, which more or less was committed to Morris' ideals, and whose remains partially are still present today. An established meeting point of these scene in Germany for example is the Mainzer Minipressen-Messe, which actually is hold every two years.
Especially the New Book Art movement, which formed in the decade before World War I, was influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. The young type designers of the pre-war era, among them Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke and Friedrich Wilhelm Kleukens, rejected both the late typographical classicism and the ornaments of the popular Art nouveau. The new ideal became a tidy and straightforward book typography, which dedicated itself to the ideas of the Renaissance. Walter Tiemann in Leipzig, Friedrich Hermann Ernst Schneidler in Stuttgart, and Rudolf Koch in Offenbach as instructors were the mentors of this kind of typography. They stayed influential in the field of book typesetting until a long time after the end of World War II.