The History of Typography

Everyday Typography

Typography is a fascinating subject but it can seem complicated due to the vast number of different fonts out there. Every typeface we see – whether it’s on street signs, in magazines and newspapers or on the web – has its own story.

Typography is the art of designing and creating the letters, while the font is the collection of letters – the means to get your message across to readers.

Understanding different typefaces can help you to make educated decisions on design projects to achieve the optimum finish. A good place to start is by learning about the history of typography to achieve a better knowledge of how and why each style began.

Typefaces are divided into classifications, based on the characteristics of their design and their era. It can help to narrow down the options when it comes to choosing a font for projects if you have an idea of the style you want. Using the appropriate typeface can totally transform your work and make it exceptional, rather than run-of-the-mill.

The typefaces we see today have been influenced throughout history by culture shifts, technological advances and a general desire to design something new and different. Read on to find out more about the timeline of typography.


Early Years

In the 1400s, Gutenberg’s invention of movable typefaces gave ordinary people a means to obtain the written word. Prior to this, written materials were produced by hand and were too expensive for most citizens to buy.

Gutenberg Typeface

Gutenberg also created what was the first recognised typeface, known as blackletter or Gothic. It was a fairly practical creation, based on the calligraphic writing style – it was tall and narrow with sharp lines and quite intense but could be a little difficult to read. Today’s fonts of Fraktur and Gutenberg are modern interpretations of this first print typeface.

The now well-used Roman type was invented in 1470 by Nicolas Jenson, who based it on text found on ancient Roman buildings. It quickly became popular, as it was clearer and easier to read than blackletter.

The Humanist style was developed in Italy. Still based on hand lettering but with angled cross-bars on the letter ‘e’ and a ‘high stress’ relating to how a scribe held a pen, modern fonts in this style include Centaur and Jenson.


Serif Fonts

Movable type printing spread throughout Europe and different typeface styles were created to complement this. However, many were based on hand-written scripts and had the characteristics of pen and brush lines, with a serif – a small line – attached to each stroke’s entry and exit. This was where the fonts ‘serif’ and ‘sans serif’ originated – the serif fonts have the small flourish at the end of strokes but the sans serif is plain. Many popular sans serif fonts are still in use today.

Serif Font

Popular sans serif fonts include Arial, Helvetica, Geneva and Avant Garde, while serif fonts include Courier and Times Roman.



Originally designed as a means to save the printer money by fitting more words on to a page, italics were created in 1501 by Aldus Manutius. Today, italics are used as a decorative design detail or as a means to emphasise certain words in the sentence.

Italic Font

The typeface Garamond was invented as part of the era’s revolution in printing, as typefaces could now be carved to form printable fonts – hence new styles were designed by typographers, rather than using existing scripts.

Characterised by straighter crossbars and more upright letters with straighter serifs and more pronounced variations between the width of the strokes, Old Style was created in 1734 by William Caslon. Transitional type with sharp serifs and a dramatic contrast in line widths was created by John Baskerville in 1757. Today’s transitional font Baskerville is an example of this, with elegant lines and vertical stress.

In 1780, Giambattista Bodoni and Firmin Didot created a modern Roman typeface; with a fresh look, its serifs change from thick to thin without a transitional curve. Didot and Bodoni are still in use today.


19th Century

In 1815, Vincent Figgins created the Egyptian typeface also known as Slab Serif. It was noteworthy because it was the first time any typeface had serifs that were boxes or squares. It was popular for newspaper headlines and product advertising materials which required a style that grabbed attention. Today’s Clarendon and Rockwell are examples of this.

Slab Serif

In 1816, the first typeface without serifs was created by William Caslon. Although not popular at the time, it was the basis of many of today’s sans serif typefaces. New typefaces were created during this period to accommodate advertising needs.


20th Century

The first full-time type designer was Frederic Goudy in the 1920s. He created many ground-breaking typefaces including Kennerly, Copperplate Gothic and Goudy Old Style.

Goudy Old Style Font

The Gothic typeface of the first half of the 20th century was known as Grotesque – as in ugly – because it rejected the long-established serif styles. In particular, the design of the letters ‘g’ and ‘a’ – in Franklin Gothic – were seen as unattractive.

One of the best-loved typefaces of all time, Helvetica, was created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger. It returned to minimalism, leading to a number of other simplistic typefaces in this era, including Futura.


Modern Day

There is now a huge variety of typefaces thanks largely to the Internet, so there’s an abundance of choice for today’s designs. Gone are the days when designers were limited to only a handful of typefaces for their projects.

Modern Fonts

LEFA Print offers a wide range of package printing options with typography, colours and material playing a pivotal role. Once the design is right, all the elements come together to create a tailored solution that is an accurate reflection of the brand or product. Please contact us for further details.

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