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A Quick History of Typefaces and Font Families

Business Tips and Trends

The term typeface is frequently confused with the term font. The term ‘typeface’ refers to a particular style of type usually in one style and size. A ‘font’ is usually a family of one typeface as that includes various styles, such as roman or italic, bold or semibold. Type foundries have cast fonts in lead alloys from the 1450s. In the 19th century some large fonts were cast in wood. In the 1890s the mechanization of typesetting allowed automatic casting of fonts on the fly as lines of type in the size and length needed. This was known as continuous casting and remained widespread until the 1970s, when the Linotype machine was invented. During a brief period between 1950 and 1990, photographic technology, known as phototypesetting, was used to produce various fonts and sizes. Digital type became the dominant form of type in the late 1980s and early 90s when the computer was invented.

The first typeface was designed by Johann Gutenberg, in 1439, for his movable type press. Books were all hand-lettered at the time and the German inventor wanted to create a faster way to produce books. As more printing shops opened, more thought was put into creating typefaces and lettering styles to use as models for typefaces. And voila… The art of typographic design began! Twenty years later, Nicholas Jenson designed the first true Roman typeface around 1460, which was used for books printed in Italy. This was a thinner typeface compared to Gutenberg’s heavy “blackletter” type. In the early 1500s the first italic typeface was developed by Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo, which was meant to mimic cursive writing. In the mid 1700s, Pierre Fournier le Jeune—a French printer and typographer—standardized the system of measuring typefaces. It was referred to as the Pica system of measurement and became widely used in England and America. Type sizes were measured in points and to this day we still use this measurement system.

Do you know how many fonts exist today? I was trying to figure that out and saw that offers about 52,000 and another had almost 10,000, and someone else stated there were 150,000 so the world of typefaces and fonts has really grown! We recommend using no more than 3 fonts in one advertisement and if you need help choosing which three, please call the Cheeps at 888.22CHEEP!


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Typesetting the “Old Fashioned Way”


Way before computers came into the picture, graphic designers would have to “spec the type” manually to layout an advertisement. This was done by figuring out your designated area where the copy would go and fit specific fonts and columns to the width of your area. A printer would compose and lock movable type into the bed of a press, ink it and press paper against it to transfer the ink from the type and creates an impression of the paper. In practice, letterpress also included other forms of print presses, such as wood ingravings, photo etched plates and were used along side the metal type in a single operation. Until the second half of the 20th century, letterpress remained the primary way to print. Then we switched to typesetting companies that prepared the text for the graphic designer.

Before the 1980s, practically all typesetting for publishers and advertisers was performed by specialty typesetting companies. These companies performed keyboarding, editing and production of paper or film output, and formed a large component of the graphic arts industry. The typesetting companies would send out a representative and help you achieve this. The rep gave the graphic designer special rulers (see illustration). These rulers aren’t quite obsolete, but it seems as though no one ever specs type anymore. The reps would return with the paper output of text to put onto boards to layout your design. Waxing and pasting this text output was an art in itself.  If there was a misspelled word, some times you would cut out the word and re-paste it. This was also an art as a large camera would scan the final piece. Type on a curve was done manually too. As the computer arrived on the desktops of artist, the letterpress craft disappeared.

Luckily, computers do this automatically today, but composition, placement of text is still important and takes a graphic designer to arrange this to maximum readership.