LECTURE 4 - History of the Typographical Form - VDIS10020 Typography 1
Introduction to Typography 1 VDIS10020 : Lecture 4
Tutor Cal Swann
A brief history of typographic form
Visible language, that is, the written word, may be said to
have begun in the Mesopotamia region some 6,000 years
ago. Attempts to make lists for records, for business, for
religious purposes and government administration,
required a more refined system than just pictures to tell
Impressing clay tablets with a stylus, painting/drawing
hieroglyphics, were precursors to writing, leading to the
development of the western alphabet system that finally
Early Greek capitals and then the immaculate Roman
capitals carved on ceremonial columns brought the Latin
alphabet to fruition, a superior system to the runes in
northern Europe (nothing magical about runes), which
nonetheless continued side by side with the Latin forms for
For several hundred years, scribes in the Middle Ages were
the recorders of the official communications. Mainly
religious documents were produced by individuals and
teams of monks cloistered away in monasteries.
They made everything themselves, stretched and cured the
pigskin (vellum), cut their own pens and manufactured
their inks, binding the pages into the codex (book) form.
They used grids to guide the page layouts, pricking tiny
holes through the vellum from a master overlay, sketching
in the frameworks as they went –taking a lifetime maybe to
turn out a few copies.
Their painstaking work eventually evolved into the
miniscule letterform (lower case) around the ninth century.
That took another four hundred year or so to be refined as
the Humanist roman in Italy.
Johann Gutenberg revolutionalised all that scribbling in
1442, to invent a factory book production system that could
print hundreds of copies in months.
In addition to creating single units of metal type, he adapted
a wine press to do the printing. His 36 line bible (above)
imitated the written books of his time, using a very
condensed Gothic letterform with hand coloured
Gutenberg’s invention allowed each line to be adjusted to
‘square up’ both sides of the block of text by varying the
space between the words.
The traditional layout of the book was the layout for
everything – odd sheets, proclamations, papal indulgences,
and so on, all followed the centered layout.
Modern book formats continue the manuscript conventions,
even in e-book pages which we ‘turn’ in virtual simulation.
The black Gothic letterform gave way in Italy to the rounded
Humanist roman, generally credited to the Italian scribe
Poggio Bracciolini around 1406 (Ullman 1960). Printers
like Jenson and Manutius were quick to establish fine
printing factories in the new roman type fonts.
Italy was in the midst of the Renaissance and the
typography was strongly related to the round forms of the
architecture and designs of the times – just as the narrow
Gothic letters had emulated the tall and condensed
architecture of the Gothic cathedrals.
Fifteenth century Italian book production is regarded by
historians as perhaps the first ‘classic’ epoch of typographic
It was another three hundred years for the mainly
calligraphic letterform, to evolve into a more precise,
engraved form appropriate for type cutting. Giambatista
Bodoni (c. 1800) took this font to perfection and typifies
what is perhaps the second classic period of clean and
clinically precise typography.
However, not before John Baskerville in England (c. 1750)
had cleared the way with his transitional roman and the
introduction of a smoother paper to print the sharp type
The industrial revolution changed everything. An urban
community required new letterforms that competed in the
visual marketplace. The Victorians invented totally new
type faces – sans serif, square serif, fat faces, extra extra
bold, and so on.
There was no real concept of design, it was up to the
compositor to start at the top and work down, inserting big
type for the headings. Still a bookish title page approach.
John Parry painted the London street scene above in 1837,
capturing a visual environment that lasted throughout the
Things did begin to change toward the end of the century
however, ‘artistic printing’ (top left) became prized and and
printers started to compete and make big efforts to achieve
an art look – enabled by advances in more accurate printing
on machines like the Arab platen press, for example.
Advertisers began using artists to sell products, the
beginning of commercial art. Lautrec among many others,
created lasting images around the turn of the century.
It became the trendy thing to make memorable images by
using well-known artists.
Generally however, there still wasn’t much idea of design,
even with the photographic process of half tone
reproduction. The main pictorial output was through
lithographic drawings on stones, printed offset.
But governments as well as industry, were employing more
sophisticated selling strategies to get their message across.
The modern age began in the twentieth century. Art was in
revolution and new movements sprang up all over Europe.
Partly spurred by the Great War, reaction was fierce against
the old conventions. Many artists and architects were
forging new principles to harness the machine age.
The Bauhaus was set up in 1919 and grouped together a
number of influential thinkers and doers. Herbert Bayer
used photography and type very effectively. He also created
a universal alphabet, a reaction against the then German
practice of over using capitalisation.
The design of the invoice above shows that all the modern
concepts for business and functional stationery were in
place by the 1920s, at least in the minds of the leading
Jan Tschichold (among others not of the Bauhaus)
formulated ‘Die Neue Typographie’ and was a dominant
influence on design throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.
England was slow to adopt the new typography and design
approaches. William Morris had been influential in the
revival of design consciousness but tradition died hard in
the print shops of Blighty.
Even so, international companies like Monotype, were
creating and supplying fine new typefaces to the world and
Stanley Morison supervised the introduction of Times
Roman, for example. Beatrice Warde was an influential
promoter for traditional design, coining the Crystal Goblet
Eric Gill was also one of those who produced a range of
fonts for Monotype, most famously, Gill Sans and Perpetua.
His purist (and somewhat archaic) approach to typography
and even word spacing was espoused in his book above
At the same time, Hitler was adhering to the Gothic fonts
and very successfully branding Nazism with a vast range of
quite deliberate propaganda and tight specifications for
typography. Organised and strategic graphic design had
Post war design in England still swam along the art and
crafts spirit while America and in particular Switzerland,
were absorbing the influx of the Bauhaus practitioners –
most of whom had been forced to exit Hitler’s Germany.
The Swiss Typography, also known as the International
Style, became the biggest influence around the world.
Fully articulated in the 60s, the Neue Grafik journal, TM
(Typografische Monatsblatter) and the Ulm (the new
Bauhaus) journals all promoted systematic grid formulas.
A lot of us became Gridniks.
Worth noting – many typographers regard the 60s Swiss
Typography as the third era of ‘classic’ typography, for its
purist layout and precision printing.
Swiss Typography was certainly more than style, it
expounded legibility in mainly sans serif fonts, organised
systematic photographic illustrations, all with an
unabashed Modernist credo. The new graphik was good for
you and everyone.
Karl Gerstner, Muller Brockmann, Hans Neuburg and many
other Swiss artist/designers were prolific in their output of
fine graphic works. This approach was exemplified in Armin
Hoffmann’s ‘Graphic Design Manual’ (1965), and Emil
Ruder’s classic ‘Typography’ (1967), both designers and
teachers at Basel School of Design. Their pedagogic
approach was a massive influence across the world.
The relationship of typography with the architecture of the
day is always apparent. They reflect the design zeitgeist in
visual expression, perhaps because both are also based on
modular units and a systematic assembly methodology.
Glass and concrete, text and paper, economic systems for
the maker and user, repetition and pattern... less is more.
While the organised Swiss were wooing method designers
in Europe, from across the Atlantic came a totally different
breath of graphic air. Advertising, the staple of American
commerce, ruled the waves across the US to the Pacific. Big,
bold and brash, no hint of a grid in sight, the word was the
Combining the two elements of image and type, American
graphic design and advertising was about impact and
communication. Gone were the cool aesthetics of European
continental design, here was message making in the raw.
And very effective with it.
US designers had learned from the Bauhaus migrants who
had escaped there from Hitler’s Germany, the Americans
adding their pound of capitalist ‘we can do it’ credo.
Milton Glaser, Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand, Gene Frederico and
many more – plus those Volkswagen campaigns by Doyle
Dane and Bernbach – made graphic history.
We in Britain didn’t know which way to look.
Lou Dorfsman had a massive influence on a generation or
three of designers. His creative work for CBS was seminal
for corporate advertising. I had the privilege of seeing him
present his work at the ATypeI Conference in Paris in 1967.
His American adapt and publish-and-be-damned approach
sparked a fight in the audience between the conservative
continental type designers and Dorfman’s supporters.
Fists flying and all that. Passions over-flowing in typography.
Metal type, the mainstay of letterpress until well after
WW2, lost out to film in the 60s/70s. The Monophoto
machine was doing all the typesetting, with offset printing
as the production outlet.
Film/photography was also being exploited by designers,
not just for superimposing type on photographs, but using
the lens to distort fonts and create visual messages. Franco
Grignani in Italy (right) was an inspiration to all.
TypoPhoto, the integration of type and image, was another
graphic tool with which to make visual impact.
Computer generated graphics developed rapidly in the 80s,
particularly in the film and TV world. The Ministry of
Defence exploited the new technology for simulations in
war games. The ‘Paintbox’ became the next big thing.
Then in 1984, Macintosh launched the Apple Plus, doing for
text and typography what the paintbox did for graphics and
A whole generation of digital designers marched into the
90s, sweeping away the few remaining constraints imposed
by the old letterpress system.
Designers born before the desktop revolution had to
become digital migrants overnight or sink out of sight.
Among others, April Greiman (ex student of Weingart in
Basel), radicalised graphics in America. It was all change
Coming to the fore, somewhat in place of the Swiss
reputation, was the work of the Dutch typographers. Their
brand of anarchic text, yet still embodying the best and the
more flexible principles taken out of the Swiss modern
movement, was fresh inspiration.
While the digital revolution was underway, advertising
continued around the world to refine the American model.
This anti-drink-driving campaign I photographed in South
Australia in the mid 90s is typical of the exploitation of the
word and image technique. Strong words that make sense
when allied to the visual image.
Communication is culture dependent. Unless you know that
the Cooper’s beer is clear until you shake the bottle before
pouring, this ad for Cooper’s Ale doesn’t make much sense.
Aside from advertising, Wolfgang Wiengart (who had
replaced Ruder in Basel), trained a new generation of
‘Swiss/International’ graphic designers who spread around
the world without any regard for the modernist
Postmodernism was in, every and any style was melded in a
new aesthetic and the ‘Typography of Order’ was decidedly
out. The ‘Hundertwasser House’ apartment block in Vienna
typified the total disregard for modernist square towers.
Typography followed suit.
Everywhere, the new technology offered incredible freedom
to the typographic arts. Neville Brody in London, Jeffrey
Keedy and David Carson in the US broke every rule in the
typography book to the despair of the old ‘modern’ guard.
Text was extra extra condensed, stretched and thrown
across the pages in haphazard abandon. This was rejection
of ‘ordered legibility’ with a vengeance. The Crystal Goblet
shattered in uncaring disregard.
Emigre (California) and journals such as Eye (London),
promulgated the discourse for the new and the old
approaches. Designers took sides vehemently.
Cranbrook College in US (Catherine McCoy) was foremost in
exploring the notion that typography could now realise
Derrida’s concept of multiple meanings of text. Layering of
phrases over each other was supposed to allow the reader a
choice of interpretations. Of course, it did the opposite,
anchoring the reader to those the designer had already
decided to present in artistic profusion.
London had finally moved out of its doldrums of the 50s and
prospered as a design centre from the 60s/70s/80s
onwards, blending all approaches with verve and creativity.
The eight innovative issues of the journal ‘Octavo’ enjoyed
the opportunity to express all that was new in a subtle
blend of modernism and postmodern digital wizardry.
Their tongue in cheek version of Bridgit Wilkins’ historical
expose was a parody of multiple meanings (they printed the
article ‘properly’ at the back of the issue).
This very brief survey inevitably omits vast numbers of
examples and typographers who have exerted influence in
the development of typographic expertise. I’ve tried to
highlight the main movements as I’ve seen them, condensed
and entirely selective in this format. I’ve not tried to cover
the impact of the computer and TV screen on the reader, for
example, this is a whole field on its own, initially influenced
by the printed word but then having an effect in reverse.
Where typography is now is a blend of all styles, some
intended to shock and some creating messages within the
expected conventions, graphic standards are high in
Australia and most parts of the world, and the profession
has matured. The future is bright if highly competitive.
You are expected to conduct your own further research to
absorb the history of typography through books and
magazines. A recommended reading list is alongside, most
are paperbacks and the New Horizon editions are
particularly well illustrated and concise.
The timeline history chart next page is from the highly
recommended Alan and Isabella Livingston’s
Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers (2012).
This excellent chart telescopes a lengthy history and
indicates the prime movers and shakers succinctly.
Also a must to watch is the film ‘Helvetica’ by Gary Hustwit
(2007) Swiss Dots Limited. This 50 year anniversary of the
Helvetica typeface, features rare glimpses of many of the
key graphic designers and theorists discussing the way
fonts have enormous influence on contemporary life.
Graphic Design: A Concise History
Richard Hollis 2001
Meggs’ History of Graphic Design
Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis
The Thames Hudson Dictionary
of Graphic Design and Designers
Alan Livingston, Isabella Livingston
Graphic Design: A History
Stephen J. Eskilson 2012
Graphic Design, Referenced: A
Visual Guide to the Language,
Applications, and History of
Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio
100 Ideas that Changed Graphic
Steven Heller, Veronique Vienne
Graphic Design and Architecture,
A 20th Century History: A Guide to
Type, Image, Symbol, and Visual
Storytelling in the Modern World
Richard Poulin 2012
Type. A Visual History of
Typefaces Graphic Styles
Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, Jan
Graphic Design Theory: Readings
from the Field
Helen Armstrong 2009
Five Hundred Years of Printing
S. H. Steinberg, edited by John Trevitt
Allan Haley 1996
Graphics: A century of poster and
Alain Weill 2004 New Horizons
Writing: The story of alphabets and
Georges Jean 2000 New Horizons
Signs, Symbols and Ciphers:
Decoding the message
Georges Jean 1999 New Horizons
The Origin and Development of
B L Ullman 1960 ACLS e-book