Typography, love it or hate it? … a short history from Press to Digital.

Jan 9, 2012 by

This entry was written by , one of the OxonDigital members. The author's views below are entirely their own and may not reflect the views of OxonDigital.
Typography, love it or hate it? … a short history from Press to Digital.

Typography, love it or hate it, from a 120 words or less tweet, to a 30 metre billboard at Heathrow … we consume it every day with barely a whisper of a thought. As we reel towards an ever more image driven society, can typography hold its own?

Call me sentimental, but hey, we respond most to what is real, people, music, art… and beautiful type. The use of space versus line and curve, the nesting of one letter to another with the perfect amount of space between characters. Where do things fit now in our fast-paced, image-driven culture … how did we get here, and where to next?

The Printing Press

1440 – The arrival of the printing press by Gutenberg, spread type and print into the mainstream. Individual hand moulded letters were carefully placed in a matrix, and molten metal poured over them to produce a cast. This was cooled, removed and the newly-cast type was ready for print. Sounds simple, but it revolutionised the Western World with the mechanization of the printed word and books.

Mechanical Casting

1886 – The arrival of the Linotpye typecasting machine, a complicated beast of a device. Instead of each individual letter being picked and positioned, letters could finally be picked by a keyboard – see where this is going? This completely changed typesetting, especially newspapers. If this has piqued your interest, take a look at the trailer to this film out next year http://linotypefilm.com/

Photo typesetting

1972 – Things moved on from here to phototypesetting, and metal casting was assigned to history. Cue … arrival of postscript and lasers (via a short era of paper tapes and glass discs). Text ‘marked-up’ with code, ‘ripped’ through a postscript device and lasered onto photosensitive paper. By now Linotype owned the rights to many of the classic fonts, centuries of work made available at the touch of a keyboard.

Screen to Press

1985 – The start of desktop publishing, and the arrival of the ‘Apple’. Together with its long time partner ‘Adobe’ the world of digital design underwent a quantum shift. Apple Macs and Quark Xpress took the publishing world by storm, typography and a range of fonts became available on a much wider scale. Typography continued its influence as an integrated part of graphic design, with added flexibility of use within the Adobe Suite for text based graphics.

Web-based publishing

1989 – With the arrival of the Internet, publishing started to move online. A limited diet of Arial and Verdana were not quite enough sustenance for an avid typographer. Until … the welcome appearance of web fonts, and the ubiquitous @font-face. At last fonts online, from Collaborate to the downright showy Lobster. Not perfect, but a vast improvement … and overall a big smile from designer/developers. With Font Squirrel and Typekit assisting the spread of web font technology, type online has vastly improved in the last couple of years.

Handheld devices – iPhone and iPad

2007 – So what next, faced with the next generation of mobile devices and tablets, can typography still hold its own. @font-face is supported on iPhones and iPads allowing fonts to be embedded as SVG (scalable vector graphic) fonts. Some of the more elaborate ‘hinting’ and refinement of pure TrueType fonts is lost in conversion to SVG but things are moving forward as we speak.

Finally …

Web-type has a long way to go before the subtleties of print can be obtained. It occurred to me that, type allows you to observe and consume at your leisure, alongside more attention grabbing media. So its place is one of aesthetic appeal based on centuries of craft, and balance to our image driven culture.

What are your thoughts of typography, love it or hate it? What typefaces are you using at the moment?

Define Media - Creative web and graphic design services. Follow Maria on Google Plus.


  1. Really fascinating history, Maria. I’m interested too in people’s reactions to ebooks and the variable typography found on different devices. I keep hearing the phrase “I really don’t want to read on a Kindle because I don’t like the fonts”. Then the person gets a Kindle and within a week is reading – and enjoying books – more than ever without ever mentioning fonts again. I wonder if anyone is researching this?

  2. Thanks, its a bit of a condensed history. My initial thought is that people are geared for familiarity, and are slightly resistant to change. In reality there are a couple of subtle differences to consider. e-ink does do a good job of mimicking printed ink on non reflective page, with a good resolution and greyscale range – though not ‘quite’ as good as a printed page. The difference might not be visible to the naked eye, but maybe we register this subtle difference in the back of our brains somewhere. Also, I think most e-readers choose a serif-font, similar to printed books, but again the subtleties and range of traditional typefaces might be lost. That said I think, as soon as a reader has ‘adapted’ the many other benefits come in to play, being able to change size, linespacing etc. and the ‘whole experience’ becomes more enjoyable. Not to mention having a whole library of writers and titles to hand. I am wondering if there has been any research too, on say how long on average a person reads a e-book versus print, or how many books people read over a year on either medium.

  3. I’m thinking beautifully crafted hardback books will survive, with a QR code link to online ‘flexible’ iPad type media, and paperback / quick reads all go online, together with magazines. In the future we’ll be amused by the fact that we printed on mashed up trees …

  4. Maria, another informative and interesting post, thank you. I think the introduction of tablets and digital readers such as the iPad and Kindle will speed up the need to make all font types available across all browsers. I know that there are a large number of type fonts already available but having the ability to improve on that is much sought after.

    I bought my wife a Kindle for XMAS, and she loves it. I don’t think that the font type really plays much into the reading of the book, well for me anyway. As long as it is easy to read whether it be in print or on digital. i don’t think digital will completely take over from printed literature, but I think it might reduce the number of books printed. What do you think?

  5. Definitely, reduce the number of books printed … add a great convenience for consumable books such as paperbacks and articles (Kindle) … broader media experience for news magazines etc. (iPad) and lovely crafted object that you can share and pick up to flick through and get inspiration (hardbacks).

    I just cancelled my newspaper subscription this week in favour of an iPad one, at the moment I’m scanning around a lot, but when I find content that interests me I settle and read … feel like I am just finding my way with it, but love it already.

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