Research Point – History of Typography

I have enjoyed researching the history of Typography. It’s not a subject I have studied much before and so I learnt a lot about the early processes for typesetting and the development of different typeface designs throughout the last 150 years. I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s book ‘Just my Type’ and was amused by the story of type designer Matthew Carter who persistently has his enjoyment of films ruined by inconsistencies in the continuity of use of type. I have to confess that the concept of being able to quickly identify so many different typefaces overwhelms me a bit at the moment… my eye is not yet tuned to the subtle differences between very similar looking Sans and Serif faces.

I watched Shelley Gruendler’s TedTalk entitled ‘Typography – now you see it’ and was interested in her descriptions of letters being painted on stone and carved out to form early letter punches. She talked of the use of typography in modern advertising as

all these voices screaming at you in different tones – trying to get you to pay attention

which made me consider the power of typography in a way I hadn’t before.

I watched a YouTube video of a replica of the Gutenberg Press being used and was interested in the development of early movable type. Johannes Gutenberg made his movable-type printing press in Europe in around 1450 and went on to print the famous Gutenberg Bible using this method.

Movable type is the system and technology of printing using movable components to reproduce lines of text on paper. Through my research I discovered that the first movable type system was developed in China by the inventor Bi Shang between 1041 and 1048 during the Song dynasty. He carved individual characters in relief on a small block of moistened clay and then baked it to make it durable and reusable.


The process is described in detail by Shen Kuo (1031-1095), the Chinese polymath, scientist and statesman, in his book The Dream Pool Essays’ in 1088 AD.

‘[Bi Sheng] took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together.

When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

If one were to print only two or three copies, this method would be neither simple nor easy. But for printing hundreds or thousands of copies, it was marvelously quick.

As a rule he kept two forms going. While the impression was being made from the one form, the type was being put in place on the other. When the printing of the one form was finished, the other was then ready. In this way the two forms alternated and the printing was done with great rapidity…'(Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5)

The system proved impractical for the large number of Chinese characters but transferred remarkably well when adapted for the Roman Alphabet, as found by Gutenberg.

I was also interested in the history of typography in Comic Books… I love comic book art and characters but to be honest hadn’t really considered the typography in any great detail before. I discovered that comic books were traditionally hand lettered and that the development of the style and characteristics of the type was connected to its placing within balloons of different shapes (some fixed and some scalloped).

Comic book lettering has to be very visually appealing and highly legible to be able to be read easily within the speech bubbles. The style of the type resembles hand lettering which gives a more expressive quality complimenting the art. Comic lettering gave the artists opportunities for experimentation and often incorporated wonky and mis-proportioned characters. Many letterers used the Ames Guide which was developed as a standard tool for guiding lettering in professional comic books. Features of the type included squat, rounded letters to fit inside the lines of the Ames Guide and using all Capital letters to make the spacing needed between lines smaller due to the absence of decenders.

The development of digital technology and typefaces revolutionised comic book lettering and Richard Starkings and John Roshell, both comic book letterers, created custom digital fonts for the comic industry which were available from their company Comicraft. These days there are many versions of comic book typefaces available to digitally download



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