The history and evolution of typography

Presumably, the first human communication was speech. It required that individuals be near each other. Other mechanisms were needed to permit accurate communications at a distance. As we try to trace the evolution of communication, in many archaeological excavations, the oldest form of writing we find are the picture writings, which are descriptive works of art, illustrating a particular or a significant event. As it became important to communicate more generically, over a period of time, symbols were simplified and standardised. The initial forms of this picture writing are Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms.

18 Jun 2021 | By Som Nath Sapru

Som Nath Sapru

Typography has been described by several, as we see it today, but its science and evolution lie deep beneath the surface. The science of typography has evolved along with the technology used to publish documents. Whatever forms the written word has taken through the millennia have been driven by the desire of several generations to communicate better and more efficiently with one another. Before the development of any letter form, however, came the initial development of written language, which is worth a debate, and several scholars consider it as a merging of art and science, science as an art of speech.


It was from the Phoenician city of Byblos, which was known for exporting the writing material Papyrus, came a new syllabic writing style, containing only 22 signs consisting all consonants. The reader filled in the vowels based on structure and content, so undr could be understood to be wonder or wander. While this seems awkward, we can illustrate that such a structure is not all that difficult.

As the Phoenicians were seafaring traders, they carried their writing throughout the Mediterranean world, from Yemen to Ethiopia, where this ancient language is still in use today. Older Hebrew writing style was no doubt an important branch of Phoenician writing style, which was later replaced by Aramaic writing style. Much of the Bible was written in Aramaic which replaced the older Hebrew writing style. This writing style was squarish and is still used today.

While most of these early systems died out, between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE, the Semites of Syria and other parts of the Middle East created their own system of writing based on the Egyptian syllabic signs. They discarded all of the multi-consonant signs and created a new syllabary of about 30 signs, each consisting of one consonant plus any vowel they may have influenced the syllabic writing forms. This spread throughout the world.

The growth of languages and writing scripts was slow and steady and most of these evolved in local dialects and cultural ethos. For example, Aramaic, which replaced the older Hebrew writing style, was an important branch of Phoenician writing style. The northern Arabs took over a form of the Aramaic system, and with the rise of Islam, spread it to all corners of the earth.

After about a century-long gap, the Greeks borrowed liberally from the Phoenician language and began to develop the true beginnings of the modern alphabet. The Greeks refined the Phoenician language by adding the first vowels.

It is a historic fact that around 1,200 BC, the Phoenician gained their independence from the Egyptians and their own alphabet that was the first to be composed exclusively of letters, of course, in handwriting.

After about a century and a half, the Romans further developed the alphabet by using 23 letters from the Etruscans, who were based in central Italy, according to Yaroslav Gorbachav, a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago. He adds that Etruscans were a refined cultural group which essentially planted the seeds of the Western culture besides elements of Greek civilization. The Etruscans language may be dead right now, but it left an indelible impression on modern English language and script.

Time was inching forward to mechanise the handwritten letters with some kind of automated system. Various methods were being tried to individually cast or engrave these designed figurines with ceramic or wood engraved and metal. What they found was that the ceramic letters will break on multiuse and wooden will deface and chip, but the same characters or figurines will be sharp and without any visible defacement if these were cast in metal. This was the sort of beginning for hot metal composition and cold metal composition. For cold metal composition, individual characters were cast in mass — A to Z, each character was cast in million numbers and these were hand-picked sequence-wise to form a word, in a stick arranged to form a line and then several of these arranged lines in a para and then a page. Hand composing was time-consuming and a laborious way to shape a page.


This was followed by the era of manuscripts handwritten by Venetian scribes, which gave rise to gothic lettering. It evolved from Roman Capital letters. In formal writing and inscriptions, the early Romans used square capitals with slight modifications in the form of our upper-case alphabet. It was followed by many national styles in writing and it developed in faster mode and this learning was carried from Rome throughout the rest of the known world.

This particular Roman calligraphy of this school became the model for the rest of Europe and spread to other parts of the world. By the 10th century, the use of letter forms from which we derive our lower case was quite universal — and this form was universally accepted and adopted immediately after Nicolas Jenson cast a type form with hot metal.

In later centuries, several type designs came into the scene namely Caslon, Baskerville, etc. The existing rulers at that time found that they can use this new way of mass communications and use it to promote colonisation through all kinds of modes, may it be trade or even by some missionaries.

In India, the first printing and hand-composing method arrived in Goa, and it was brought by St Ignatius of Loyola on 30th April 1556. The first printing press was brought from Portugal to India to help the missionary work and some of these Portuguese priests learned Konkani and Kannada languages and translated the Holy Bible and printed massive numbers for mass distribution.

Dr Babu Cheraian in his book titled Book Publishing in Malayalam: The Beginnings claims, “Doctrina Christa, a scripture book, written in Portuguese by St Francis Xavier, is regarded as the first book printed in Goa, nay, in India.” (KM Govi, 1998: 22-25) This book was printed in 1557. In the 17th century, in addition to St Paul’s College in Goa, St Ignatius’ College in Rachol also instituted printing. The books in Goa were printed mostly in Portuguese and a few in Konkani. There is another view that Doctrina Christa was printed in Tamil at Goa.

From Goa, printing came to Kerala. “Two years after Francis Xavier’s Doctrina Christa was printed in Goa, printing was started in Kerala. The first book, printed using the movable types is, Samkshepa Vedartham. It was printed in Rome at the Polyglot Printing Press in 1772. The second Malayalam book too, was printed in the same press, in 1791.”

By the early 18th century, type designs were more or less standardised and early designers created these characters by now known as types, and these type sizes were created between 6-72 points (it is 12 points to an inch) with a complete font in each size. The definition of a font is as a complete assortment of any one size and style of type containing all the characters for setting ordinary text composition.


Capital letters are called upper case and small letters are known as lower case. When old time compositors set type by hand, they placed the case with the capital letters above the case with the smaller letters, thus the nomenclature.

In lowercase letters, the upper stroke (as in the letter ‘b’) is called the ascender and the downward stroke (as in the letter ‘p’) is known as the descender. The short crossline at the end of the main stroke is called the ‘serif’. Recently, designed letters without serifs are called sans-serif. The body of any letter is known as x-height and it makes up the greatest portion of the letter. ‘b’ and ‘p’ are the unique example of ascender and the descender of a letter whereas ‘o’ is the right example of x-height of a letter.

To most people, many typefaces look alike. Even an expert must look carefully to differentiate among various types. The entire as well as final appearance of a printed piece can be affected by the selection of the typefaces. Many characteristics – masculinity, femininity, delicacy, formality, etc can be suggested by the typeface used.

We should always remember that all the types were designed to be read easily and its readability should be comfortable to any adult age group. Both the selection of the typeface and the size to be used must be considered. For example, we should use italics carefully as the primary purpose is to emphasise on any particular word or a sentence but not to be read in a mass. 

Development of typefaces

For commercial printing and publishing, fast composition of texts was the need of the hour, and Talbert Lanston resolved the issue of fast composition by patenting his creation of Monotype in 1885, which had the capability of casting individual characters in sequence which formed a measured line whereas Linotype was patented in 1884. It produced each line in one measured slug casting and the creator was Ottmar Mergenthaler.

In short, let us say Linotype was the ‘line casting’ and whereas in Monotype, it was each individual character cast in sequence of a punched word, line, sentence or a para on a punched paper roll which was fed to a casting machine and the cast texts were assembled by the senior page-makers. In Linotype, it was directly on the machine. Texts were typeset by the Linotype operator and converted in the line slugs in sequence and the senior most compositor used to set in the pages.

Advantage of the Monotype setting was that any correction in a word could be replaced by the individual character precast whereas disadvantage with the Linotype was that the entire line had to be recast. But Linotype became popular with the newspaper industry and Monotype was well accepted by the periodical and textbook publishers. Both these systems of typesetting remained popular till the photographic typesetting started toward the end of 1940s.

All typefaces had their origin in the script form done by the calligraphers whose work for printing ultimately came to be replaced. The first page of Virgil’s Opera, the first book to incorporate italics typeface, was printed by Aldus Manutius the Elder in Venice in 1501.

The whirlwind tour of the history of photographic typesetting starting with the 1949 Fotosetter and progressing through ATF, Compugraphic, Linotype, Itek and ending with the laser-based Linotronic. By the mid-1990s, computer-to-plate and digital colour printing negated the need for separate typesetting machines.

Typography with movable type was invented during the eleventh century during the Song dynasty’s rule in China by Bi-sheng (990-1051). His movable type system was manufactured from ceramic materials, and this clay system was practiced in China until the Quing Dynasty, Wang Zhen pioneered wooden movable type.

It was Giambatista Bodoni, who created typefaces for English. He was a famed Italian typography designer who left his beautiful mark on the world from 1740-1813. His designs of various typefaces were considered more a work of art and layout than actual reading material.

In essence, typography is the art of arranging letters and text in a way that makes the copy legible, clear, and visually appealing to the reader. Typography involves font style, appearance, and structure, which aim to elicit certain emotions and convey a specific message.

The typeface was a Blackletter variety used by Johannes Gutenberg on the first printing press, starting in 1440. This typeface design was created to mimic the calligraphic handwriting used by monks to hand-transcribe manuscripts prior to the invention of the printing press.

The first historical typeface design that followed typographic principles was Nicolas Jenson’s Roman style typeface, which was designed in 1470. Before Jenson’s design, typefaces and book designs were modelled after handwritten manuscripts that predated the invention of the printing press.

Throughout history, typefaces have been influenced by technological advances, culture shifts, and just general boredom with the state of typography prevalent at any given time. Let me create a step by step of the scenario of how it all went down along with the time.

In the year 1400 Guttenberg invented movable typefaces, giving the world a cheaper way to obtain the written word. Up until this point, all written materials were done by hand, and were very time consuming and costly for any reader. Guttenberg also created the first typeface, blackletter, it was dark, bold and fairly practical and intense, but not very legible. In the year 1470 Nicolas Jenson created Roman typeface inspired by the text on ancient Roman buildings, it was far more readable than Guttenberg’s blackletter and became popular instantly.

It was followed in 1450 by Aldus Manutius’s italics, which looked more like hand written script, but was far more readable than blackletter and a way to fit more words onto a page. In the present day we use italics as a design detail or for emphasising a particular point in a given text.

These typefaces were used for more than 125 years and it was followed by William Caxton’s typeface in the year 1734. His typeface featured straighter serifs and much more obvious contrasts between thin and bold strokes. In the present day, we call this typeface and its style ‘old style’.

In less than 25 years, in 1757, John Baskerville created a new style of typeface which was called transitional type with sharp serifs and impressive and drastic contrast between thick and thin lines. In 1780, Firmin Didot and Giambastista created ‘modern’ Roman typefaces Didot and Bodoni. The contrasts were far more extreme than ever before and created a very fresh and cool look.

In the years 1815 and 1816 William Caslon and Vincent Figgins created typefaces which were more squarish and with serifs and sans-serif.  During this period, typefaces exploded and a lot more variations were created to accommodate advertising and commercial publishing, etc.

Satya Rajpurohit, founder of Ahmedabad-based Indian Type Foundry (ITF) says, “In India, we have an enormous number of languages and scripts — seven hundred and eighty languages and 400 scripts: that’s the number the People’s Linguistic Survey of India identified in 2013.”

His family of fonts, called Kohinoor, is what Apple devices are probably displaying every time you look at regional text. It’s safe to say that India is a prime player in this market because of the sheer number of languages we have.

Of these, how many scripts do we see daily? Giving text a unique ‘voice’ are typefaces and fonts, created by type designers across the world. It’s safe to say that India is a prime player in this market because of the sheer number of languages we have.

This propensity to innovate is not uncommon among the Indian type community as well. Shiva Nallaperumal from Chennai was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list just recently, for being the youngest Indian recipient, at 24, of the SOTA (Society of Typographic Aficionados) Catalyst Award. A graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art, USA, he recently launched Calcula, his latest experimental typeface, in collaboration with a Dutch type foundry.

Today, the interest in Indic types is on the rise, thanks to this emerging community of designers. Public demonstrations are also fuelling curiosity. “Typerventions is organised in Delhi, where its organisers meet common people in a public space and make font installations,” says designer Pooja Saxena, who created a Santhali font. She adds, “There are also typography boot camps and workshops in March, around World Typography Day, which are surprisingly well-attended by the type designers from all over the world.”