The Evolution of Typography: A Brief History

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by John Siebert

“Illustrious” Origins

Writing is one of the most fundamental forms of communication, and it traces its roots back to hieroglyphs or pictograms. Used by ancient civilizations of the world to represent ideas, these images soon evolved into alphabets and phonographic writing, which led to the development of various typographic systems.

Typography has an “illustrious” history and is obviously a crucial aspect of graphic design. Sure enough, typeface designers need to have a thorough understanding of typography—especially its evolution over the centuries—in order to incorporate or revive older or even extinct typefaces, depending upon their requirements, and give the letters a modern touch.

Let’s go through the evolution of typography briefly to gain a bit of insight. We will not delve fully into the rich history of typography (as it can go on endlessly) but cover some essentials that changed the course of typography.

Ancient Era – Saying it with Pictures

Ancient cave paintings that date back to 20,000 B.C. are perhaps the very first recorded written communication. However, formal writing is said to have been developed by the Sumerians at around 3,500 B.C.

As civilizations advanced, the need to communicate complex concepts grew—hence the development of Egyptian hieroglyphics. By 3100 B.C., the Egyptians began incorporating symbols or ideograms into their art, architecture and writings. Also, by 1600 B.C. Phoenicians developed phonograms, or symbols used to represent spoken words. At present, we have a number of phonograms laced in the English alphabet such as % to represent “percentage” and # to represent “number” and so on and so forth.

It is Phoenicians who are credited with creating the very first alphabet and around 1000 B.C.—the same alphabet was used by the Greeks. In fact, the word Alphabet is a combination of the first two Greek letters, Alpha and Beta.

The Romans, after several years, used this Greek Alphabet and on the basis of the same, styled the Uppercase Alphabet, which is still used today. They also refined the art of handwriting and fashioned a number of different styles of lettering. Additionally, they also introduced different scripts – formal and informal for official and unofficial writings respectively.

The Middle Ages – Handwritten and Well-Illustrated Manuscripts

The Middle Ages were all about hand-written and well-illustrated manuscripts. It led to the evolution of a wide range of writing styles. Unicals and half unicals were prominent features, with rounded, elaborate lettering. The art of Calligraphy along with page layout and lettering forged new ground. Calligraphy masters travelled across the known world to share their knowledge with the educated elite.

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The Book of Kells, c. AD 800, is lettered in a script known as “insular majuscule,” a variety of uncial script that originated in Ireland. (Image source)

Gutenberg and Modern Typography

As we all learned in history class, the development of moveable type and the printing press in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg was a turning point for the modern world—and, of course, modern typography. During this time, both practical and decorative typefaces appeared en masse, along with a lighter, more ordered page layout with subtle illustrations.

By the Industrial Revolution typography was all about communicating with the masses. Through signs, posters, newspapers, periodicals and advertisements, typefaces became larger and catchier, with bolder lettering and shading—as well as experimental serif and sans serif typefaces. Ornamental typography was another major highlight in this era. In the 1800’s, medieval art and hand crafted individual art has become commonplace, and international artistic styles developed considerably.

Shifting to the Present

Graphic designers these days have the luxury of endless tools and technology to create a wide range of typographic styles and even entire families of font families and typefaces. Armed with the knowledge of typographic history, graphic designers can expand their horizons and enhance their skills to produce a much more refined body of work.

Understanding the various visual communication principles in typography since the beginning of time can help designers determine which elements have more or less remained the same and which ones have evolved with time—as well as the factors that contributed to their success or failure.


Image source

From ancient typographic styles to classic movable type, the history of typography can help designers develop a more informed and cohesive style that builds on the past. There is so much to learn from the past, and so much inspiration to be discovered.

History also allows designers to learn from the past mistakes, understand common threads, reinvent classic letterforms and develop innovative typographic styles, which they can proudly add to an existing portfolio or body of work.

In Conclusion

The practically-endless body of work that represents typography makes it impossible for graphic designers nowadays to become familiar with each and every typeface design that exists. However, it is important that to be well-versed in typographic styles, iconic typefaces from the past, and the origins of common typefaces. It’s not just about theoretical knowledge, either; a strong foundational understanding of typographic history helps designers understand and meet the needs of their clients more effectively.

Author Bio:

John Siebert is the President and CEO of Tranquil Blue – Tampa Website Design Company that focuses on all kind of website design, mobile app development and search engine marketing.

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By Rob Carter, Philip B. Meggs, Ben Day, Sandra Maxa, Mark Sanders

Containing up-to-date information on current design trends, Typographic Design: Form and Communication, 6th Edition by Rob Carter, Philip B. Meggs, Ben Day, Sandra Maxa, and Mark Sanders provides a comprehensive look at typography. Because of its versatile nature and presence among several industries including print, video, television, film, packaging, digital design, advertising and more, typography, and having proficient type design skills, is an essential component of every graphic designer’s arsenal.

Inside this typography book is a view of the discipline incorporating an exploration of typography in media versus typography in motion, and coverage of topics like letterforms, syntax and legibility, the evolution and technology of typography, communication and the typographic message, typographic design processes, using the grid, and more. Get it here.