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Fonts Have a History that Matters to Every Print Business

This Font Knowledge article series discusses how font awareness can increase revenue and involve your print company earlier in the project development cycle.

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In this article, we delve into the origin and history of fonts to help print professionals make sense of the countless fonts that are available and put them to work for increased business.

Throughout history, the most successful printshops have set themselves apart by offering graphic design services to their customers. The heart of graphic design when working with text is font choice.
With the explosion in the number fonts in use today, understanding fonts and where they come from is vital to executing a full-service business model that attracts and keeps profitable customers.

Ever since humans took up writing, they’ve concerned themselves with how well their finished product looked. In an age where only the elite could write, professional scribes took great pride in the legibility and beauty of their handwriting.

Should a Text Look Elegant or Be Easy to Read?

As in all fields of design, there’s a debate between practical and aesthetic concerns. Should a text look elegant or be easy to read? Why not both? 

Ellen Lupton reviews the history of fonts in her book Thinking with Type.

Gutenberg and the Earliest Typefaces

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When Gutenberg pioneered movable type, he had to decide how his characters should look. Gutenberg based his typefaces on the blackletter style of the monks in his region. His cursive characters are heavy and dark. The earliest fonts came directly from the forms that calligraphers had created. Soon, though, designers felt that calligraphy characters didn’t feel right. 

A handwritten script reflects the hand gestures of the scribe. The thinking emerged among some early printers that typefaces should reflect the modernism of the age. Their newer typefaces were more mechanistic in style and represented the precision created by exact duplication. The same tension between form and function had reappeared. You can learn more about this tension in the book Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton.

Typefaces Preserved Organic Hand Movements

Some typefaces preserved at least some of the flourishes of organic hand movements. Others emphasized the abstract geometry of an enlightened age. The philosophy of Renaissance Italy was called humanist. So, we call typefaces inspired by that period humanist as well. These calligraphic fonts emphasize the flourishes of the human hand more than geometric forms. 

Before long, printers started grouping type into families, within which there would be a humanist and an italic version of the character set. Around this time, the trend shifted sharply toward the modern, mechanistic approach. 

          COPI simplifies your font licensing and tuning process.

The King’s Alphabet 

King Louis XIV of France appointed a committee of the Academy of Sciences for the sole purpose of designing a standard typeface. The result is known as Romain du Roi (the king’s alphabet).

The designers drafted the character set on 8 x 8 grids using a ruler and compass like a geometry class. We can see the influence of Romain du Roi in fashionable designs that we still use, including Times New Roman or Royal Romain. 

The most crucial trend in the period that followed was universal literacy. More and more countries adopted compulsory education. Before long, schoolteachers were drilling every child on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now, everyone could recognize (and criticize) how printers presented letters and numbers.

Literate Masses Represented a New Market

Literate masses represented a new market for mass media. The inevitable result of this was mass marketing using printed advertising. And, marketers sought typefaces with mass appeal. 
During the age of King Louis XIV, full-service printers were often the only source of font information in their community. Their Font Knowledge positioned them to work closely with marketers to advise on the best typefaces for the marketing pieces their company would be printing. Staying in business for the long haul has always meant applying the latest technology and being in tune with customer expectations. And that requires a knowledge of the newest typography styles. 
In those days, designers responded with typefaces that were big and bold. As well, they were scalable to enormous heights, widths, and depths for headlines. Printers also found ways to mix and match fonts on the same page.

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The other significant development during the late 1800s was the invention and common use of the typewriter. Conventional typewriters allocate the same space to every character. This kind of font is called monotype. IBM came to dominate the typing world, and so did its default monotype font, Courier. 

Twentieth Century Typefaces Shifted Away from Tradition 

In the twentieth century, the geometrical approach to design blended with enabling technology, freeing designers from earlier constraints. Typefaces became elastic, and the emphasis shifted toward the relationships between characters and away from tradition. 

The defining typeface of the early twentieth century is probably Paul Renner’s Futura, released in 1927. It’s a practical, multipurpose typeface based on geometry with no fancy serifs or flourishes. To this day, readers think of sans serif fonts like Futura or Arial as modern, practical, and easy to read.

All these developments, among others, left us with three broad kinds of fonts.

  • Serif fonts maintain some of the little flourishes from calligraphy.

  • Sans serif fonts reflect geometry and look to the future. 

  • Monotype fonts have functional, equal character spacing. 

A new challenge arose in the 1960s when we began to read texts on computer screens. Early computer fonts were composed of nothing but straight lines. When home computers took off in the 1980s, the results in terms of type design were disappointing. The issue was the low resolution of early computer screens and dot matrix printers.
Two entrepreneurs working out of garages changed all that. Steve Jobs of Apple had studied calligraphy as a young man. He was determined to bring the beauty of typography into the digital world. John Warnock named his new company after the creek flowing past his garage. Its name was the Adobe River. 

Adobe Developed PostScript and Apple Came Out with TrueType 

Laser printers went mainstream in the 1990s, and with them came desktop publishing. Apple and Adobe have had a complicated relationship. All we need to say here is that Adobe developed PostScript, and Apple came out with TrueType. 

These tools made everyone a graphic designer, or at least let them think they were. The original version of PostScript had just three typeface categories. These were Times, Helvetica, and Courier. In other words, they provided one serif, one sans serif, and one monotype. 

People loved choosing fonts to express moods or ideas. In PostScript 3, the number of fonts mushroomed to 136. Today, you can choose between more than 600 fonts in Microsoft Word alone, and there are roughly 250,000 available on the web for download. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Choices and Combinations are Limitless 

The world of fonts today is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The choices you can make and the combinations you can come up with are limitless. Of course, dieticians aren’t fans of buffets. We usually make poor food choices there and combine food groups in the wrong ways. 

To make their way in today’s glut of font choices, marketers and graphic designers need the print world’s equivalent of a dietician. Increasingly, they are looking for expert advice on how to make the right typographic design decisions for their messages. 

Too often, direct mail campaigns invest wisely in high-quality materials, printing, finishing, and postage, only to fail because their typography and fonts make the wrong impression. It’s like showing up all prepared for a job interview but wearing Crocs instead of Oxfords. 

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That’s where Dr. FontZ and his COPI Font Team come in. They assist printers and mailers in providing the best in font technology for high-volume production environments. 

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In the next article of this series, we’ll cover the range of fonts available, how they’re categorized, and how to choose the right fonts, at the right time, for the right message.

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