Typography traces its origins to the first punches and dies used to make seals and currency in ancient times. The uneven spacing of the impressions on brick stamps found in the Mesopotamian cities of Uruk and Larsa, dating from the 2nd millennium BC, may have been evidence of type where the reuse of identical characters were applied to create cuneiform text. Babylonian cylinder seals were used to create an impression on a surface by rolling the seal on wet clay. Typography was also realized in the Phaistos Disc, an enigmatic Minoan print item from Crete, Greece, which dates between 1850 and 1600 BC. It has been proposed that Roman lead pipe inscriptions were created by movable type printing, but German typographer Herbert Brekle recently dismissed this view.
The essential criterion of type identity was met by medieval print artifacts such as the Latin Pruefening Abbey inscription of 1119 that was created by the same technique as the Phaistos disc. The silver altarpiece of patriarch Pellegrinus II (1195−1204) in the cathedral of Cividale was printed with individual letter punches. The same printing technique can apparently be found in 10th to 12th century Byzantine reliquaries. Individual letter tiles where the words are formed by assembling single letter tiles in the desired order were reasonably widespread in medieval Northern Europe.
Typography with movable type was invented in 11th-century China by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Song Dynasty. His movable type system was manufactured from ceramic materials, and clay type printing continued to be practiced in China until the Qing Dynasty. Wang Zhen was one of the pioneers of wooden movable type. Although the wooden type was more durable under the mechanical rigors of handling, repeated printing wore the character faces down, and the types could only be replaced by carving new pieces. Metal type was first invented in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty around 1230. Hua Sui introduced bronze type printing to China in 1490 AD. However, the diffusion of both movable-type systems was limited and the technology did not spread beyond East Asia.
Modern movable type, along with the mechanical printing press, is most often attributed to the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, who independently invented the technology in mid-15th century Germany. His type pieces from a lead-based alloy suited printing purposes so well that the alloy is still used today. Gutenberg developed specialized techniques for casting and combining cheap copies of letterpunches in the vast quantities required to print multiple copies of texts. This technical breakthrough was instrumental in starting the Printing Revolution and printing the world's first book (with movable type) the Gutenberg Bible.
Computer technology revolutionized typography in the 20th century. Personal computers in the 1980s like the Macintosh allowed type designers to create types digitally using commercial graphic design software. Digital technology also enabled designers to create more experimental typefaces, alongside the practical fonts of traditional typography. Designs for typefaces could be created faster with the new technology, and for more specific functions. The cost for developing typefaces was drastically lowered, becoming widely available to the masses. The change has been called the "democratization of type" and has given new designers more opportunities to enter the field.
In traditional typography, text is composed to create a readable, coherent, and visually satisfying whole that works invisibly, without the awareness of the reader. Even distribution of typeset material, with a minimum of distractions and anomalies, is aimed at producing clarity and transparency.
Choice of typeface(s) is the primary aspect of text typography—prose fiction, non-fiction, editorial, educational, religious, scientific, spiritual and commercial writing all have differing characteristics and requirements of appropriate typefaces and fonts. For historic material established text typefaces are frequently chosen according to a scheme of historical genre acquired by a long process of accretion, with considerable overlap between historical periods.
Contemporary books are more likely to be set with state-of-the-art seriffed "text romans" or "book romans" with design values echoing present-day design arts, which are closely based on traditional models such as those of Nicolas Jenson, Francesco Griffo (a punchcutter who created the model for Aldine typefaces), and Claude Garamond. With their more specialized requirements, newspapers and magazines rely on compact, tightly fitted seriffed text fonts specially designed for the task, which offer maximum flexibility, readability and efficient use of page space. Sans serif text fonts are often used for introductory paragraphs, incidental text and whole short articles. A current fashion is to pair sans-serif type for headings with a high-performance seriffed font of matching style for the text of an article.
Typography is modulated by orthography and linguistics, word structures, word frequencies, morphology, phonetic constructs and linguistic syntax. Typography is also subject to specific cultural conventions. For example, in French it is customary to insert a non-breaking space before a colon (:) or semicolon (;) in a sentence, while in English it is not.
In typography, color is the overall density of the ink on the page, determined mainly by the typeface, but also by the word spacing, leading and depth of the margins. Text layout, tone or color of the set text, and the interplay of text with the white space of the page in combination with other graphic elements impart a "feel" or "resonance" to the subject matter. With printed media typographers are also concerned with binding margins, paper selection and printing methods when determining the correct color of the page.
Experimental typography is defined as the unconventional and more artistic approach to setting type. Francis Picabia was a Dada pioneer in the early 20th Century. David Carson is often associated with this movement, particularly for his work in Ray Gun magazine in the 1990s. His work caused an uproar in the design community due to his abandonment of standards in typesetting practices, layout, and design. Experimental typography places emphasis on communicating emotion, rather than on legibility.
19th century wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth (the assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln) printed with lead and woodcut type, and incorporating photography.
Display typography is a potent element in graphic design, where there is less concern for readability and more potential for using type in an artistic manner. Type is combined with negative space, graphic elements and pictures, forming relationships and dialog between words and images.
Color and size of type elements are much more prevalent than in text typography. Most display typography exploits type at larger sizes, where the details of letter design are magnified. Color is used for its emotional effect in conveying the tone and nature of subject matter.
Display typography encompasses:
Typographic logos and wordmarks
Packaging and labeling
Inscriptional and architectural lettering
Poster design and other large scale lettering signage such as signage and billboards
Business communications and advertising
Kinetic typography in motion pictures and television, vending machine displays, online, and computer screen displays
Typography has long been a vital part of promotional material and advertising. Designers often use typography to set a theme and mood in an advertisement; for example using bold, large text to convey a particular message to the reader. Type is often used to draw attention to a particular advertisement, combined with efficient use of color, shapes and images. Today, typography in advertising often reflects a company's brand. Fonts used in advertisements convey different messages to the reader, classical fonts are for a strong personality, while more modern fonts are for a cleaner, neutral look. Bold fonts are used for making statements and attracting attention. In communicating a message, a balance has to be achieved between the visual and the verbal aspects in design. Digital technology in the 20th and 21st centuries has enabled the creation of typefaces for advertising that are more experimental than traditional typefaces.
Inscriptional and architectural lettering
The history of inscriptional lettering is intimately tied to the history of writing, the evolution of letterforms and the craft of the hand. The widespread use of the computer and various etching and sandblasting techniques today has made the hand carved monument a rarity, and the number of letter-carvers left in the USA continues to dwindle.
For monumental lettering to be effective it must be considered carefully in its context. Proportions of letters need to be altered as their size and distance from the viewer increases. An expert letterer gains understanding of these nuances through much practice and observation of their craft. Letters drawn by hand and for a specific project have the possibility of being richly specific and profoundly beautiful in the hand of a master. Each can also take up to an hour to carve, so it is no wonder that the automated sandblasting process has become the industry standard.
To create a sandblasted letter, a rubber mat is laser cut from a computer file and glued to the stone. The sand then bites a coarse groove or channel into the exposed surface. Unfortunately, many of the computer applications that create these files and interface with the laser cutter do not have many typefaces available, and often have inferior versions of typefaces that are available. What can now be done in minutes, however, lacks the striking architecture and geometry of the chisel-cut letter that allows light to play across its distinct interior planes.