Typography: Images for a Changing World

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Typography: Images for a Changing World


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Read a traffic sign, a magazine ad, a novel or a toddler's book. The style of the letters you see will be quite different in each of these sites. Chances are those styles or "typefaces" were carefully chosen to best appeal to you, to convey a message, to grab your attention, to induce you to keep on reading, to create a mood, or to simply fill a space efficiently.

A typeface is a unified style of a complete set of letters in the alphabet, numbers, and in most cases, symbols or foreign language characters. All characters in a single typeface can be used together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Within a single typeface, characters can vary in size and can be in boldface or italics. Two examples of common typefaces, often the default fonts on word processing programs, are Times New Roman and Ariel.

If you have never given much thought to typeface, or to typography--the science of typeface--you are not alone. But many people consider typeface an art form and have devoted their careers to type and related fields.

Perhaps the most famous was Johannes Gutenberg. More than 500 years ago Gutenberg invented movable type. His invention changed the world of typography, in fact, his invention changed the world. Together with his use of wooden printing presses and ink that had its own oil base, he set the stage for reading and writing to spread far beyond the cloistered few who up till then had a monopoly on such skills. Now the painstaking work of monks who spent months or years reproducing one book, could be replaced by a process which created a book in a fraction of the time.

Typography--the term is derived from the Greek words typos (sample, structure) and grapho (I am writing)--has undergone continual change since that distant time, but never as dramatically as in recent years.

Even as you read this, digitization--capturing an analog signal in digital form--is spreading tsunami-like across fields as varied as journalism, the military, art and design, industry, science, and academics. Paving the way for this revolutionary development has been the much slower evolution of typography.

A passion for type

Artists and artisans in the western world have long been interested in just how to best use their alphabet to impart information, and over the centuries since Gutenberg, new typefaces using letter punches made of lead have been introduced with ever increasing frequency. Often these typefaces were named after their creators. Garamond is named for its French originator Claude Garamond (14801561) and is still popular today. Goudy was created by Frederic W. Goudy, an American type designer working around the turn of the 20th Century. There was also William Caslon, a Britisher whose type faces, now some 300 years old, are still popular today, and John Baskerville who had made a fortune in other fields but could not resist a desire to create new type faces.

The world of typography continues to attract many enthusiastic followers, as it has over the years. Believe it or not, there are even clubs devoted to the subject. The Typophiles, for example, founded in New York City in 1944, is an active group of men and women with a fondness for type and print. (This writer was a member for many years.)They meet regularly for lunch and to discuss their favorite topic--typography--and they produce books, pamphlets and papers relating to various aspects of the printing world. Some Typophile members have their own printing presses and from time to time show samples of their work.

Major influences of the 20th Century

Two artistic movements added greatly to the development of typographic design. One originating in Russia during the period of the 1917 Communist Revolution, was "Constructivism" and its companion movement "Suprematism." The other, the Bauhaus, came out of Germany.

The influence of Constructivism lasted well into the 20th Century. Its guiding goal was to structure art forms, principally architecture, painting and sculpture, in such a way that a classless society could fully appreciate these forms and comprehend their meanings. …

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