Tremendous Typefaces

Letters collage_500x300.jpg

Aug 20, 2014 by British Blog

Now that everybody 'writes' with a computer, it is up to typefaces to take the place of handwriting. Increasingly it is a typeface that the 'writer' turns to, in order to express personality, imbue meaning and add an aesthetic flourish. So what are typefaces, where have they come from and where are they heading?


The first typefaces were born with moveable type, which was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in fifteenth century Germany. Those first typefaces were designed to mimic the handwriting of the period.

Incidentally, a tradition grew up of keeping the blocks that produced capital letters and those that produced non-capital letters in separate boxes, or 'cases'. That is where the modern use of the terms 'uppercase' and 'lowercase' comes from.

In time, italic type was developed as an economy measure: it allowed the typesetter to fit more words onto the page and was sometimes used as a body text combined with roman (i.e. non-italic) capitals in a way that would not be seen today.

During the nineteenth century, the increased use of bills and posters for advertising purposes fuelled demand for large, impressive typefaces - these often had to be set using wooden blocks rather than the traditional lead because lead type could not cope with the larger scale printing process. Many of these new typefaces were rather ugly, and hence in the early twentieth century, many designers set about trying to create a more attractive and standard alphabet.

The first half of the twentieth century also saw the creation of the now ubiquitous Times New Roman, which was first used in 1932 to typeset the London Times newspaper.

Interestingly, many of the most popular modern computer-based typefaces are based on traditional type 'classics' that are hundreds of years old. Examples include Garamond, Adobe Jenson, Didot, Baskerville and Bodoni.

The impact of the computer

The arrival of mass computing generated a need for low resolution, matrix-friendly typefaces. This era spawned some classics, such as Arial, which was originally named Sonoran San Serif and was designed in 1982 for use with IBM's bitmap font laser printers.

One of the most contentious typefaces, Comic Sans, was never intended for use as a typeface at all, but was actually designed (in 1994) for use in a children's computer game called 'Microsoft Bob'. Meanwhile Frutiger, which is one of a select few fonts used by the National Health Service, took seven years to develop.

Reading and understanding

Recently, research has shown that individual typefaces can have a marked effect on the speed (or otherwise) of understanding by those who read them. Road signs, for example, tend to be set in lowercase type because research suggests that this is more quickly read and absorbed than uppercase - this matters when a driver is in a car and travelling at speed. In 2012, researchers found that students were more likely to remember facts written in a hard-to-read font (such as Comic Sans, in light type) than if they were if they read the same information in an easy-to-read font, such as Arial in dark type. The researchers subsequently suggested that Monotype Corsiva was a typeface likely to encourage information retention, so perhaps that will become as common as Times New Roman in the text books of the future.