| Thomas Detrie | detrie@detrie.asu.edu | Rev 15 Feb 99 |

Font Fundamentals

Copyright 1995-1999 Thomas Detrie. All rights reserved.

Font History
This section is a brief history that explains the evolutionary development of letterforms and how technology affected changes in typefaces.

Technology and Context
Random House Webster's College Dictionary (1990) defines technology as the application of knowledge for practical ends. The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) tells us technology derives from the Greek word tekhnologia that means the systematic treatment of an art or craft. Many of us think of the tools as the technology. What people know and what people do with what they know is technology. This background frames the word technology in our context: printing is the art, the craft, and printers are the artisans; the printing process is the systematic treatment; the printed result is the practical end; and what we know and learn about printing technology is the knowledge.

Human development has experienced five broad technology stages: 1) hand and handtool, 2) mechanical, 3) machine, 4) electric, and 5) electronic. Two constants throughout the changes in technology are: 1) the tool, the material, and the method always effect the result in a unique way; and 2) we use the cumulative technology from all previous stages daily.

Hand and Handtool Stage
History traces communication and technology to the earliest known beginnings of civilization. The earliest known visual communication, images from the Paleolithic period, confirms the fundamental human need to communicate, and that visual communication is elemental. Technology at this time was basic, that is, the hand as the tool, and hand-manipulated, found and fashioned, non-mechanical tools.

Early images seem more literal than sign like, and seem to have no system to their use. History identifies a three-part development in communication images from: 1) forms for objects, called pictograms, through 2) forms for ideas, called ideograms, to 3) forms for sounds, called phonograms. These signs and symbols and their uses developed from non-standard forms and no perceptible system, through non-standard forms and systems, to standard forms and systems.

Mechanical Stage
The mechanical stage is a period of compound tools and simple machines powered by natural means. They were animal powered, human powered, or nature powered, that is, by gravity, water, wind. Communication, socialization, and technology developed interconnectedly as Western culture began to form.

Language is the unified and systematic means of communication by standardized sounds and signs that function through convention. The letters of the alphabet are the signs of our language system, each something in itself, a unique sign, and not a symbol of some other idea or object. For our Western culture, this means sequential rows of groups of standard signs, the alphabet, written and read from left to right. (See figures 4 through 8.)

The visual form of Western written and printed language derives from two models. The first model is the Roman monumental capitals, or majuscules, which date from about AD 100. Artisans formed these letters in a three-part process: written first with a brush on stone, second chiseled into the stone, and then colored. The second model, the Carolinian minuscule, derives from the majuscule, and dates from about AD 800. Scribes wrote these letters directly on parchment with a square-tipped pen and ink. Scribes refined these two form models in the Renaissance period from about 1350 to 1500 as the humanistic minuscule, or roman style, and the humanistic cursive, or italic style. (See figure 9.)

Gutenberg invented the first reliable means of casting individual, moveable, and reusable pieces of type for printing. Type casting was 'invented' hand technology, and printing was 'adapted' mechanical technology. Printers, and the results of this paired technology, printed books, meant to rival pen-written manuscripts.

Printed roman type took the humanistic minuscule as a model first (1469), and later also the humanistic cursive (1501). The style development of typefaces occurs over three cultural periods: 1) Renaissance, 2) Baroque, 3) Neo-classic. I use these broad style period names rather than typeface classifications to state that it is important to consider influences on the whole cultural period to understand a part of that period. Throughout this time, type casting remained hand technology, printing remained mechanical technology, and the materials of casting and printing directly affected the type forms.

The development of what we know as conventional text typefaces occurred primarily in Italy, France, and England from 1469 to 1818. William Caslon IV introduced the first sans serif printing type in the early 1800s. Giambattista Bodoni died in 1813, and in 1818 his widow published his last work, Manuale Tipografico. This ended the development of traditional text typeface designs. Later type forms are exaggerations, revivals, or variations of these earlier models. (See figure 10.)

Machine Stage
The machine stage marks a significant change in human development. The term 'Industrial Revolution' applies to the social and economic changes that mark the transition from a stable agricultural and commercial society to a modern industrial society. Historically, it is the period in history from about 1750 to about 1850. Technology became an agent of change in the social and economic structure as inventions and new technology created the factory system of large-scale machine production and greater economic specialization. New periods of development came with electricity and the gasoline engine, but by 1850 the revolution, fulfilled in England, had become the dominant factor in British life. The effects of the Industrial Revolution were worldwide. Industrialization transformed France (after 1830), Germany (after 1850), and the United States (after the Civil War).

Complex machines, direct-powered and self-powered by steam and then fuel, increased production speed overall but had little effect on type forms. Printing became machine technology, but type casting remained hand technology.

The cumulative scientific, economic, and political changes of the preceding eras, caused people to believe that continued growth and improvement were the natural state. They believed in reason, science, and unrestrained competition as the means to continuous economic expansion, and to improve the physical and social environment. Primarily, the systematic application of scientific and practical knowledge to the manufacturing process achieved the growth in productivity. Perhaps the most important changes occurred in the organization of work. The typical enterprise expanded and took on new characteristics. Production took place within the firm or the public enterprise instead of the family or manor. Tasks became increasingly routine and specialized. Industrial production became heavily dependent upon the intensive use of capital, that is expense for a physical plant and equipment produced for the express purpose of increasing efficiency. A reliance on tools and machinery allowed individual workers to produce more goods than before, and the advantages of experience with a particular task, tool, or piece of equipment reinforced the trend toward specialization.

Electric Stage
Electricity became useful to industry in the 1880s, and electric powered machines, servo-controlled and servo-powered, soon replaced steam powered machines. Here again are examples of paired technology. That all aspects of printing became electric powered had little effect on type forms.

Phototype was a transition between metal type and digital type. It was post-mechanical and pre-electronic. Many text photo typefaces were copies of machine cast composition typefaces that were themselves copies of the original hand cast designs.

Electronic Stage
'Bad news concerns few, but good news can upset a whole culture.' This statement, by Marshall McLuhan from War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), describes today's experience.

From Gutenberg in the fifteenth century to Köenig in the nineteenth century, the arrival and mechanization of printing established a concatenate of technology, information, and culture. The pre-World War II departure from Newtonian determinism in the sciences and classical communication theory began the evolution of information theory as a new science with macroscopic effects on post-war cultures. Not since the application of steam power and the telegraph in the 1830s have developed societies experienced the increase in information as that due to the infusion of the personal computer. Information interdependence through digital technology has altered human activity beyond traditional description. The global cat's cradle of interactive communication resets Weltanschauung in the image of McLuhan's 'global village.'

We are in the contemporary cycle of technology, affecting information, affecting cultures. As technology becomes established in business, education, entertainment, and professions, many disciplines become disconnected from traditional materials, methods, and tools. The graphic arts jobs that do not exist in the pre-digital printing industry are clear examples. Everyone becomes verbal and visual message makers and message managers, connected by the same universal meta-tool. Computer impact in graphic design rapidly expanded from a production tool to the principal vehicle of expression. Graphic designers intermediate information to understanding, message to meaning, but often today their affectation of technology and its style supersede meaningful content and clear communication, resulting in a specious message. Despite the inertia of economics' acceleration principle, technology itself, even technology as an agent of change, is less important than its effects on the universal themes of human communication that foster cross-cultural interaction.

Time Line

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