A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF TYPOGRAPHY, IT'S DEVELOPMENT, AND IT'S ORIGINS
We are onto our 5th episode of the ON AIRE blog series. Declan Bell, one of our Designers, takes this opportunity to revisit his love for typography, looking back at how it all started and how it’s developed over time.
Typography was (and still is) something that captured my admiration as a craft. I remember watching Helvetica (2007) and being fascinated by all the consideration that goes into creating a Typeface. I’m a bit of a modernist at heart, so I find it incredible that the origins of typography still remain today. In fact, I kind of get a kick out of knowing that elements of the meticulous mechanics and tireless work is underpinned by the end result. A result that’s seemingly invisible to a large portion of people. We take it for granted, not knowing that a Type Designer has sat for weeks and laboriously refined what most will never give a second thought. Minimalists out there will tell you that “that’s the goal; if you’re digesting a piece of communication, and you’re distracted by the typeface and it’s legibility, then it’s not doing its job properly”. Nowadays, Type Design is an ancient art adapted for modern application; as Matthew Carter says: “Start with a lowercase h, from there you’ll have a huge amount of DNA for your Typeface”.
Let’s start from the beginning. There's strong evidence to support that symbology and lettering date back thousands of years, and even suggestions that many modern characters/glyphs we use today, have some form of connection or influence to what was used years ago. A good example is the uppercase latin letter 'A', it’s said that it may derive from early depictions of cows horns. Flip the character upside down, and you can spot the connection for yourself. Imagine seeing these cow horns, painted onto the inside of a cave in Sudan, then sending a picture of them on your smartphone to a friend. Full circle. Typographic evolution at its finest!
Hand rendered symbols and glyphs are obviously still used today, but what really kicked mass producible Type into the mainstream was the release of the Gutenberg Press in 1450, which allowed for moveable and more importantly, reproducible Type. Here, the letter press is born, and all of a sudden we have the ability to communicate on a scale never seen before.
There's the myriad of early Typographic designers like Claude Garamond, John Baskerville and Bodoni that were early pioneers in the field. Setting the industry up for a jamboree of Serif Typography. That legacy remains and has its place; it’s said that Serifs’ themselves have their beginnings in the natural curve you’d get in the stone from carving out the letters (think Trajan’s Column in Rome). Which poses the question of their necessity for me, and illustrates perfectly the evolution to San Serif Typography. Discard the unnecessary. Form follows function.
For me, it really starts at the very end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, when the grotesque San Serif style really comes into its own. It's worth mentioning about Akzidenz Grotesk here, probably my favourite Typeface, and one of the very first examples of a classic San Serif grotesque font. Akzidenz was designed by Günter Gerhard Lange in 1896 for the Berthold Type Foundry, and is still debatably the building blocks for scores of prominent San Serifs even now. Helvetica has its roots there, as do many others. I’ve included a comparison piece that shows the similarities between Akzidenz Grotesk and Avenir (Designed in 1988 by Adrian Frutiger, see below.)
In my opinion, the Typefaces that came soon after set the benchmark for what a San Serif Type should be today. For instance, take Gill Sans (Eric Gill,1928), pair that with Gotham (Tobias Frere-Jones, 2000); and you see that they are very similar in appearance. Notable similarities include the middle stem of the letter 'M', where neither touch the baseline. These Typefaces sum up the way I think about Type, there’s a reason that the best ones have their beginnings in design from 100 years ago. It’s pure communication, in its most simple, yet nonetheless considered form.
The modern designer needs to call on a whole host of different Typefaces, for a variety of communication purposes. Being a Packaging Designer, conveying personality on pack is essential, and often requires us to leave the home-comforts of beautiful minimalist Typography in favour of more expressive Fonts. But that’s not necessarily an issue because as Jean says…
“Building a good font collection is like populating one’s wardrobe. It requires a balance between versatility and expressivity… Everyday staples and accessories, and special outfits, for special occasions.”
– Jean-Baptiste Levée
Author, Declan Bell