The History of Typography: From Ancient to Modern Times

The History of Typography: From Ancient to Modern Times
Page content

What Is Typography?

De Anfangsgründe aller Mathematischen Wissenschaften (Wolff) 557

Typography refers to the technique of arranging type design and modifying type glyphs, which are created by using illustration techniques and calculating important factors like typeface, point sizes, and the space between individual letters and words.

The subject of typography is very broad in modern times, including type setting, handwriting, calligraphy, typographic logos, poster design, and more. This article follows the birth of typography in the ancient world, its evolution and rebirth, and explains how it is growing and changing even still today.

Ancient Typography

Typography got its start in ancient times when artisans created dies and punches which were used to create currency and seals for documents. It’s often speculated by historians that typography was likely first used to create complete text via movable print in Greece, sometime between 1850 and 1600 BC with the creation of the Phaistos Disc, which is a clay disc that was imprinted with any number of ancient letters and symbols and then fired in a kiln, producing a reusable die for text.

Typography in Asia

Woodblock printing was in use in China long before many parts of the world, as early as the 7th century, and movable type printing became common in the 11th century. Korea is credited for the first metal movable type in the 13th century. Woodblock printing originally consisted of sheets of paper pressed into a wooden blocks that had text and illustrations carved into them, allowing for up to 2000 sheets to be printed in a single day.

Wood blocks could print 15,000 times without needing to be touched up, and with care could even be used up to 25,000 times in total. As the technology began to develop, the advent of the metal letterpress meant that you could print faster, cleaner, and more times than you could with woodblock printing.

Renaissance Typography in Europe

Initial P in the Coxex Regius of Gragas

In mid-15th century, the period just before the Renaissance ushered in movable type printing for Europe. Handwritten letterforms created the basis of the letter-punches, consisting of just over 200 different characters that were used to print the first books in Europe. These were often metal dies that consisted of Gothic print but as time went on developed into half-Gothic and Gothic-to-Roman types.

Evolution of Modern Typography

As time went on, more and more typefaces evolved from the simple German-created Gothic typefaces, including French calligraphy (such as Garmond), English Typography (such as Caslon), and Roman and Roman-Italic types (such as Baskerville). Each of these typefaces arose from a need to make printing easier to read, more elegant to look at, and cheaper to produce, as well as including a bit of the original creator’s personal taste.

Technology and the Future of Typography

it s the end of the world by Amber Neely

The rise of technology has allowed for typography to evolve far beyond that of just necessity. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, and then the rise of the computer-age, Typography continues to grow and evolve as both a means of communication, as well as an art form.

Readability and legibility still the main driving forces between most typefaces, typography allows for a certain artistic flare to be showcased by the designer. Be it for logo design, the printing of books, magazines, and newspapers, or as an art form itself, typography is sure to continue to evolve with mankind.


Pipes, Alan. Production For Graphic Designers 2nd Edition Prentice Hall Inc., 1997

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Korean Spirit & Culture Promotion Project Fifty Wonders of Korea Volume 1. Seoul: Samjung Munhwasa KSCPP: Diamond Sutra Recitation Group, 2007

Nesbitt, Alexander The History and Technique of Lettering Dover Publications Inc., 1957

Meggs, Philip B.. A History of Graphic Design 3rd Edition John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998

Image Credits

The third image was provided by the author of this article.