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History of Type

History of Type

Author: mario fierro-hernandez

Recognize type families by historical classification.

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Hi everyone. My name is Mario. And I'd like to welcome you to today's lesson on the history of type. So we're going to get an overview for typefaces over the course of history and show you a few examples of what they look like. So as always, feel free to pause, fast-forward, and rewind at your own pace. And then when you're ready to go, let's get started.

So we're going to be diving into the chronological development of type as another way to classify type families into categories. And although type families date as far back as the 1400s, all of these are in use today and continue be refined, developed, and are available in several different versions from different publishers. So our key terms today are also going to be those classifications.

And we're going to start with Garamond as an example. And this typeface belongs to the Old Style classification. And it was originally designed by Claude Garamond in the 1540s.

And the typeface was revisited in 1975 by Tony Stan, with revisions that were associated with the International Typeface Corporation, or ITC. And the revisions include an increase in x-height, wider weight, and slightly more condensed width. In 1984, Apple added their own variant, opting for narrower and taller x-height. So there's very minor, subtle refinements being made to suit different purposes.

So let's jump into the classifications here. And this figure shows a chronological timeline of the type classifications. And these classifications roughly coincide with movements in history, art, and literature. So we'll be looking at each classification individually and identifying them by their physical characteristics, starting off with Blackletter.

And the Blackletter class are a script style of calligraphy popular in the 1400s throughout the 1900s. And it was popularized in Germany and used throughout Europe through the Renaissance. And most people think of this classification as medieval, Gothic, or that old English lettering.

And you'll see this quite often with ornate capitals, like in the letter B here, roughly diamond-shaped serifs and thick and thin lines. And note the overall weight here and the contrast between thick and thin strokes and the very thin serifs in the lowercase letters. Because this type classification is difficult to read in large bodies of text, they're typically best suited for headings, logos, posters, signs, and of course, certificates and diplomas. Member type families include Fraktur and Rotunda.

And here's an image of Blackletter in historical use. This is a Blackletter bible. It's quite old.

The Old Style type class was developed in the 1400s when scribes used quills to create letter forms. And as a result, the relation to calligraphy is apparent in their moderate contrast between thick and thin strokes, their slanted serifs on the lowercase letters, and a diagonal stress that's visible if you draw a line through the thinnest part of the letters. If you look closely, you'll also notice that the serifs are bracketed, which is to say that they have a curved or a wedge-like connection between the stem and the actual serif.

This class is considered best for large bodies of text. So you'll find them in use heavily today in magazines, books, newspapers, and more. And Garamond and Caslon are members of this classification. Here's an image of original typefaces by Claude Garamond.

Now, Transitional is named for its intermediate position bridging the gap between the Old Style and what will later become the Modern. Distinguishing features of this class include wider characters and more vertical stress, a lot sharper serifs, and slightly higher contrast between strokes. Members of this class will continue with more accentuated contrast and more flattened serifs that will eventually shift towards the Modern. Baskerville and Bookman are members of this classification. And here you can see that Transitional class being used in another bible.

The Modern classification was a radical shift from the traditional topography that we've seen up until this point in time. And it was developed in the late 18th to early 19th century. And the change reflected cultural influences and advances in technology.

Members of this classification have a striking appearance with their very bold contrast between thick and thin strokes, the vertical stress, and also not to be missed the very thin serifs. Now striking as this classification may be, it's not very suitable for extensive text work like books or magazines. Member type families include Bodoni and Didot. And here's an image of lines for Dante's La Vita Nuova, which was the first two collections of verse written by him.

Now, as time progressed in the early 1800s, there was a greater need for typefaces to be used for advertising, so boosting visibility became a focus, which is indicated in the vertical stress, thick horizontal non-bracketed serifs, and lower contrast between strokes that created a clearer, darker appearance. So type families in this class are a lot bolder in appearance, as you can see. And make note again here of the bracketed versus non-bracketed serifs. And here's a common reward poster using this classification along with others.

Sans serif as the name implies, is just that, a typeface without serifs. It was also developed in the early 1800s. And sans, meaning without in French, is a simple distinction for this classification. The sans serif class is almost always mono-weight, which is another way of saying it has no stress because of lack of transitions between thick and thin strokes, so again, even distribution of weight. And then of course, no serifs.

Although this classification developed before the age of computers, it remains one of the most legible to use for computer monitors, so it's fairly popular as a result. This style was later popularized by the Bauhaus movement, which we'll dabble on in just a minute here. And here's that in practice, a Dutch paper. You can see sans serif headlines.

So moving on, the Bauhaus movement emerged from a time of great traumatic change. And between two world wars an academy of art called Bauhaus emerged in the 1920s that promoted Modernism. And it had a profound influence on the 20th century design. You can see a portion of the school here. And at the time the German term Bauhaus, literally "house of construction," stood for "school of building." And the movement emphasized functional aspects of design. It was characterized by the use of simple, geometric shapes; sans serif type; and lack of adornment.

Member type families in this class often used modest curves and mirrored aesthetics, no contrast between strokes, as I mentioned no serifs, and very simplistic designs altogether. Member type families in this class retain their progressive design today and our very visible in advertising, publications, branding, and digital media. And these are another quick look at just some variants.

Well, everyone, that ends our lesson for today. We'll conclude with our key terms, Blackletter, Old Style, Transitional, Modern, Egyptian, sans serif, and Bauhaus. I hope you've enjoyed today's lesson. My name is Mario. And I will see you next lesson.

Terms to Know

An art and craft movement begun at a school in Germany in the 1920s; emphasized the functional aspects of design and was characterized by the use of simple geometric shapes, sans-serif type, and a lack of adornment.


A type classification developed in the 1400s and based on written manuscripts; characterized by elaborate, straight, angular strokes. Member type families include Fraktur and Rotunda.


A type classification developed in the early 1800s and named for a trend popularizing Egyptian antiques; characterized by rectangular or so called slab serifs and the use of strokes of even weight. Member type families include Clarendon and Rockwell.


A type classification developed in the late 1700s; characterized by a geometric quality, hairline thin serifs, and extreme contrast between thick and thin strokes. Member type families include Bodoni and Didot.

Old Style

A type classification developed in the 1400s and based on ancient Roman inscriptions and an early writing style. This style is characterized by low contrast between thick and thin strokes and distinctive numerals. Member type families include Garamond and Caslon.


A type classification developed in the early 1800s and later popularized by the Bauhaus movement; characterized by the absence of serifs and uniform thickness of stroke. Member type families include Helvetica and Futura.


A type classification developed in the 1700s which evolved from Old Style; characterized by wider characters and greater contrast between thick and thin strokes than Old Style. Member type families include Baskerville and Bookman.