Typography: What does it mean?

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In this day and age everyone has heard the word “typography.” Those of us with an interest in graphic design, advertising, and other related fields may even know what this word refers to. But have you ever wondered why typography is so important? Do you know where it came from? Have you ever considered the influence it has on our everyday life?

People interact with and are affected by typography every day. When you send a message on your mobile phone, choose an article to read on the internet, or even opt for a new brand of detergent at the supermarket, typography plays a part. As our need for information and communication grows, typography’s importance has grown as well. That’s why it has become such a significant factor in so many everyday actions, even though most of us never even give it a passing thought.

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Overlooked typography

The word typography is Greek in origin and is derived from two Greek words: τύπος (typos) meaning “form” and γραφή (graphe) which means “writing.” It is the ability and method of assembling type in order to make language discernible. Arranging the type involves consideration of styles of type, size of type, length of lines, space between lines and space between letters. Although typography used to be an area of specialization, with the influence of technology, it has become more mainstream and easily accessible. As a result, it is now utilized by everyone from graphic designers to office workers and graffiti artists.
Surprisingly, typography has a long history. Although one might think that typography only became a factor with the advent of the modern printing press, its influence dates back much further. In fact, typography was first identified with the making of seals and money in ancient times. Upon consideration, this seems logical as consistency would have been a significant factor in the reproduction of seals used to verify someone’s identity or authority and money would have been considered unreliable if it was not uniform in appearance.

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Ancient Coin

In the 15th century, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press revolutionized the world of print. The printing press featured moveable and reusable type which made the process of reproducing written materials both quick and reliable. However, the appearance of the text on the page remained unchanged and continued to mimic the older handwritten works that had been produced prior to Gutenberg’s innovation. This common typeface which began as a handwritten style and carried over into moveable type was German in origin and known as Gothic or Blackletter. It was one of the primary typefaces used in Western Europe until the 17th century. Despite its dominance, other typefaces were developed and used during the same time. Most of the popular styles were offshoots of Blackletter and their connection to this original typeface was quite apparent. The next major change in typeface occurred a century later with the invention of the roman type during the Renaissance. Roman type is notable as it was one of the first typefaces that was easy to read due to its spacing and legibility.

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Blackletter typeface, Gutenberg Bible

From the 14th to the 18th century, different typefaces continued to be introduced and utilized throughout Western Europe. A scroll through the font choices available in most word processing programs will reveal typeface names that were first invented during these centuries. Among the most popular are Garamond, Baskerville and Bodoni, which it should be noted are all roman typefaces.

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Garamond, Baskerville & Bodoni typefaces

The world of typeface changed again in 1886 when Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype, one of the first automated typesetting systems, which allowed an entire line of type to be cast at a time. The linotype and its successors allowed for greater productivity and varied appearance. The next significant innovation occurring in the 1950s was a process called phototypesetting which employed a process similar to the taking and developing of a photo.
By the middle of the 20th century, mechanical typesetting had become the norm and most work was done utilizing a keyboard. During the 1960s and 70s, computers became an active part of the printing process. However, because of the complex computer language knowledge needed to format and arrange text, the work was only done by a few specialist typesetting companies. This all changed with the introduction of the personal computer. When desktop publishing and word processing programs became available to home computer users, suddenly typesetting and graphic design were accessible to everyone. Today, anyone composing an email or completing a school project has dabbled in typesetting and played with the elements of graphic design.

Traditionally, typography was concentrated on the areas of legibility and readability. Legibility is connected to the shapes and styles of the letters to ensure that the reader can decipher and recognize individual letters that create a word. Readability is connected to the size and spacing of the letters on a page to ensure that the reader can comfortably read a text without strain or difficulty. Anyone who has read a book or a magazine can understand the significance of readability and legibility; often our reading preferences are determined by how the text looks on the page.
In today’s world, with the prevalence of advertising, a new form of typography has emerged. Called design typography, it focuses on the artistic aspect of typography and aims to convey a message to the viewer. As a result, readability is no longer of great concern as the goal is to provoke emotion through the use of typeface, spacing, images, colors and composition. Now companies are more likely to adapt a certain set of typefaces that become representative so they are always recognizable. We have all seen this effect, through the bold, colored lettering of certain products meant to draw our attention and others which use neutral colors and clean spare lettering to inspire trust and stability.

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Attention-getting typography

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Typography to inspire dependability

Typography—this small, seemingly insignificant field of letter shapes and sizes– is in actuality responsible for creating strong and varied emotions in all of us. Letter styles and colors and their placement on a page can generate a spectrum of emotion and influence us in myriad ways, often without our even being aware of this effect. This one feature may persuade us to buy a new product, or manipulate our preference for a certain brand. Think about that the next time you experience a rush of emotion when viewing an advertisement or contemplating a purchase.

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