Type and Typography

The term type is used generally to mean letters and other characters assembled into pages for printing or other means of reproduction. Typography refers to the rules and conventions that govern the assembling—or composition—of type into aesthetically appealing and legible pages.


Although in this age of desktop publishing we tend to take type for granted, typography was at one time considered something akin to an art form.

The invention of movable type is inextricably linked to the invention of printing; it was movable type that made printing commercially viable. The first use of movable type was in China in the middle of the eleventh century. Pi Sheng used clay to make raised letters from which prints could be made. Tin eventually replaced clay, but neither of these two types gained widespread use. In 1314, Wang Chên used wood in the making of type, which was more practical at the time. The first use of metal type dates from 1403 Korea, and printed books from these types began to appear in large numbers.

The invention of printing from movable metal type in Europe is commonly attributed to Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith who, in the mid-fifteenth century, produced the first printed books, notably his "Gutenberg Bibles." It is believed that the Dutch developed the process first, a man named Coster being held to have invented printing. It was only after Gutenberg, and after his process spread through Europe, that printing became a force to rival handwritten manuscripts. (See Printing.) Even though Gutenberg may or may not have invented the process, it was he who first made it practical. His enhancements of the process centered around his knowledge—as a goldsmith—of the punch, the matrix, and the adjustable mold. His process was to punch a character—say, the letter "a"—into a bar of metal, fit it into a matrix, fill it with molten metal, and let it cool. When it was removed, he had a a raised letter which could then be assembled into a frame with other letters of the same size, inked, and transferred to paper. Initially, printers strove to duplicate the style of lettering used in manuscripts—the black letter, or gothic style found in Gutenberg's Bible is one particular example of this—but as the process caught on designers began to create new and distinctive varieties of type. In 1469, Johannes and Wendelin da Spira, the first printers to set up shop in Venice, were the first to use roman rather than gothic typefaces. French-born Nicolas Jenson, at the age of 70, moved to Venice and in 1471 printed a version of St. Augustine's De civitate Dei ('City of God') in a form of black letter he had designed; he also designed a roman alphabet that has since become the model for many old style typefaces. The most successful early Venetian printer was Aldus Manutius who, in the early sixteenth century, was the first to use italic type. Although today we use italic for emphasis and other special uses, Manutius used it for the entire text, essentially as a way of fitting more characters on a page and thus reducing the amount of paper he would have to use in a book.

Other early and influential type founders included Parisian printer Robert Granjon who introduced—in about 1557—a type of Gothic cursive handwriting popular at the time; Jean Claude Fournier, and his son Pierre Simon Fournier, who ran the LeBé type foundry, the most successful French foundry at the time, the younger Fournier inventing the point system for the measurement of type size still in use today; François Ambroise Didot, who not only designed type but also refined the point system devised by Fournier, which today still bears his name (see Didot System); William Caslon, the best-known English type founder whose 1734 roman and italic faces are used widely today; John Baskerville, another English founder whose 1762 specimens are also still in use today; and Giambattista Bodoni, an eighteenth-century Italian printer and founder, whose modern roman faces departed dramatically from the old style roman faces.

In the twentieth century, American and European type designers developed some of the most beautiful and/or creative typefaces yet seen, especially once printed advertising became popular. One of the most prolific of the American designers was Frederic Goudy. In the 1920s, new trends in the world of art, architecture and design—such as the works of the German Bauhaus school—manifested themselves in the highly stylized faces such as as Futura, Kabel, and Erbar, which were in vogue for a number of years.

The typeface in general was for the first couple of centuries an individual type design created by printers for their own use; eventually, independent type founders—who may or may not have been printers themselves—began supplying type to large numbers of printers. By the early- to mid-twentieth century (when handset type began to be replaced by mechanized linecasters and typesetters), the average printer had hundreds of typefaces to choose from, few of which—if any—he had designed himself.

For most of the history of printing, type was composed by hand. Type was stored by typeface and size in special typecases, each slot corresponding to a particular letter or character. Each of these cases often had two trays: the lower case contained the miniscule characters—or, as they came to be known, the lowercase letters—while the upper case contained the majuscule characters—or, likewise, the uppercase letters. (In the mid-1800s, the California job case, invented purportedly for the convenience of travelling printers during the Gold Rush, combined both upper- and lowercase letters in the same tray, the caps on the right, the lowercase letters on the left.) These typecases contained letters whose quantity varied according to the frequency of letter usage; the slot to hold the "e," for example, was larger and held more characters than the slot of the "z." Their position in the typecase also varied by frequency of use, the heavily-used characters near the center, the less used ones toward the outside of the case. The cases also included punctuation characters, blank slugs for word spaces, and quads which were used to fill out short lines.

The compositor—or the person who composed the type—inserted each letter one by one into a composing stick, which could be adjusted to the proper line length. Once all the type was inserted into the stick, it was then transferred to a metal or plastic tray called a galley. It was from the galley that the type was proofed and corrected, and the term "galley" is still used to refer to typeset copy used for proofing. The galley, once corrected, was then broken into individual pages, the appropriate running heads and folios (page numbers) added, and then transferred to a lock-up table or stone, where it could then be inked and printed. Once the print job was completed, the type was replaced bit by bit back into the type case. Occasionally, the type wasn't replaced in the correct slot, or case, resulting in mixed fonts in a single case. These became known as pi fonts, a term which has also come to mean specialized fonts containing characters not often used.

In the late 1800s, several machines were developed to mechanize the process of typesetting. The first was invented in Baltimore by Ottmar Mergenthaler and patented in 1884, deriving its name from the exclamation of Mergenthaler's business partner and financier Whitelaw Reid, "You've done it, Ottmar! A line of type." It was called, of course, the Linotype. On the Linotype (and on a similar machine developed in 1912 by the International Typesetting Machine Corporation called the intertype), composition is accomplished in essentially one mechanism. A pot melts down the metal. Meanwhile, a set of brass matrices for each letter and character in several sizes, as well as spaces, is located above the machine. Attached to the machine is a keyboard. As the operator types the line to be set, each matrix corresponding to the letter typed slides into position on a composing area. When a line is completed, enough spaces to fill out the line to the desired line length are keyed, and a flip of a lever slides the line of matrices into position over a mold chamber. The machine then pours the molten metal into the mold and matrices, sends it to a trimming mechanism, and ejects the finished slug. The completed lines could then be added to a galley, locked up, and printed. Refinements on this basic device allowed for the mixing of roman and italic type, and the changing of point size.

A third automated linecasting device was invented by Tolbert Lanston and patented in 1887. Called the Monotype, it used two separate operations to set lines of type. In the first stage, the keyboard operator typed what was to be set, and the keyboarding punched holes into a paper ribbon. The device kept track of how close to the end of a line the type was coming (the font—typeface and size—was specified prior to keyboarding) a bell would sound, and a lighted scale would indicate how many points were left on the line. After keyboarding, the ribbon was removed and fed into the casting mechanism, where the punched holes—similar to the principle of the player piano, Jacquard loom, or later computer punch card—trigger the appropriate matrices to slide into position one by one, where molten metal is injected into them and the mold, and each character is ejected one by one in the proper order, where the page(s) could be proofed, locked up, and printed. An advantage of the Monotype over the Linotype was that since each letter was cast separately, corrections could be made easily by hand by simply plucking out an incorrect character and replacing it with the correct one, so long as the size and typeface matched.

As printing progressed, handset type began to be disposed of earlier in the printing process, once the concept of the printing plate was devised. The first type of plate was the stereotype, invented in 1725 by William Ged of Scotland and later improved by Firmin Didot. In the stereotyping process, the locked-up typeform is placed face up on a molding table. A wet paper mat is impressed on it, allowing each character to form an impression in its surface. When dried, the mat is placed in a casting machine, where molten metal is poured into it, creating a relief plate which after cooling and trimming, can be printed from. Electrotype plates superseded stereotypes by the 1940s.

Although handset type was no longer being used directly as a printing surface, it was still required for platemaking. The development of phototypesetting marked the death of handset—or even linecast—type.

Phototypesetting involved the use of glass or plastic photomatrices bearing a typeface at a particular size. Copy was keyboarded into a terminal, appropriate commands indicating the point size, line length, leading, type style, etc., were also input where needed. These commands then controlled the photomatrix which was adjusted to expose each character to a sheet of photosensitive film or paper. Depending on the configuration of the machine, there was either a different matrix for each type size, or, more commonly, lenses photographically enlarged or reduced the characters depending on the specified point size. The film or paper was output, developed, and commonly pasted up on to paste-up boards, with all the type in the proper position for further prepress operations, such as making and stripping negatives and, finally, making printing plates.

Later digitized typesetters set type digitally, or as a set of tiny dots, called rasters, computer commands adjusting the placement of these dots which would form the character at the specified size and typeface.

In the 1980s and 1990s, an increasing amount of type began to be set on desktop computers, using page make-up—or "desktop publishing"—programs such as PageMaker and QuarkXPress. See Desktop Publishing.


Type can be characterized a number of ways, by letter elements, by size, and by type specifications.

'Letter Elements'. A letter can be described in terms of the orientation of the strokes and curves that it comprises. The most basic division of typefaces is into serif and sans serif. A serif is essentially a finishing line on the ending stroke. (An example of a serif is one of the horizontal lines at the top and bottom of this capital letter "I.") Serif typefaces are most commonly used for text as they tend to be more legible than sans serif typefaces, which lack such finishing lines, as in this capital letter I." (See Serif and Sans Serif.)

Letter height is described of in terms of its x-height, or the size of the main body of a letter. Some letters are also characterized by their possession of ascenders (strokes that extend above the x-height, such as on the lowercase b, d, f, h, k, l, t) or descenders (strokes that extend below the baseline on which the characters sit, such as on the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, y).

Other letter elements include apexes, counters, stems, and terminals. See Letter Elements.

'Typefaces, Fonts, and Families"]. The terms type series, type family, typeface, and font are often bandied about interchangeably. Here are the distinctions among them:

Type Family. The basic design of the type, including all the related weights and widths. For example, Helvetica.

Typeface. The type family narrowed down to a specific weight and width. For example, Helvetica Light Condensed.

Point Size. The height of the characters that will be set. For example, 10-point.

Font. The type family, narrowed down to a specific weight, width, and point size. For example, 10-point Helvetica Light Condensed.

Type Series. The range of point sizes available for a specific font of a specific typeface in a specific type family. For example, 6- to 18-point Helvetica Light Condensed.

In the new world of desktop publishing, the distinction among these terms is becoming increasingly irrelevant, however.

'Point Size'. Characters need to be specified in terms of point size, or how high each character is. There are several point systems in use worldwide, but in the United States and Great Britain, the point system is based on the pica point, or a point which is one-seventy-second of an inch. Point size is no longer strictly relevant as a unit of measure, and could easily be replaced by metric measurements, which is in fact the case in Europe. (See Point System.) At one time, prior to the adoption of the point system, type was specified using names. The last of these to still be used is known as agate, used to refer to 5H-point type used commonly in newspaper classified advertising. (See Point Size.)

'Line Length'. When setting type, one of the factors that will affect the type chosen is the desired line length, or the width of a line. Of primary consideration is how many characters per line are required in order to fill the total number of lines required. In the process of copyfitting, the measurement of characters per pica (based on a particular typeface's alphabet length) is used to determine how much space copy set in a particular typeface will occupy. (See Line Length.)

'Leading'. In metal typography, lines were separated from each other by pieces of metal known as "leads," whence comes the term leading, which is a popular term for line spacing, or the amount of space that is placed between lines. Conventional rules for legibility involve formulas for the proper amount of leading required for a particular point size. (See Line Spacing.)

'Letterspacing'. Legibility also manifests itself in the correct amount of space that exists between letters, called letterspacing. Some character combinations, due to the shapes of the letters, require adjustment of the space between them, either positively or negatively. (See Letterspacing.) A particular varierty of negative letterspacing—or moving two characters closer together—is known as kerning. (See Kerning.) Kerning is only performed between upper- and lowercase letters or between uppercase letters. As famed type designer Frederic Goudy once observed, "Anyone who would letterspace lowercase would steal sheep."

'Hyphenation and Justification'. Depending upon the desired attributes of a text block, lines may be set ragged right (the lines do not line up evenly at the right margin) or justified (the lines do line up evenly at the right margin. Of partiular issue in the combined processes of hyphenation and justification is the means by which justification is accomplished, which typically involves variable word spaces, or, in other words, the spaces between words are compressed or expanded to fill out or shorten a line. Some typesetting systems or page make-up programs handle this better than others, and some operator tweaking may need to be done to ensure that word spacing is not egregiously varied. Hyphenation involves the rules concerning the correct breaking of words when they do not entirely fit on a line, which may also require operator intervention. (See Hyphenation and Justification.)

Lines may also be set ragged left, or centered, depending upon the desired plans of the designer. The term quadding refers to the positioning of lines that do not fully occupy the line length. The term itself derives from the quadrat, a blank metal cube used to fill out short lines so as to allow proper lock-up of handset type. Quad right refers to aligning an incomplete line with the right margin (using spaces to fill out the line to the left), quad left refers to aligning an incomplete line with the left margin (and using spaces to fill out the line to the right), while quad center refers to centering a line within the line length, using spaces on either side of the text. These terms now have become more popularly known as flush right and flush left, phrases derived from hydraulic quadding mechanisms used in the mid-1900s. (See Quadding.)

'Spacing'. There are several means by which spacing is measured in typography. The em is essentially a blank space forming a square containing a width and height equal to the point size (i.e., an em space in 12-point type would be 12 points wide and 12 points high). An en is half the size of an em (i.e., an en space in 12-point type would be 6 points wide). (There are also em dashes and en dashes that are the width of one em or en, respectively.) Em and en spaces are also known as fixed spaces. See Fixed Spaces.

'Indention'. Paragraphs are the basic text-block units, and can be separated from each other in a variety of typographically acceptable ways. The most common is to end the paragraph with a hard return and indent the first line of a succeeding paragraph. Alternatively, two line spaces can be used to separate one paragraph from another, and in some cases all the paragraphs can be run together, separated only by the paragraph symbol (¶). The rules governing proper indention also need to be taken into account. (See Indention and Paragraph.)

'Non-Letter Characters'. Type consists of many other types of characters than letters, each of which have their own typographic rules for maximum legibility. The most common are figures, or numbers, which commonly include both Arabic numerals and Roman numerals. (See Figures.)

Another set of characters are those used for punctuation, such as periods (.), commas (,), quotes (""), etc. (See Punctuation.) Commonly used characters also include the ampersand (&), the percent (%), mathematical symbols (√, +, =), superior (2) and inferior (2) characters, reference marks (*, †, ¶), dashes (-, :, —), ellipses (…), boxes, bullets (•), ligatures (fi, fl), rule lines and leaders, initials, borders, alternate characters, ornaments, arrows, logos, or Cyrillic and Greek characters. Some of these characters are available in standard fonts, while some can only be obtained in special pi fonts. (See Pi Characters.)

Many foreign languages require the use of accents, such as acutes (´), graves (`), circumflexes (ˆ), umlauts (¨), tildes (~) and others, which often need to be set above or below other characters (such as é, or ü). Depending on the typesetting device or software program, these may exist as a single character in the font or may exist as separate characters which can be added to each other during typesetting. (See Accents.)

Specific typographic applications (i.e., books, newspapers, etc.) also have their own rules and conventions. See Book Typography and Newspaper Typography.

As typography becomes more digital and situated increasingly on the desktop, it is becoming less of an art form and falling more and more in the purview of those who do not understand the proper rules for legibility. Changes in terminology also reflect that much of type's history is being forgotten, which is unfortunate. (See also Digital Type and Desktop Publishing.)

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