The single most important element of publishing is typography, the art of designing and arranging type for printing. Designing entails making: somebody has to figure out how a certain typeface should look, then sculpt the model for each typeface in steel, then cast the model into a mold, then pour molten lead into the mold, and then, at last, you have type. Twenty-seven pieces for each letter in lower case. Twenty-seven more of each letter in upper case. Fifty-four more for those letters (both cases) in italics. Fifty-four more for those letters in bold. You see how this goes? It's not a simple as it looks.

Examine the parts of a single letter, then consider the challenge of coming up with a type face. How high should the cap height be? How low should the descenders go? High far for the ascenders? Should this letter be serif or sans serif? Not only must the type be consistent from letter to letter but it must, above all, be thoroughly readable. A letter that looks really cool all by itself may look a mess when joined with other letters of the same design. Clearly, designing type is a highly refined art. The designer must not only have a flair for the aesthetics of shape, like a painter, but she must also be something of an architect.

To understand the concept of readability, we need only consider our own experience. Bold typecase, for example, is best when used sparingly. If used for entire paragraphs, it tires the reader. Similarly, italic fonts are best when used sparingly. Desingers understand these fundamentals and much more. They know that their challenge is to create a font that is both distinctive, at first glance and readable over many, many papes, which means that the typeface's distinction is not distracting.

Typography exists to honor content -- that's the cardinal rule for all typographers. If the font is too fancy or flamboyant, it will constantly get in the way of the words it is spelling. As a result, the reader will be unable to concentrate fully on the meaning and, finally, will tire of the text. Anybody can create a wild and crazy typeface. Few designers are accomplished enough to create a typeface that is both subtly pleasing and consistently clear.

A medieval font called "black letter" is a good example of a typeface that modern readers can't tolerate except in small doses. When it was invented, howevever, Black Letter -- which we now know as "gothic" -- was pretty much the only game in town. It grew from the hand-lettered tradition of scribes. As you can see from the sample below, it is heavily serifed and always bold.

The design of type precedes the invention of the printing press. Scribes had to come up with hand-writing that was both legible and sustainable. By "sustainable," I mean a style that any scribe of sufficient skill could copy all day without getting overly fatigued. As one historian puts it: "The story of writing can be told in terms of the search for simpler forms, requiring fewer strokes and pen lifts and providing their own beat or rhythm to such an extent that spacing for color and legibilty could be more easily controlled." In short, the concepts of upper case and lower case, letter spacing, acenders and descenders, and so on all grew from the tradition of handwriting -- scribal arts or what we now call caligraphy.

Before the invention of moveable type, artisans were carving texts from wood (they simply copied the scribe's page) and using these templates of full pages to print broadsheets and short books. When movable type became more common in Gutenburg's time (the 1400s), much of this type was made of wood because wood-carving was the prevailing skill. In any case, printers were under pressure to produce texts, not type. The type was simply a means to an end and so, in making type, the printers simply copied the style of handwriting and printing that had come down through scribal arts. Some of these styles translated well enough to print and some did not. It was not long, however, before accomplished printers began to invent new type.

Tutorial on Typography Basics

A Very Brief History of the Alphabet

Writing with letters began about 1200 B.C. This took the place of pictorgraphs and ideographs. The Phonecians were most proficient at writing with letters. However, they had no vowels. Their words (in translation) looked like many abbreviations we're familiar with, such as, "Mr" for "mister" and "st" for street. The Greeks adopted the Phonecian alaphabet in about 800 B.C. and added 5 vowels -- obviously an important development. The Greeks have been credited with more or less perfecting the alphabet as we know it, though some experts observe that many other cultures made equally valuable contributions. In any case, it remained only for the Romans to further refine the Greek alphabet (revising eight letters and adding two more) and make it look exactly like the alphabet we use now. This is why we say our letters belong to the Roman alphabet: we use Roman style letters.

We have grown so accustomed to the Roman alphabet that we often forget about others, like the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, which is considerably different.

There were two basic kinds of letter styles in the Western world: Black Letter (or Gothic) used in northern Europe and a more rounded variety, called the Humanistic style, found in southern Europe (Italy). The more readable, Humanistic style -- what we now call "roman" -- won out eventually.

Making Type

In 1462, when a printer brought a pile of (machine printed) Bibles to Paris to sell, prospective buyers were amazed that all of his books looked identical. ln fact, they convinced themselves that nothing short of black magic could have produced such books. The printing press was so new at the time that many people, even in large cities, did not understand it or had never heard of it. This printer -- because he had not taken the time to explain the process to anyb of his prospective buyers -- was thrown into prison and was to be tried as a wizard. But then he explained the secret, called the "art of printing."

This story underscore the prevailing aesthetic during the incunabula -- the century or so during which printing established itself. Most books of the incunabula were designed to look like their scribal predecessors. Their type faces were copies of handwritten lettering that was familiar to (and most comfortable for) readers at the time. The Black Letter and Humanistic fonts were both derived from hand writing.

As you can imagine, making type -- letter by letter -- was a time-consuming undertaking that took a sculptor's training and a metal-worker's skill. It made sense, then, that the first type makers came from wood-working and gold-smithing guilds. Of necessity, they quickly developed a vocabulary for talking about type.

Typeface: the design of a single set of type, such as Times Roman or Helvetica.

Type faces are named in one of three ways: for the inventor (Garamond), the country of origin (Helvetica), or the source it draws upon (e.g., Century, which was a 19th century magazine that used a distinctive font).

Font is the complete alphabet in one particular face. Nowadays "font" applies loosely to a single face done in all styles (see next entry). We call Times Roman a "font" when, actually, we mean a "font family."

Typestyle: Do not confuse typestyles with typeface or fonts. "Styles" have to do with the weight -- thickness or thinness -- applied to a single typeface. Most typefaces come in only a few styles, usually italic, regular, and bold. The complete list includes: light, regular, italics, semibold, bold, extrabold, condensensed, extended, light condensed, semibold condensed. For each of these styles, the type-maker has to create a full alphabet in that weight.

Type family is the complete set of a font in all 12 styles.

Type Classifications have been created to give some order to the vast array of typefaces. Serif and San Serif are the most familiar of these. Others include Script, Modern, Old Style, Transitional, Modern, Slab, Black Letter and Decorative.

Type Sizes run from 5 to 72 points, generally. Those from 5-14 are called text type and those from 16-72 are called display type. Display, obviously is for headlines and other marquee uses.

In designing type, type-makers consider the the x-height most carefullly. This is the measurement of the lowercase letter without its ascender or descender. This mid-section of letters is critically important to the appearance of words on a page.

Setting Type

One of the first revelations for type-makers was the discovery that the design for one size of type (say, 12 point type) is not necessarily a suitable design for the same type face in a larger size. This understanding led to a study of design and ultimately to the study of how we read (i.e., the psychology of reading, eventually called psycholinguistics). For example, sometimes type layout on a page creates optical illusions: shapes seem to materialize from the letters or odd spacing or a picket fence image appears or crookedness even when everything is straight and in line. Subtle adjustments must be made to spaces between letters and words in these cases.

The need for such adjustments led to the art of typesetting. Typesetting is a form of composition, both in the sense of "composing" a text and "composing" (laying out) an image (analogous to "composition" in art). The typesetter's primary tool was a "composiing stick," a small tray that held the type and allowed the setter to arrange a few lines of text at a time. This was not a purely mechanical task. Typesetters needed (and still need) a good eye to determine the best spacing of letters, words, and lines. Even now, typesetting programs like InDesign offer "optical" options to allow the typesetter to eyeball the layout instead of letting the program make these adjustments automatically (and usuallly crudely).

We measure type with points and lines with picas. There are 12 points to a pica and 6 picas to an inch. That means there are 72 points to an inch. Before the age of computers, theser measurements were important because setting type was a physical act with mechaical constraints. Now, in the virtual world, we deal with these measurements only in the most rudimentary way, as when we determine what point size our font should be.

Vitally important to the look of type on the page is line spacing (leading), letter spacing (kerning), and word spacing (tracking). Leading, for line spacing, gets its name from the lead spacers typesetters used to place between lines of type.

Composing lines and arranging the spacing with lead blanks among lines, words, and letters made typesetting look like puzzle building.

letterpress typesetting

The Rise of Offset Printing

From the start, the printing process was fundamentally simple: roll ink over the set type, then press a piece of paper onto this inked page of metal text. This is called "letterpress" printing because you're pressing the metal type into the paper. It is a slow, hand-done process that depends on the printer's expertise in applying ink.

All printing was done in the letterpress manner until the 1800s, at which point high speed printing presses were developed. The most common modern method of printing is "offset printing." It is a lithographic process. Lithography was originally a method of reproducing images by transferring an image from a canvas (of wax or other material) onto a stone surface. A chemical process allows ink to adhere to the transferred image (on the stone). A piece of paper is then pressed to the stone to make the final transfer of the reproduced image. Here's a video explanation:

the lithographic print

Litho printing for books is done by transferring a photograph of each page to a large alumnium plate. That plate is then attached to a large roller. When inked, this (plated) roller will transfer the inked pages to rubber roller, which then will transfer the final image to paper. That's why it's called "offset" -- it's not a direct transfer of the image.

The letterpress method is used nowadays for limited edition books and is highly valued for its artistic quality. You can tell the difference between letterpress and offset books by looking at the page: letterpress pages will show the impression of the type (you'll see the plate marks on the paper), which many find aesthetically pleasing.

Some major differences between texts produced for the internet and those produced for print:

the offset printing process

Study Questions

1) What do we mean when we say that "typography exists to honor the content"?

2) What are the two kinds of letter styles that have contributed to type as we know it?

3) How is a composing stick used?

4) What's the difference between "readability" and "legibility"? Which one is easier to acheive (and why)?

5) Describe two technological improvements that advanced the speed and economy of printing in the nineteenth century. (Hint: one involved paper; the other involved type.)

6) Explain why "offset printing" is called "offset."

7) Explain how the lithographic printing method works.

8) Even though Gutenburg did not invent the printing press, he is credited with its invention. Why?


1) The trailer to Helvetica: a documentary about a typeface

This quick clip shows you the basics of typesetting: more from Helvetica

This clip explains why the Helvitica font became the most successful typeface ever:more from Helvetica

2) Readability, Affabilty, and Authority [in type faces]

3) 19th century type and typography

4) Wood Type Comes Back

5) Making Type

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