I didn’t know for the longest time how we got the names uppercase and lowercase for our letters.
As it turns out, the type-punchers who cast the letters way back when the printing press was Gutenberg’s shiny, new toy called them that for a very obvious reason: the capital letters, majuscules, went in the literal upper cases on the shelves when they were finished, and the lowercase letters, the minuscules, went in, well, the lower case.
The fundamentals of good design and our vocabulary for it were established pragmatically centuries ago. We often think the history of page layouts started with the printing press. But there is a rich and exciting history for text layouts before those cast fonts (we’ll get into the difference between a font and a typeface later) climbed into popularity.
One of the earliest creations designed to communicate something to people is cave paintings. Rich in symbols and scenes, these paintings are some of the first written communication systems among humans. One of the most iconic examples of these paintings is the Caves at Lascaux in France that were created in around 17,000-15,000 BCE.
These Paleolithic chalk, charcoal and ocher paintings of animals on the walls of caves were not easy to construct. Archeologists have found the remnants of the scaffolding artists would use to cover the expansive stone walls in pictographs.
The scenes were constructed particularly to convey a message. The why behind that message is still unclear. What we do know is these messages were important enough to be preserved.
Pictograph evolve into ideographs. The Sumerians started to carve both pictographs and ideographs into wet clay tablets. They were among the first to use ideographs as rebus, which is when pictures are used to represent words or parts of words.
With all that drawing in the mud, the Sumerians soon became fond of phonograms, which are symbols that represent sounds. They began writing using syllabary, which is when phonograms represent certain syllables.
Although a uniform layout for these writings hadn’t quite emerged, they were often written within boxes that would keep everything organized and easier to read. Since then, we’ve continued to use lines to keep our ideas from running together.
As the Sumerians fell from power, the Babylonians emerged under the rule of King Hammurabi. During his reign, Hammurabi created one of the first codes of law to govern his people around 1810 to 1750 BCE. He had it carved into a seven-foot-tall chunk of basalt and placed in the middle of the town.
On the top of this decree is a carved image of Hammurabi receiving the law on tablets from the sun god Shamash. Beneath, the code is written in cuneiform. The code of law is sandwiched between details of Hammurabi’s accomplishments as a military leader and his skills as a peacemaker, both establishing authority.
This stele is among the first combinations of image and text and is one of the first texts to establish hierarchy through the layout. Hammurabi intentionally put the image of him and Shamash seven feet in the air and flanked the law with his own accomplishments to establish authority.
It seems like after this point, written communication explodes all over the world. The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Chinese are all innovating in new language forms and creating methods for how texts should be displayed.
In around 1040 BCE, the Egyptians are using papyrus and creating works like The Book of the Dead. These books were painted on papyrus sheets and were originally made for priestesses. The sheets of the book would have a combination of images and hieroglyphics, which is the written language Egyptians used at the time. Similar to the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Egyptians used lines to separate groups of text.
At about the same time, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician 22-letter alphabet, modifying it by adding vowels. Previously, the alphabet had relied on a system of marks to add vowel sounds to letters.
By 400 BCE, the Greek alphabet was standardized as the Ionic (or Eastern Greek) alphabet. The Grave steles they created were similar in design to Hammurabi’s code, consisting of a single carved image above a body of text carved into stone.
By the 6th century CE, Romans had developed their own alphabet called capitalis monumentalis. An example of this alphabet being used is on Trajan’s Column, a 125 ft. marble column from Imperial Rome that detailed Trajan’s military campaign in Dacia. The 2500-character work depicts 155 scenes spiraling up the column and was completed in 114 CE.
Still, the Romans used lines to separate ideas.
Moving Eastward (and back in time a good bit), the Chinese have been writing texts on shell and carving them in stone. Over the course of around 2,000 years, they developed and used more than 4,000 logograms and wrote in regular style calligraphy.
Paper as we think of it today was invented in China sometime around 200 to 100 BCE. But it wasn’t until 105 BCE that Ts’ai Lun was able to start the paper-making industry under emperor Ho-Ti during the Han Dynasty. The Chinese also used carved wood block print images as one of the first ways to mass produce texts.
Independently from other countries, Chinese texts combined image and text similarly to the Egyptians, and used lines and boxes to separate ideas.
Paper traveled west to Korea, then Iran and onward, and eventually made its way to Europe. Wood block prints also spread with it. The codex, which consisted of text and ornate decorations, had already been popular in Europe before paper reached them.
The Lindisfarne Gospels were handwritten and drawn on stretched lambskin with gold, silver and lapis lazuli in 689 CE. A codex would often have elaborate carpet pages and would combine minimal text with decoration and illustrations.
By 1265 CE, modern Textura was being hand lettered onto parchment. By the 13th century, Europe gets paper, and almost immediately begins printing as well.
More and more books started to be printed from woodcut blocks, and by the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg was starting up his printing press with movable type. He used a two-part mold made from antimony, lead and tin, and he boiled linseed oil and lamp black to create the ink. He spent years on this 42 line Bible. All of the text was printed and the ornamentation and rubrication was added by hand in post.
There’s a sad story about how the man who invested in Gutenberg’s bible and press pulled out of their agreement at the last second, took all of his work and found a new partner. Although the design was unchanged when published, Gutenberg never saw any profits from his hard work.
Here is a good time to distinguish the differences between a font and a typeface, because the origins of those terms come from the printing press. Font and typeface are used interchangeably now. Originally, a typeface was the visual design and aesthetic of a letter, while the font was a particular size, weight and style of a typeface.
For example, a typeface would be Helvetica. A font would be Helvetica bold, regular, light, oblique or other variations.
The Nuremberg Chronicles were printed in the studio of Michael Wolgenut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. It had more than 1,800 illustrations and only 698 woodcuts. There’s speculation that Albrecht Dürer cut some of the illustrations in the work.
In 1525 CE, Dürer published many woodcut illustrations and wrote a book called A Course of the Art of Measurement with Compass and Ruler, where he applied geometry to a variety of fields of study, including letterforms, typography and design.
The Nuremberg Chronicles were just the jumping point for the vast amounts of printing that followed. As the Renaissance came, humanism and an interest in classical Greek and Roman works flourished. This allowed texts and printing to flourish too.
Nearly all of the printing presses were in Venice, Italy. However, very few of those printers were Italian. The first press to open in Venice was opened by Johannes de Spira, a German printer who used hand colored woodcut prints. Nicolas Jenson, a French-trained German printer followed. And then the trio of Erhard Ratdolt, Peter Loeslein and Bernhard Maler came after him.
Most of these printers were creating their own signature designs. The trio mentioned above, for example, would limit the decoration at the perimeter of pages to three sides, leaving a third side open. This was so readers would recognize which publisher printed it more easily.
The next printer in Venice was one of the most influential at the time. Aldus Manutius was an Italian publisher who would say to “make haste slowly”, and believed in good, clean pages. He opened his own printing press, the Aldine Press. His signature design was a triangular body of text at the bottoms of pages, and he used images minimally. One of his type makers, Griffo, would develop cursiva (italics) type and would inspire Claude Garamond several decades later.
At the Aldine Press, layouts were becoming simpler and texts were becoming easier to read.
French designer and publisher Geoffrey Troy published a three-volume manuscript about the history roman letters, the grid system for lettering, and the pronunciation of words. After this work, the French were more willing to move away from gothic typefaces and embraced more modern typefaces.
One of the first newspapers to be printed regularly began in the 17th century in Augsburg, Germany. Other similar regular publications emerged in Britain and North America as well.
Then, finally, came the Rococo period. Artists, interior designers, textile designers and even publishers were all working together to achieve an idealized and romantic aesthetic. There was a renewed emphasis on design and a unity among visual artists who were all working for wealthy aristocrats.
In France, the monarchy had a royal font, or Romain du Roi designed for the use of royalty only. Louis Simonneau and Philippe Grandjean spent years meticulously constructing the font using a grid system, only to eyeball the final casts because the molds couldn’t be as specific as they wanted. Rebels would imitate the royal typeface to confuse people into siding with them, despite it being illegal to use it.
Pierre Simon Fournier le Jeune was the first to create a package of borders, fonts and other materials needed to create a variety of designs. He published a manual to go along with it and help users know how to pair things together.
At the time in Britain, John Baskerville retired from his second job producing japanned ware and opened up a publishing operation with punch cutter John Hardy.
Later in Italy, Giambattista Bodoni admired Baskerville and mimicked many of his designs.
The Didot brothers in France did the same. This was a movement of text acting as both the content and decoration for a page. Typefaces began to look more mechanical, moving away from the handwritten aesthetics that were loved during the Renaissance.
Fundamentally, humans have always organized the messages they want to keep in some fashion. They have used lines, space and images to differentiate thoughts. There is a rich history beyond these beginnings, as the technology for movable type and printing presses evolve.
When computers emerged, the fundamentals of graphic design were flipped upside down. For the first time since cave paintings, we are no longer creating messages on a physical surface in the same way we used to. We aren’t navigating through written works in the same way either; rather than flipping the page, we’re scrolling the mouse or moving our finger along the screen.
As we strive to innovate in design, it’s important to consider the shifting medium, but also remember the core principles that have guided typographers, publishers and graphic designers for thousands of years.
After learning all of this, I feel more grounded and more prepared to consider digital design in a meaningful way. Megg’s History of Graphic Design was a crucial guide through this research and helped me determine which works to include in this summary.