Saturday, March 01, 2014

Weekend Diversion: The History of Typography

This video from last year is an animated presentation of the history of typography. In my field, knowing about this stuff is important, but most people have no reason to even care. I think it’s interesting.

While humans have been using writing of one sort or another for millennia, modern printing using moveable type only came about some 575 years ago. Prior to that, books were copied by hand—a time-consuming process—or printed from wooden blocks, which had limited life because they wore out. Making books, then, was a very expensive process, and few people could own them. At the same time, there was also mass illiteracy.

Johannes Gutenberg changed everything. By inventing a system to make it possible to create pages with reusable metal type that could be moved around to compose pages (and re-used for other pages), it became possible to print unlimited copies of books and other printed information. Books became cheaper and more and more people learned to read. This was the single greatest move to democratise information that the world has ever seen, right up until the creation of the Internet.

Gutenberg’s invention spurred the invention of new and easier-to-read typefaces, which is what the video above describes. Modern communication exploded as books became available to pretty much anyone, and more and more people learned to read—books sales and increased literacy clearly had a symbiotic relationship.

As is so often the case, the development of new typefaces were driven on by the needs of business for communication and record keeping, and also for advertising and marketing. Fortunately, there was a lot of good design that developed, too, helped by the increasing variety of typefaces. The graphic at right shows some of what can go wrong, however. Intended as a joke, it shows things I’ve actually encountered over the years.

In the Internet Age, we’ve seen another democratisation of information, as absolutely anyone can be a publisher, whether it’s a blog, an ebook, or whatever. Not all of these new publications are “good”, of course, but that’s always been the case—not every book or newspaper that was made possible by Gutenberg’s innovation has value, either. Unlike paper books and periodicals, however, electronic publishing gives governments and businesses unprecedented abilities to spy on readers and to censor information, and to do so quietly, secretly and without anyone knowing it’s happening. Well, usually: The Internet also makes it easier to reveal such secret spying and censorship.

The two worlds—traditional publishing and the Internet Age—merge in efforts to make information that is now in the public domain available on the Internet. Two that I use frequently are The Internet Archive and the appropriately named Project Gutenberg. The latter began as a supplier of text-only copies of books in the public domain, and have since expanded to embrace various e-reader technologies and, most recently, they’ve created a self-publishing portal. There are also services to help with self-publishing through the online retailers, whether the book is free or not. I'll talk more about that another time.

The process that began with Gutenberg is far from over. I think that’s a great thing.

And still more about typography:

A video by Karen Kavett shows “How to Identify Fonts”. Graphics/typography nerds like me will find it interesting.

Artist Transforms The City Of Chicago Into A Giant Typography Playground

A blog called “Typeset In The Future” is focused on typefaces used in sci-fi, beginning with an extensive look at 2001: A Space Odyssey. They said about it: “Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece – seems an appropriate place to start a blog about typography in sci-fi.” And so it is.

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