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First Impressions

Early type design

Today we have access to hundreds of different typefaces in many styles and sizes - all at the click of a mouse. When Gutenberg perfected his method of printing, the typeface he developed was based on what was familiar to him - the handwritten 'Black-letter' or Gothic text of manuscript books. He was seeking to make money from his new enterprise and his potential clients would want to read text that was immediately recognizable. Most people then, as now, were conservative in their reading habits, and preferred a text that looked familiar and was 'easy on the eye'. The style of the typeface, like the script on which it was modelled, is known as Textura.

Analysis of Gutenberg's Bible reveals that about three hundred different letterforms (or sorts) were cast to produce it, including ligatures (combinations of two or three letters), accented letters, and different widths of the same letter. Gutenberg was following the example of scribes, who used many abbreviations to speed up the writing process. Punchcutters soon began to simplify and reduce the number of letterforms to make it more economic to cut a fount of type, and to make it easier to compose text using movable metal type.

Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer took over the printing workshops from Gutenberg in 1455, following his failure to repay a mortgage to Fust. They developed the typeface further but retained the gothic style. Printers who learnt their craft in Mainz and established printing houses throughout Europe took with them the concept of producing typefaces that mimicked local handwriting. Konrad Sweynheym (who had worked as a clerk for Schoeffer) and Arnold Pannartz established a printing press at Subiaco, 50km east of Rome, and cast their type to match the Italian calligraphic hand known as humanist script.

Venice became a great centre for the development of typefaces and it was particularly influenced by the efforts of three people who had all learnt their craft in Germany: the brothers Johann and Wendelin de Spira (i.e. from Speier) and Nicolas Jenson, who had already had experience of punchcutting and working with type in Germany. The brothers developed with Jenson a very pleasing typeface with more rounded letters that broke away from the traditional German Gothic style. Jenson established a reputation as a prolific punch-cutter and he went on to produce an attractive typeface known as 'roman', based upon the carved letterforms on Roman monuments. His legacy lives on in the serif family of typefaces such as Garamond and Times New Roman. Other typefaces were created in Venice by the type-caster Francesco Griffo for the printer and publisher Aldus Manutius.