Open up any electronic device nowadays and you’re bound to come face to face with a myriad of software applications, each and every one using their own special typeface. Whether you’re out seeing the latest Hollywood blockbuster or at home trying out that new AAA game you bought, some form of digital typography is never more than a blink away.
As contemporary type and font designers, Fontfabric saw the use of digital tools rise and result in significantly diminished emphasis on traditional, analog typography. As desktop publishing came of age, the techniques of manufacturing and optimizing different fonts have shifted too, with a focus on readability and audience engagement.
As this new era continues its descent into the world of 0s and 1s, we dove into the archives to retrace the history of digital fonts —to learn how type got from woodprints to silicon chips, and what does the future hold?
The typographic discipline has, like most other visual crafts, gone through a series of reimaginings brought on by industrial innovations. Once the wheel began turning it was just a matter of time until the next big thing arrived to replace the previous format. Thus, the delicate ceramic tiles of 11th century China gave way to Wang Zhen’s more durable wooden type, which was not only cheaper to produce, but also required periodic replacement — thereby making sure that an entire industry began to form around the practice of type.
Metal plates originating from Korea eventually replaced the wooden layouts in the beginning of the 15th century, though there is a lack of concrete evidence that they made it beyond the reaches of the Far East. Europe had to ‘wait’ until 1439 and Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which revolutionized the continent’s cultural, industrial and economic life to one day allow foundries craft typeface fonts. Back then, within several decades more than 250 towns had their own movable-type operations in place, stretching from Lisbon to Constantinople.
By the 19th century many had grown tired of the time and effort required to manually set symbols in place, and a quest began to develop a method of mechanical typesetting. Perhaps chief among these was the American inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler, sometimes called ‘the second Gutenberg’, who patented the Linotype machine in 1884. It allowed an operator to enter text via a keyboard, which would then be assembled into a matrice covering an entire line, hence the invention’s name. The new technique allowed for a significantly smaller number of operators to go through large amounts of text in a single day, and also reduced costs, since the molds could be reused again and again. Mergenthaler’s concept inspired competition as well, including the Monotype System, which consisted of two separate instruments, and the Ludlow Typograph with its 96 point alphabetic upscaling.
By the 1950s companies were experimenting with a new method of generating type called phototypesetting. This process used light to project through a combination of a negative and a lens, eventually creating an image that was then fed to a processor for chemical treatment. Safer and much more reliable, this technology was well suited for offices as it bypassed the hot-metal workings of previous decades, required much less stock, and offered a greater variety of fonts and visual elements. Later variants of the phototypesetting machines made use of cathode ray tube (CRT) screens to display already digitised characters.
The final stroke of the pre-digital era was IBM’s introduction of the Selectric typewriter in 1961. Traditional typewriters had until then used a so-called ‘basket’ of individual typebars, which did not allow for multiple characters or fonts. IBM pioneered the “typeball” element — a large metal ball which several rows of characters, which would rotate and shift to a different position before striking the typewriter’s ribbon.
Typists could now easily change fonts or symbols as they please, and no longer needed to waste time on looking for double quotes, or hyphens — they now had separate keys of their own, a development which led to the creation of standardized character pairing in the 1970s. The Selectric’s successor didn’t fall far behind in terms of innovations — in 1971 it introduced spacing options, as well as the much-requested internal correction feature, disposing of the need for cover-up tape or correction markers.
As modern as phototypesetting was in comparison to old-school printing, for all intents and purposes it remained just as analog, simply replacing wood and lead with photosensitive paper and chemical treatments. German printer Rudolf Hell had a different vision, however, and in 1961 he unveiled the Digiset — the world’s first typesetting machine to work with digitally assembled fonts. By projecting light via a CRT device, it evenly distributed the darker points of the selected shape onto a pre-existing grid. Since the Digiset was a fully digital operation, it gave type designers the opportunity to share their work via floppy disks, but also return to it at any point and make additional edits or corrections — in many ways, a prototype version of today’s Office packages.
The aforementioned grid system eventually gave rise to the category of bitmap, or raster fonts, which use a combination of dots to create individual characters. Although they required separate fonts for each size and resolution, and therefore amounts of memory that were still considered ‘luxurious’ at the time, the bitmaps brought much more to the table than they consumed. It was now possible to type hundreds of letters per minute, and if need be, go back and carefully analyze the work for quality or legibility issues. Moreover, fonts were stored as digital bitmap images, and could be transferred via simple mail, or in someone’s pocket.
This brings us back to Rudolf Hell, and the creation of the very first font designed entirely for digital use — DigiGrotesk from 1968. This geometric sans serif came in seven weights ranging from light to bold, with two main versions — the ‘S’ variation closer to Univers or Futura, and the ‘N’ one, which was related to the Neuzeit Grotesk family (1928). Its simple and effective layout has remained more or less timeless, despite the font being specifically designed for the Digiset.
Lastly, any overview of 20th century typographic history would not be complete without mentioning Ray Kurzweil and his Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system. The technology was developed in the 1970s and could identify printed characters and reproduce them as digital information. Although it meant that symbols had to be distinct enough for the computer to ‘decipher’, the technology had many possible applications, and it meant that fonts could now be stored and shared via digital means.
Working closely with the US National Federation of the blind, Kurzweil unveiled the product to much fanfare in 1976, and eventually sold his company to Xerox. Nowadays the technology is used in a wide range of fields, ranging from smartphone language applications to passport control and traffic monitoring systems.
We already mentioned the disadvantages of bitmap fonts, and given the rapid technological advances toward the end of the 20th century, they had to go sooner or later. Eventually their replacement came in the form of outline, or vector fonts, which gave designers the opportunity to scale any symbol without worrying about visual artefacts. This was done through the use of complex mathematical algorithms involving Bézier curves (named after French engineer Pierre Bézier), which many of you are probably familiar with from software such as Adobe Photoshop — a PS ‘path’ is actually a series of curves connected by control points.
This new type of fonts was less memory-hungry and easier to work with, and it arrived just as computers were making their debut in houses across the United States. In 1983 Apple shipped Lisa, its first personal computer with a graphic interface, and included a built-in font with Modern and Classic versions and distinctive ‘v’ and ‘w’ letterforms. Though internally known simply as ‘SYSFONT’, nowadays there’s a free TrueType version named Twiggy that you could try out.
We already mentioned Adobe earlier, but their connection to digital typography doesn’t end with the Bézier curves. In the 1970s Charles Geschke and John Warnock were working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, where they developed an electronic page-description language called Interpress. After failing to convince the parent company in its virtues, in 1982 the pair left to establish Adobe and develop printing software on their own.
Their final product was called the PostScript, and it was the first of its kind to print pages that included text and digitized photos at the same time. It included a new type of font format called Type 1, which uses mathematical constructs to conjure up glyphs, and is very much alive and kicking to this day. Adobe also added a clever marketing scheme that ‘gave away’ the actual language for free, but still charged for the interpreter required to decode the PostScript.
It was the start of an entire industry, and by the end of their second year in business the company was posting more than $2 million in annual profits. The PostScript was later licensed to Apple, who launched a line of laser printers (the LaserWriter), as well as PageMaker — the first-ever desktop publishing program!
For better or worse, the PostScript wouldn’t be the last time that these two companies tangled together. In search of a complete product cycle, during the 1980s Apple developed a new outline font standard called the TrueType, which gave developers a much higher degree of control over how their creations looked in various sizes.
Each TrueType font consists of a string of tables that are linked together, with the first one being the font directory master, responsible for accessing all of the remaining ones. The names were limited to four symbols, and included head, cmap, glyf, loca, maxp, name, post and others.
In 1991 the technology was licensed to Microsoft for free in order to ensure maximum adoption rates, but the Seattle-based giant ended up developing its own ‘smart font’ a few years later. Released as TrueType Open in 1994 and later renamed to OpenType in 1996, the package still relied on tables, but they now offered a much wider range of options. Font makers could rely on extended language support, numerals, ornaments, ligatures, alternative variants, text layout features, case-sensitive forms and cross-platform formats.
Nowadays both TrueType and OpenType are widely used across all common computer platforms and allow font foundries like Fontfabric beautiful custom font design.
A Variable Future?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what else can be added to this already packed and dense timeline? Curiously, our window to the future is simultaneously connected to years gone by.
In the early 1990s Adobe expanded their PostScript technology with the addition of Multiple master fonts, or MM fonts, which contained two or more font styles that could be manipulated in terms of size, width or thickness without a loss of overall quality of readability.
Fast forward to now when morphing is back in vogue, and not only on our Instagram page either — in 2016 Adobe teamed up with Apple, Google and Microsoft to update the OpenType specifications so they allow for variable fonts. Windows 10 was the first operating system to include one as a default option (Bahnschrift), and the Adobe Creative Cloud supports an ever-increasing selection as well. In 2018 we also joined the fray by releasing Slovic, a variable font with five morphing interpretations, ranging from an ornate Old Church Slavonic type to a more contemporary example of sans serif fonts. I urge you to browse through our beautiful serif, display, rust, script fonts.