A Brief History of Typography

By June 7, 2019Blog

Writing is a fundamental form of human communication. In fact, written communication is wholly unique to the human race and is what distinguishes us from all other living things. Typography is essentially how written communication looks aesthetically; often confused with font, which indicates a set of letters designed in a specific typeface, created by a typographer.

In the world of commercial signage and graphic design, different typefaces connote various meanings and messages- but where do they come from? Typography has a very rich history, so below, we offer just a brief insight into the aesthetics of written language.

Ancient typography

The origins of writing were created by our earliest ancestors in the form of cave paintings, some of which date back to as early as 20,000 BC. Much later, in 3,500 BC, the Sumerians introduced formal writing, however, it was the ancient Egyptians that really nurtured the written message, famously creating extensive hieroglyphic alphabets to symbolise aspects of society and human life.

By 1,600 BC, the Phoenicians had forged phonograms- symbols that represent words, some of which we still use today, for example, ‘%’ meaning percentage. From this, the Ancient Greeks established a formal alphabet and the Ancient Romans created the Uppercase alphabet, both of which inspired typefaces of the modern era for their clarity and simplicity.

Medieval typography

Once written language had moved into formal alphabets, the typographic systems we see today emerged. In the Middle Ages, countless manuscripts were hand-written in an illustrative style. Scribes would use rounded, elaborate lettering, which kickstarted the art of calligraphy and neat, formal page layouts and letterings became prevalent. The ability to write in this way became a signifier of education, wealth and class, as professional calligraphers would travel around to share their knowledge and skill with the elite echelons of society.

The emergence of modern typography

In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable printing press, which enabled people to produced various different typefaces en masse in an ordered page layout. This truly took hold from the Industrial Revolution onwards, when typefaces were used for mass communication in newspapers, on posters and for large commercial signage.

By this time, there was a whole range of different styles available; bold and less illustrative designs were used for signage and media publications, whilst ornamental, flowing handwriting remained an indicator of class and style. Sans and sans-serif typefaces also became commonplace- these are clear, modern and readable.

Contemporary graphic design

The typefaces and fonts we see today have a rich and abundant history. They’ve emerged over hundreds of years, with many artistic and societal influences. It is the job of professional typographers and graphic designers to utilise these typefaces in order to convey a message, suitable for use. Designers also create their own designs for unique and specific uses, taking inspiration from classic styles.


As the leading commercial signage experts in Manchester, we at Ainsley Signs understand just how important typography is to represent the character and professionality of a company. Offering a complete sign service from design through to installation, our bespoke signs are a surefire way to make your business stand out and ensure you attract the right customers. For more information, get in touch with us today.