This week’s entry: Typeface

What it’s about: The concept of movable type—printing by using a separate block for each character, and using the combination of blocks to stamp ink onto paper or other material—is nearly a millennium old, having first been developed by Bi Sheng in Song Dynasty China around 1040. Bi’s type pieces were ceramic, and very labor intensive to both create and manipulate. In the 1200s, Koreans under the Goryeo Dynasty created the first metal movable type system—the metal was more durable, but the vast number of characters in the Chinese and Korean alphabets still made creating even a single typeset an enormous undertaking. In 1450, after the trade network built by Genghis Khan allowed Chinese inventions, including paper and the printing press, to reach Europe, Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable type system in which he could cast type pieces from molds. The much smaller European alphabets meant it was easy enough to make multiple versions of each letter, with full alphabets in different styles and sizes. The different styles were called typefaces; the sizes within each typeface were called fonts, although nowadays the two terms are used more or less interchangeably.


Strangest fact: Typography has changed far more in the last 65 years than the previous 650. As late as the 1880s, printers were still casting blocks of type from lead (sometimes carving type blocks from wood), much as Gutenberg had done, and Goryeo-era Koreans had before him. In the 1890s, the invention of the Linotype machine sped up the casting process, as it made it easy for printers to cast entire lines of type at once, but printers were still using the same basic Goryeo concept of metal blocks of type, stamped with ink. It wasn’t until the 1950s that typesetting took a step forward with a system called phototypesetting, in which light was projected through a film negative of each character and projected onto photographic paper. This method allowed type to be easily scaled to any desired font size for the first time. The 1970s saw the very first digital typesetters, but the printing industry used these alongside phototypesetters, linotype, and old-fashioned blocks of type. It wasn’t until computers became widespread in the 1980s that digital type began to make every previous technology obsolete.

Biggest controversy: In a 1978 court decision, Eltra Corp. V. Ringer, it was decided that typeface designs are not subject to copyright. However, it would be downright un-American to not rapaciously protect intellectual property and make as much money as possible from it. So some typeface designs are protected by design patents; digital fonts can be copyrighted as computer programs; and the names of typefaces can be trademarked. However, many of the most common fonts are based on centuries-old designs, which is why you can have ITC Garamond, Adobe Garamond, and Monotype Garamond side by side, as each is a take on a much older font, created by a different foundry. Foundries are the companies that create type styles, and despite not being able to copyright their product directly, some of them can be quite litigious. To sort out these thorny issues, most publishing houses employ a “font lawyer,” and the Wikipedia page’s section on copyright issues seems to have been written by one such person.

Thing we were happiest to learn: There’s actually a typeface-themed supervillain! In fact, his name is Typeface, and he first appeared in the pages of Peter Parker: Spider-Man. An Army vet who’s been laid off from a sign company, embittered Gordon Thomas turns to a life of crime, creating a font-themed identity for himself by writing letters on his face, most prominently an “R” for “retribution.” In his first encounter with Spider-Man, he manages to defeat the web-slinger using giant letters. This may sound like a wild Silver Age flight of fancy, but Typeface actually debuted in 2000.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Comic Sans continues to exist. The ongoing use of Comic Sans is hardly a crime against humanity. But talk to any graphic designer, and you’ll soon learn those are the only two things in history Comic Sans isn’t worse than. You’ll be surprised to learn that Gutenberg never used the reviled font to illuminate a Bible; it’s a creature of the digital era, and like every terrible computer-related thing, it was created by Microsoft in the 1990s. Microsoft isn’t entirely to blame, however, as they intended it to be a font for children. Designer Vincent Connare based the style on comic book lettering from The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen, so it has a strong enough pedigree. But the decidedly unserious font has been (mis)used in far too many serious documents, including the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson particle; a Vatican web page featuring photos of the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI; the infamous “Comic Sans memo,” in which Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert publicly berated once and future Cavs superstar LeBron James; and roughly three-quarters of forwarded email from your aunt.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While the computer revolutionized typography, making it easy to create and distribute fonts and leading to an explosion in the number of type styles, an equally important invention was the laser printer, which represented the first time ordinary people could create printed documents with a wide array of typefaces in reasonable quality. The laser printer was invented in 1969 by Gary Starkweather, while working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, a previous Wiki Wormhole subject.

Further down the wormhole: While digital type was created in English, it has expanded to cover every language on Earth, from the massive, complicated CJK (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) typesets, to very specialized typefaces like Gaelic type. Irish Gaelic was in widespread use on the Emerald Isle until the 18th century, when British occupiers made a concerted effort to replace the language with English. Since independence, the Republic Of Ireland has worked to revive the language, which now has roughly 130,000 native speakers, and thanks to widespread education and use by the Irish government, more than 1.5 million Irish speak Irish as a second language. One thing the British did bring to a permanent end in Ireland was a list of High Kings that stretches back into the mists of legend. We’ll try and separate the myth from the history (and fail) next week.