While most people likely have some general knowledge about fonts, few know the origin story behind them and how they got from the print shop to your computer screen. What once was a labor intensive process that relied on a printing press and fell into the domain of a select few typographers is now a craft that anyone with access to a computer can hone. This convenient abridged history of font design, along with a look at the various font software available, will illustrate how font design has made its way to the masses.
The history of typeface dates back to ancient times. Yet the concept truly came into fruition in the mid-1400s when Gutenberg invented the printing press. For the first time metal movable type was used, allowing for books to be printed in large quantities rather than using the laborious process of handwriting. According to scholar Thomas Detrie in his comprehensive work Font Fundamentals, conventional text typefaces occurred mainly in Italy, France, and England from 1469 to 1818.
In the 1890s the invention of the Linotype machine led to the mechanization of typesetting. This allowed for the automated casting of types that could be adjusted in size and length. Detrie states that the next crucial advancement was the creation of phototype, which was a transition between metal and digital type. He refers to it as "post-mechanical and pre-electronic." During the mid-1970s a large variety of techniques were used for typesetting including letterpress, continuous casting machines, computer-automated photo-typesetters, and even early digital typesetters.
In 1984, Adobe launched PostScript, creating digital font as we know it today. With two types of font, Type 1, a more sophisticated higher quality type and Type 3, a simpler functional type, customers had a choice of fonts for the first time in history, according to graphic designer Lauren Leurs. Since Adobe had a stranglehold on the market, Apple and Microsoft teamed up. Apple created a font technology, while Microsoft created imaging technology, resulting in TrueType fonts that were universal in all operating systems. Leurs states that the market became flooded with homemade, poorly designed TrueType fonts, and in combination with several flaws in the program, this led to a bad reputation for the program. Microsoft then allied itself with Adobe, and the companies’ produced OpenType, a system that could house both TrueType and PostScript font data. The system was beneficial to users as it allowed for advanced typographic features and character sets, such as Unicode. Leurs says that every major operating system on the market today supports OpenType.
With the user-friendly aspect and availability of font software and systems, the graphic design industry has grown substantially since the 1980s. In addition, Web sites such as dafont.com house thousands of user-created fonts that are available for free download. The lines between professional typesetters and do-it-yourself font enthusiasts gets increasingly blurred as technology continues to evolve. Font design trends are also shifting to accommodate the mobile Web. Font sizes have become increasingly larger so that content can be viewed on the smaller screens. In addition, stylized font was historically read as an image and did not filter through search engines. Google Web Fonts features hundreds of free, open-source fonts that allow for search engine optimization. For designers and computer users who would like to create fonts from scratch, a host of font design software has made it easier than ever.
Here are some tools:
The popular FontLab Studio is a professional font editor compatible with both Mac and Windows. FontLab Studio 5 allows users to design unique typefaces and create or modify fonts. The software supports all major outline font formats, including Type 1, TrueType, Multiple Master and OpenType. It includes in-context glyph design, improved metrics and kerning, pixelfont support, Unicode 5.0 support, upgraded OpenType support, new printing modes, improved autohinting, and even opens Mac fonts in Windows. Typeface designer Alec Julian calls FontLab the “industry standard.” However, the software is expensive and geared towards professional font designers.
FontForge is extremely similar to FontLab. However, FontForge is free and open-source. In addition, the software is a powerful tool when designing OpenType layouts. While FontForge has all of the same abilities of FrontLab and is also offered for free, some users have found the software to be difficult to install. A basic knowledge of Unix is necessary as well.
It offers the same features as FrontLab and FontForge. Yet, this extremely expensive software has additional bonuses. The program comes as seven different modules and has built-in batching power and automated OpenType layout table generation. The program makes advanced font design technology user-friendly, while also featuring unparalleled technical quality. Available for Mac and PC, FontMaster is top of the line and created for professional font designers. The cost can be a deterrent for hobbyists.
TypeTool , created by FontLab, is the ideal product for beginners. The company touts it as software “for students, hobby typographers and creative professionals who occasionally need to create or customize fonts.” TypeTool is a simplified, user-friendly version of FontLab. It works on both Mac and PC and has an intuitive user interface and easy navigation features. The drawback of FontLab is that the software cannot be used to edit advanced typographic OpenType layout features. The reasonably priced software is more suited to beginners than the other advanced, professional-grade programs.
With the magic power of the internet usage, the availability of user-created font databases, and a multitude of font design software on the market, typeface design is not just for professionals anymore. Font creation has become more and more common in a world where the web can be utilized as a powerful means of artistic expression. Font design already has a long rich history however, in the hands of more people, the art begins to grow and evolve into something new everyday.