Typeface designs for the letters E and F

A short history of calligraphy and typography

Explore how the design of letterforms has evolved over time and across the world.

Calligraphy versus typography

Writing can be a form of art: a playground for human invention, ingenuity and skill. This applies both to writing by hand (calligraphy) and to letters and characters designed in printed or digital form (typography). As calligraphy is a gestural art, it incorporates more variation in form than typographic writing which is made mechanically and often within narrow technical constraints.

If we picture this on a sliding scale, on one end is typography, where legibility is primary (e.g. notices on a motorway sign or someone’s name on a form), and down at the other end is calligraphy – writing that is produced primarily for its decorative or expressive qualities – where legibility is less important (e.g. architectural friezes, lettering in paintings or the ornamental lettering engraved on a banknote).

But all letters and characters – handwritten or typographic in form – have been ‘designed’ by someone, and are a means of artistic expression.

Lettering design: the basic principles

Ideas on beauty have changed throughout history. Behind much Western art and writing lie notions that come from Ancient Greece. When the fifth century Greek sculptor Polykleitos wrote his Canon on beauty, he declared that beauty lies in the proportion of one part to another and of all the parts to the whole.

Similar ideas led the Greeks to think in a modular way about their alphabet, and this kind of thinking lies behind the design of many scripts. We have also come to think of the roman alphabet we use today not as a random collection of 26 letters but as a system of interlocking proportions based on squares, rectangles and circles. For example, in 18th-century France, at the time of the Enlightenment, there was work on designing roman alphabets against gridded backgrounds; these became models for future type designs.

Geometric types

Designs for a series of geometrically constructed types

An attempt to design the alphabet against a gridded background, which stems from the idea that something that follows geometric principles would be uniform, balanced and proportional, and therefore aesthetically appealing.

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Proportional thinking has also run through Arabic calligraphy ever since the time of Ali Ibn Muqla (885/6-890), vizier to three Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. When political rivals had his right hand cut off, legend has it that he continued to write with a pen fastened to his arm.

Ibn Muqla composed an overarching system of proportions for Arabic script, perhaps Pythagorean in inspiration. He took as its basic element the rhomboid dot, one of the simplest shapes a square-nibbed pen can make. His concepts allowed Arabic calligraphy to develop and extend formal structural thinking even to cursive (joined-up) shapes.

While Arabic calligraphy puts an emphasis on proportion, brush calligraphy (practiced in China and Japan) seeks out balance. Many characters have complex structures, while others are simple in form. This means that:

  • allowance needs to be made for variety of scale or weight between forms within a piece of writing
  • characters need more space around them
  • in less formal writing, the calligrapher has to balance the tone and density of ink across the piece as they write.

What matters is the overall appearance of the composition rather than a focus on replicating individual units.

There is also a deep appreciation of the performative aspect of brush calligraphy; it can be viewed almost like a dance. Each character is written as a flowing sequence from beginning to end. Even if the ink runs out, the calligrapher will coax the last remnants from the brush, rather than break that flow midway through writing a character. The traces left by the brush on the page leave a record of movement that the reader can follow and enjoy.

This all produces a very different set of aesthetic considerations compared to those operating in the world of moveable type where every character is identical and harmony comes from a sense of uniformity and repetitive pattern.

The impact of moveable metal type

Moveable metal type was in use in Europe from the 1450s, and in Korea since the 13th century. The type is made up of small pieces, each one representing an individual letter or character. These pieces are composed into larger masses, clamped into a frame, placed in a press, inked and printed. The type is then broken back up into individual pieces and reused.

Letterforms for the Latin alphabet

Let’s take the Latin alphabet as an example. In the 15th century the first printers in Europe used the common black-letter gothic textura forms for their books. These letters were already to be found in the larger handwritten prayer books of German printer Gutenberg’s day. At the beginning the printed forms followed the calligraphy very closely.

In the 1460s, when printing spread to Italy, new upper and lowercase roman forms became popular. These lettershapes were already being written in manuscripts by scholars and scribes immersed in a revival of classical learning. Scribes such as Bartolomeo Sanvito (1435–1511) had become an expert in writing the roman capital letters he saw carved on ancient Roman architecture.

Cicero's De Officiis (1498)

Cicero's De Officiis (1498)

You can spot evidence of the writer’s shaky hand in the double p in appellatus on the top line of the section in black.

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Sanvito also became an expert in writing the new cursive form of roman lowercase writing we call italic. The script had been developed in Florence in the early 1400s. Italic was first introduced as a type for printed books in 1501 by Aldus Manutius, a publisher in Venice.

First book in italic typeface

First book in italic typeface

The use of italic to give emphasis to individual words is in fact a more recent development.

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

These four scripts: gothic black-letter, the roman upper and lowercase letters, with italic, are the principal styles of letterforms for the Latin alphabet that have come down to us today. All these letters depend on carefully-related stroke thicknesses and spacing to give the even colour to a page of text – a feature that is less tiring to the eyes and aids legibility.

Non-Latin typefaces

Early European attempts to produce non-Latin typefaces often failed to appreciate details of the stroke formation of the scripts they were transforming into metal type. From the 16th century this was true for many Greek and Arabic typefaces; later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was also true for many of the types introduced by Europeans in Central and Southeast Asia.

Calligraphy continues

Although Europe had entered the age of printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, calligraphy and handwriting continued to flourish. Engraved handwriting manuals in all the major European languages show elaborate visual displays of penmanship and flourished decoration. They also show that roman letters and italic continued to develop in the hands of these writing masters.

Meanwhile, during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Iran and Central and Southern Asia new calligraphic styles continued to be elaborated. The nasta’ liq style (a variation on Arabic calligraphy developed in Persia) became more streamlined, swiftly written and linked, giving us the shikasta, or broken nasta’liq style. The sense of distinct lines of writing is weakened in favour of an overall pattern, with short verticals and flattened curves and units of text that seem to drop diagonally across the page.

Persian Qur’an

Persian Qur’an

17th-century Persian Qur'an with an interlinear translation in Persian, showing both dominant scripts (naskh and nasta’liq)

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Usage terms Public Domain

During these same years, in the Ottoman lands of Anatolia, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, the thuluth style of writing in Arabic script was widely used. This form is characterised by a strong vertical emphasis with long ascending lines. It came to be used for large-scale panels that could be employed architecturally or framed and hung on walls. The designs could also be transferred over onto other materials such as tile work and textiles.

The Industrial Revolution

The time of the Industrial Revolution was a period of reassessment for European type and typography. Amongst the innovators of that time was the British printer John Baskerville (1707–1775). He cast new type designs, which were wider bodied and with clearer contrasts between thick and thin strokes. He re-engineered the printing plates of his presses to give a crisper image. No part of the production process escaped his attention.

His work won admirers across Europe, particularly in France and Italy where his types seemed to embody the spirit of a new, more dramatic and exacting age.

Baskerville type designs

Baskerville type designs

In his preface (1758) to Paradise Lost by John Milton, Baskerville comments that he was ‘an early admirer of the beauty of letters … and desirous of contributing to the perfection of them’.

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

19–20th century calligraphy

The end of the 19th century saw a revival of interest in calligraphy across Europe. This was brought about in part by British calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872–1944), who began teaching writing, illuminating and lettering at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in 1899. He was self-taught, having studied calligraphy by researching the manuscript collections of the British Museum.

He focused on the historical tradition of calligraphy in the West. The manuscript that inspired his basic calligraphic teaching hand (he called it his ‘foundational hand’) was the 10th-century Ramsey Psalter.

Ramsey Psalter

A page opening from a manuscript

This was written by a Benedictine monk sometime in the 980s in a monastery in late Anglo-Saxon England. The script is freely written with an unselfconscious ease.

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Usage terms Public Domain

In 1906 he published a handbook Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering, including chapters on calligraphy, type, painted lettering and letters cut in stone. Later he taught at the Royal College of Art and is most famous today for his type designs for the London Underground.

Initially Johnston’s work was encouraged by followers of William Morris. Morris, one of the founders of the British Arts and Crafts movement, wanted to reform many areas of the arts. He felt the design of products deteriorated the more manufacturing became detached from traditions of handwork. So when he turned his attention to typography, he believed a revival of handwritten calligraphy should also be attempted.

Johnston’s work was shaped by this thinking: he focused on the historical tradition of calligraphy in the West and scripts for books.

Elsewhere in Europe, such as in Austria and Germany, calligraphy was seen as part of other new art movements: the Jugendstil and German expressionism.

In China and Japan meanwhile, the 20th century opened with a revived interest in styles of calligraphy which were preserved in rubbings of stone inscriptions from the fourth century. However, following the World War II, an avant-garde calligraphy movement swept Japan, paralleling the development of American expressionism and action painting.

Today in China, alongside an interest in researching calligraphy from previous eras, conceptual art has also begun to influence the way it is used.

New English calligraphy

Calligraphy manual

Xu Bing is a Chinese artist who plays with script and language to create artworks and installations.

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In the Arab world it was the de-colonisation in the mid-20th century that saw a revival of interest in calligraphy. Calligraphy was one of the few areas of the arts that had been left untouched by imported European systems of art education. It was thought that from this root, new artistic traditions might grow.

Modern calligraphy

Today new typefaces continue to be designed as the uses for type multiply across different media and platforms. We have seen the arrival of type families that incorporate characters from many writing systems within one overarching design, a useful feature in today’s global marketplace. BBC Reith, for example, is a new typeface family produced for the British broadcaster by type designers Dalton Maag.

Digital typeface for the BBC

Variants on the letter B in the BBC Reith font

This typeface started out with both Roman and Cyrillic, and will move on to other alphabets and writing systems in due course.

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Calligraphy, handmade lettering and signwriting flourishes, both at the local level and sometimes with a conceptual twist that places it in the context of an art gallery. The creation of an art market for calligraphy and fine typography is now affecting all the world’s major writing systems.

One of the most innovative developments in recent years has been graffiti. For the first time we have seen a new style of writing develop within youth culture, an unanticipated side-effect of a century of effort to provide universal education. Beginning in the eastern United States in the 1970s, graffiti has become a world-wide phenomenon spreading to many of the world’s writing systems.

  • Ewan Clayton
  • Ewan is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and external advisor to the British Library's 2019 exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark. He is a core faculty member of the Royal School of Drawing and is a calligrapher.