The Evolution of Lettering Styles

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Letters started out as pictures representing sounds.
Letters started out as pictures representing sounds. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The evolution of lettering styles has depended on our ability to represent concepts and ideas in a literal form, using a sophisticated system of symbols that match the spoken sounds. Humans first used pictograms to represent what they meant to say, and started a basic vocabulary that later changed to express more complex objects and concepts through the use of ideograms. Finally, phonograms, which are signs and symbols that represent syllables and basic sounds, led us to develop our current alphabets.

Phonograms

Language and writing development occurred simultaneously in a number of Western countries, and it appears that the complete system of the alphabet was developed as a result of the combination of cultures from the ancient world, rather than in one single country. A phonographic alphabet was invented with the main goal to increase efficiency in writing, which explains why original phonograms are different from our current alphabet. They still resemble in shape and form but have been simplified to allow for faster writing.

Roman

Although the Roman alphabet was not necessarily the first lettering system to appear, the current modern alphabet's capitals are still the same. The Roman lettering system is believed to have started around the year 400 BC and was perfected around year 100, after having gone through a few phases, including early Greek, early Roman lapidary, classical Roman lapidary and finally, Trajan's column.

Unical

Next came the unical style of handwriting which gave place to lowercase styles. The unical system was based on the Roman alphabet and emerged as a result of its influence from other Mediterranean and European nations. The Irish were most notable in using unicals and half-unicals, but at the time, there were no rules to determine when an uppercase or a lowercase letter should be used.

Gothic

Gothic lettering, also know as black-letter, emerged in the 13th century and continued to be used until the printing press was later invented. Mostly popular in France, Germany and England, the Gothic lettering style was influenced by artistic currents of the middle ages. Gothic lettering can be recognized by vertical lines dominating, pointed arches replacing the round arches of the Romans' alphabet and a preference for an almond or mandorla shape.

Gutenberg

The arrival of Gutenberg's printing press in the 15th century revolutionized the world of lettering. His invention was meant to replicate handwriting, not create new typefaces, but it eventually lead to the variations we now know in modern typography. The possibility to reproduce handwriting more easily and to make information available to a greater number of people in less time transformed our society.

Typography

The industrialization period also brought its own share of changes in the evolution of lettering. New technologies made the process of elaborating new typography in a matter of hours, where it would have taken weeks and month in early historical ages. We have had to change some features of lettering to adapt to the use of computers and screens, to simplify even more the alphabet by making changes such as removing serifs to enhance clarity and visibility.

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