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I looked at fonts and readability here Now here’s a look at an assortment of vintage fonts.

Publishers, of course, make the decisions on typeface and the design of book covers. Any lettering (title, author, illustrator, etc) on a cover may well be artwork and art direction unique to that cover. But I am aware self publishers are responsible for decisions on lettering so here’s a quick look at the history of typography. Font choice is a subtle way of suggesting an era.
In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe, then Thomas Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and their typefaces followed the manuscript style used by scribes. ‘Blackletter’ is not easy to read and the development of ‘Roman’ type (following the style of Roman inscription) was pioneered by Nicholas Jenson:

In the 18th century William Caslon further developed Roman type with thicker serifs (known as old style). Then there’s John Baskerville with his transitional style with thinner serifs and a more consistent contrast between thick and thin lines. Serif styles were refined by Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni to develop ‘modern style’ fonts with thinner serifs and obvious contrast between thick and thin lines.

The 19th century sees the development of sans-serif fonts. As advertising, billboards, signage, flyers and playbills become ubiquitous, shouty sans-serif proves useful:
There are also slab serif styles:

Typefaces compete for attention!

The late 19th century includes a look back at early font styles by William Morris and his Kelmscott press, and a flowering of new font styles with Art Nouveau. See Alphonse Mucha’s poster designs and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tearoom signage for the range of beautiful design going on at this time.

The 20th century brings the sans-serif fonts we see in use to this day. Paul Renner’s Futura is a ‘geometric sans’ style, Edward Johnston and Eric Gill developed ‘humanist sans’ styles. Johnston’s font is familiar as the London Transport font. There are 1950s designs still popular today, for instance Adrian Frutiger’s Univers and Max Miedinger’s Helvetica.

The 1960s saw graphic design pushing boundaries in marketing and advertising and font design followed. The 1970s looked backward and forward.

In the days before Pinterest, if you liked collecting images you had to cut and paste... literally. Above is a page from my 1970s scrapbook of lettering I liked. Mainly collected from Sunday newspaper colour supplements and the magazines of the day (Jackie, 19, Honey, all long gone) and all stuck down with the newly invented Pritt stick. Pinterest has revolutionised ‘scrapbooking’ hasn’t it?

If you find yourself choosing a font for a book cover or display purposes, think about history as well as legibility.

More on 20th and 21st century fonts next month.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating can be found here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column Proofreading Tips is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures.
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy 


  1. This is very timely, Catriona. I spent half an hour yesterday looking for a suitable 1920s sans-serif font for a project I'm doing (I did find one in the end). I remember the first time I used DTP software and going completely mad with ten different fonts on the page - it ended up looking a lot like your scrapbook!

    1. And I hope the ten fonts were in several colours and point sizes...


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