An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill takes the reader back to the year 1930. The year when a conflict between two worlds came to its term. The machines of the industrial world finally took over the handicrafts.
The typography of this industrial age was no longer handcrafted. Mass production and profit became more important. Quantity mattered more than the quality. The books and printed works in general lost a part of its humanity. The typefaces were not produced by craftsmen anymore. It was the machines printing and tying the books together now. The craftsmen had to let go of their craft and became a cog in the process. An extension of the industrial machine.
But the victory of the industrialism didn’t mean that the craftsmen were completely extinct. The two worlds continued to coexist independently. Each recognising the good in the other — the power of industrialism and the humanity of craftsmanship. This was the second transition that would strip typography of a part of its humanity. We have to go 500 years back in time to meet the first one.
A similar conflict emerged after the invention of the first printing press in Europe. Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and used it to produce different compositions. His workshop could print up to 240 impressions per hour. Until then, the books were being copied by hand. All the books were handwritten and decorated with hand drawn ornaments and figures. A process of copying a book was long but each book, even a copy, was a work of art.
Human beings aren’t perfect. Perfection is something that will always elude us. There will always be a small part of humanity in everything we do. No matter how small that part, we should make sure that it transcends the limits of the medium. We have to think about the message first. What typeface should we use and why? Does the typeface match the message and what we want to communicate with it? What will be the leading and why? Will there be more typefaces in our design? On what ground will they be combined? What makes our design unique and why? This is the part of humanity that is left in typography. It might be the last part. Are we really going to give it up?
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In Renaissance Europe, the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information — including revolutionary ideas — transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its people led to the rise of proto-nationalism, accelerated by the flowering of the European vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin’s status as lingua franca. In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, while Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing.
The use of movable type was a marked improvement on the handwritten manuscript, which was the existing method of book production in Europe, and upon woodblock printing, and revolutionized European book-making. Gutenberg’s printing technology spread rapidly throughout Europe and later the world.
His major work, the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible), has been acclaimed for its high aesthetic and technical quality.