Signwriting & Type’s Enduring Relationship

Type Tasting's Sarah Hyndman on the recurring role of signwriting in the development of typefaces.

Signwriting & Type’s Enduring Relationship

Ahead of our new workshop collaboration with Sarah Hyndman at Type Tasting, we invited her to share some of the research that will underpin this one-day participatory session. ‘From Brush Strokes to Typography‘ is Sarah's examination of the enduring relationship between the signwriter’s brush and type design...

Take a closer look at typefaces in context of history and you’ll discover that the signwriters’ brush has profoundly influenced the development of typefaces in Europe and North America. Typography and signwriting have developed in parallel, yet they are taught in different ways; typography is typically learned through academic study at university, whereas signwriting, where it is learned in formal settings, is passed on through vocational courses and apprenticeships.

Here are some of the connections that we’ll explore together in the workshop through a series of hands-on activities.

Trajan inscription and Gladiator film poster
Trajan inscription and Gladiator film poster.

Serifs were invented by Roman sign writers

For a long time it was thought that serifs were shaped by the chisels used by stone cutters in ancient Rome, as seen in the square capitals used on Trajan’s column.

However, priest and calligrapher Edward M. Catich presented compelling evidence to prove that the shapes of these letters, in fact, came from Roman signwriters using flat brushes. The stone carvers then followed these shapes when they cut the letters into the stone, preserving them long after the paint had been weathered off.

This means that serifs were created by Roman signwriters over 2,000 years ago, and were then adopted by humanist printers in the 15th century. The ubiquitous ‘movie font’ Trajan (as seen on movie posters from Gladiator to Titanic) uses letter forms based on the inscription on Trajan’s column. It was designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly who worked from the research of Edward Catich.