The evolution of letterheads is a fairly under-represented part of the history of writing. Though it is easy to research things like typography and paper production, the development of letterheads often seems to be overlooked.
This does not mean the letterhead is unimportant, however. The term “letterhead” refers to both the design at the top of a piece of letter paper and the piece of paper itself, and since its emergence during the Industrial Revolution, the letterhead has been one of the best ways a company had to represent itself. It sat atop a business’s correspondence and let the reader of the letter know, through a visual representation, what that business was all about.
The Industrial Revolution had an impact in every industry, and printing was no exception. Mass production made printing cheaper and faster, so people and companies could have their own intricate and impressive letterheads. The nineteenth-century aesthetic was all about showing what the era’s newly emerging technology could do, so letterheads were very ornate. Lines, curves and detailed illustrations were common, and shading techniques quickly became sophisticated.
The turn of the twentieth century
During the turn of the twentieth century, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and other architectural styles heavily influenced the look of many things, from furniture and ads to, of course, letterheads. This visual sense looked to reconcile the worship of the machine in earlier decades with a romanticised view of nature, making the curves and angles of the world around us into geometric patterns. This strong visual idea leant itself quite naturally to almost every kind of design discipline, and it also marked the avant garde out from the crowd. Businesses could demonstrate how modern they were with just a few design flourishes at the top of a page.
When modernism emerged as the dominant art and architecture movement of the time, letterheads become simpler. That is, they became more functional and less decorative, allowing function to supersede form as modernism required. Typographical elements and borders made strong visual impressions of people and companies which were straightforward and powerful.
The age of advertising
Design, like most creative disciplines, follows the trends of the era it is done in. During the rise of television, bright, catchy advertising became crucial to a company’s success, and businesses soon began to think about more comprehensive branding strategies that encompassed every element of the company. The designs of letterheads reflected this, changing from the simple statement of a name to flashy designs meant to stick in the mind of the reader. At the same time, printing in full colour also became cheaper, which helped push letterhead designs into an almost ad-like territory.
These days, letterheads are not quite as consistent stylistically as they were in the past. Companies can draw on any number of inspirations to give people a certain first impression. If they go for something ornate like they did in the nineteenth century, it suggests an appreciation for traditional aesthetics, and by extension, traditional methods of production. A letterhead filled with bright colours and trendy designs suggests a company that is young, energetic and creative, whilst a letterhead with only a company logo and straightforward fonts reflects a company culture that is all business.
Various colours of papers and printing techniques can be used to a spectacular effect, and the introduction of design software means that almost anyone can now design their own company logo and letterhead, whatever their point of view or training.
This combination of inspiration of past designs, the many perspectives of today’s designers and the use of futuristic technology means letterheads, again like every other design discipline, will push boundaries and be more creative than ever.