Garfield, Simon. Just My Type: A Book About Fonts.

NY: Gotham Books, 2011.

Unless you’re a design geek or involved in advertising, or you’re responsible for producing the company brochures, you probably don’t pay much attention to the typefaces used in printed materials, much less in public signage. In one way, this is a good thing: Well-designed and intelligently selected type should recede into the far background of the reader’s awareness, ceding attention to the actual content of the text. (Beatrice Warde called it the “crystal goblet” principle.)

Still, typography has a psychological and emotional effect on how we understand or react to what we read. The U.S. Constitution printed in Comic Sans is not the document you thought it was, and there was a startling degree of furor a few years ago when Ikea switched all its print materials from Futura to Verdana.

Ever since Steve Jobs included a bunch of interchangeable fonts in the first Macintosh, the casual (and usually untutored) adoption of one typeface over another has become a problem, especially in the workplace. Many companies have issued edicts that all corporate communications will be printed only in Times New Roman, or Ariel, or whatever. As a book junky all my life, and as a professional librarian, readability was an issue I was familiar with, but I never paid much attention to fonts. Then, when I retired, I took over the editorship of a state-wide professional journal and the first thing I had to do was revamp the publication’s entire look. That meant studying typefaces, about which I ended up learning far more than I had set out to do. (And I settled on Minion as the main body text.)

Rather than delivering a straight topical or chronological narrative, Garfield holds a conversation with the reader, moving from one subject to another, pausing to discuss why Comic Sans (though “harmless”) is such a terrible idea, and going down side roads to investigate the use of fonts in corporate branding, or the surprisingly close relationship between typefaces and rock ‘n’ roll, or how Edward Johnston designed the perfect font for the London Underground because he was an amateur who didn’t know all the rules. This approach makes it an easy book to pick up and read when the mood takes you. And while he never lectures, it’s clear the author knows his subject very thoroughly indeed.

He has a number of important points to make on subjects like legibility vs. readability and the fact that the latter is really a function of what people are used to seeing. Also, that reading a book page is quite different from reading a computer screen and that different fonts are necessary in different circumstances — have, in fact, been specifically designed for them. (Georgia is nothing special on the page but it’s the clearest and most legible serif font you can put on a laptop screen. It’s also the font you’re reading right this minute.) The “right” font depends on context and role, and its most important function, always, is to get the message across. He also discusses the problem of stolen or copied or unlicensed use of fonts, which is many times greater in the digital age than previously, and is exacerbated by the lack of copyright protection for fonts in the U.S.

He includes a large number of short biographical sketches on “typographical heroes” like Claude Garamond, Eric Gill, Matthew Carter, William Caslon, Vincent Connare, Edward Johnston, Adrian Frutiger, Hermann Zapf, John Baskerville, Stanley Morison, and Erik Spiekermann (how many readers will ever even have heard of these people?), as well as informative chapters on the history of printing itself and the contributions of innovators like Gutenberg, Jenson, Manutius, and Caxton. And there are lots of brief asides on such fascinating topics as Claude Garamond’s interpretation of the ampersand, which approaches high art. (The ascending stroke, the author says, “resembles the darting tongue of a lizard catching flies.”)

And there’s the art of font identification, to which end type nerds will happily spend their nights online, and the rise and fortunate fall of blackletter (except on beer bottles), and the long, fierce commercial competition between Linotype and Monotype, and the shift from a chronic shortage of type designers in the Olde Days to the present time, when as Erik Spiekermann says, “Everybody wants to design a bloody typeface.”

And, of course, the “Worst Fonts in the World” chapter is great for starting arguments. The font most used by professionals, we discover, is Frutiger, followed closely by Helvetica (no surprise there), while the “least favorite” (though not actually the worst in artistic terms) is Times New Roman. (Brush Script, Courier, and Ariel place high in this list, too — higher than Comic Sans, in fact, which is the font we all love to hate). Grunge fonts in general are also strongly disliked by designers. Garfield himself absolutely loathes the font designed for the 2012 London Olympics, and he tells you why in some detail.

If you love typography as art, or books as material culture, or if you just love playing around with the drop-down font list in Word, you will lose yourself in this informative, witty, beautifully written, and never boring volume.

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Published in: on 30 October 2014 at 4:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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