Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

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

This book was a Christmas present from a friend who was inspired to give it to me after a deeply sympathetic conversation we’d had last summer about our shared hatred for a gigantic capital P. It was a nasty, curly, tasteless, bloated thing, with a flashy exaggerated serif at the foot and a meaningless blob where the body should have been enclosed. It formed part of the word Proms (the other lower case letters weren’t much better), in our face, displayed all over the Royal Albert Hall as their new logo. It looked absolutely vile next to the airy, clean lines of the well-loved BBC logo (in Gill Sans). We loathed it.

It was a classic example of the subliminal influence of type. It is so hard to describe the effect it has – how it is always possible to tell if it works or not. This book is an enjoyable exploration of the history and significance of type, and the perfect gift for a curious reading addict. It’s certainly more accessible than the manuals and textbooks I remember from studying librarianship – though I found them fascinating. It is emphatically a book about Type and not about Printing – very little about the craft of the printer, but lots and lots about the art of the type designer and the designer with type, and the effect of their designs on readers and viewers.

The appearance of words on a printed page is easy to take for granted, but it does not take much delving to be captivated by fonts. Their names are so intriguing – anything but Times New Roman, please: Baskerville, Bembo, Bodoni, Garamond are just some of the beautiful ones. Helvetica, Gill Sans and Johnston Sans are the backdrop of our lives, on traffic signs, logos and name plates of underground stations. Now fonts are at the beck and call of us all, thanks to PCs and word processing. We can choose our favourites, be playful or serious, and express our personality. Fonts can evoke a mood, a period or a place, match a style, even express a gender (the designer of the cover of Men are from Mars, Women from Venus made two choices, expressing two stereotypes – discuss!). The first chapter in the book is about Comic Sans – the typeface that divides humanity. This a design inspired by the hand-drawn letters in comic book speech bubbles, and expresses naivety and light-heartedness. Used in the wrong context, it can cause irritation amounting to fury, and there is a notorious Internet campaign (not 100% serious? I can’t decide) to obliterate it. It’s also the butt of the only joke I know about fonts, that Simon Garfield quotes:

Comic Sans walks into a bar and the bartender says ‘We don’t serve your type’.

Simon Garfield’s book is a collection of stories (his description). It is not a linear history – it hops about, picking a typeface, or a topic, or a theme. He is strong on the ‘romance’ of type – the heroes, the stories, the legends. He also has a crack at making the technicalities accessible, although that aspect of the book is a bit hit and miss. To start with, there is the distinction between the terms Typeface and Font (or Fount): I had to read his explanation of the difference several times to work out that he was confirming what I’d already thought – a Typeface is a particular design of type, with all its letters, characters and cases, and a Font is a complete set of all the letters and characters in a particular size (so a Typeface has a range of Fonts). OK – so we’re agreed (I think), but it is comforting to be told that the words are now used interchangeably. It is however utterly fascinating to be told about the elements of typeface design – the balance and shape of the white space enclosed by the letters, the tiny variants in serif design, the proportions of the letters. It is amazing to have pointed out that in a particular design, the verticals of the letters are infinitesimally thicker at the base than the top, to avoid the sensation that the letters are toppling over.

Only after he tells us about the notoriety of Comic Sans does he recount the history of Gutenberg’s perfection of moveable type in the 1450s, and his development of the two first fonts as we know them , Textura and Bastarda. Both are based on scribal handwriting styles. He explores the difference between the Black Letter and Italic styles, and the recent takeover in our lives of sans serif fonts – Helvetica, Univers, Arial. He explores Readability and Legibility, and seeks to explain why Cooper Black works well 10 feet high on the side of an Easyjet plane, but is very hard on the eyes in blocks of text on the page – it’s legible, but not readable. We also find out how important typefaces have been in the careers of those who create the look and feel of the world we inhabit – Steve Jobs, for instance, and design guru Neville Brody.

There’s a great chapter called DIY, that covers the ways in which we all became amateur typographers at one time or another: the messy fun of the John Bull Printing Outfit, the funky crudeness of Dymo Tape, and the sheer masochistic horror of Letraset (life was too short ever to get any good at Letraset). In between thematic chapters, there are shorter riffs on particular fonts – their origin, and any legends associated with them. Altogether, it’s a book that’s full of enthusiasm, wonder, facts and fun. It’s a bit relentless if read from end to end, but a great joy to hop about in, dipping into random chapters that take the fancy – and it’s obviously designed like that.

One of its pleasures is that it is beautifully typeset itself, with the added joy that when a font is mentioned, it is illustrated in the text that describes it. That’s a real challenge. It must be the librarian in me, but I always turn first to the back of the title page to find out about the book I’m reading. This title page verso is very rewarding. As well as the date and publishing history:

The main chapters of this book are typeset in Sabon MT 11/15pt. Sabon, a traditional serif font, was developed in the 1960s by Jan Tschichold, a Leipzig-based designer. Its story is told on p 251. Interspersed between the chapters are a series of ‘Fontbreaks’ , which are set in Univers 45 Light 11/15 pt, except for their initial paragraphs, which appear in the font under discussion. Univers is a Swiss font, designed in 1957, the same year as its compatriot, Helvetica. Their story is told in Chapter Nine: What is it about the Swiss? But, being a book about fonts, Just My Type samples more than 200 other fonts, from Albertus to Zeppelin II.

Design, layout and font wrangling by James Alexander of Jade Design (www.jadedesign.co.uk)

Now, being an avid reader of film credits, I know there is such a person as a Fish Wrangler, but I’ve never come across a Font Wrangler before – sounds like a dream job. This gives a flavour of the geeky pleasures to be found in the book. We’re all readers here (aren’t we?) and many of us are writers too. I’d love to hear from writers whether fonts consciously or subconsciously form part of their writing lives. Did you have an opinion, or any say, in the typeface chosen for your books? Do you choose a font in which to draft, or just go with the default flow?

Whether you are a type-aware reader or writer, or just have a vague feeling without knowing why that some texts are easier or more enjoyable to read than others, this book will amaze you with the wealth of endeavour, creativity and design genius that goes into the minute differences in those everyday little symbols that bring us our reading pleasure.

Simon Garfield: Just My Type. A Book About Fonts. London: Profile Books, 2010. 352pp
ISBN13: 9781846683015

11 comments on “Just My Type. A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield

  1. Anne Brooke
    February 2, 2011

    Sounds absolutely fascinating, Hilary – and definitely something my husband would love! 🙂

  2. Moira
    February 2, 2011

    Another Font Geek here … And I want to be a Font Wrangler when I grow up!

    I think I’m going to have to get my hands on this one … it’s the sort of book I’d have picked up anyway, before I read this review. I drive people nuts tweaking with the typeface on the Centre’s headed paper, and I’m forever downloading new fonts to play with. It’s like trying to find the perfect handbag. It’s never going to happen, but hell, it’s fun trying …

  3. rosyb
    February 2, 2011

    Oh crumbs. Loved this. You cover such weird and wonderful esoteric topics on here, Hilary. i never know what’s coming next.

    I struggle with types in terms of business cards and what works small versus large and stuff like this. I tend to use Arial for writing because it’s less squidgy than Times and because I got used to writing stuff to go online. On the other hand the squidginess of Times comes in useful sometimes when you need to fit a bit more on a page.

    I’ve used Comic Sans before too I must shame-facedly admit on an event card I made up – though I haven’t actually had the bollocks to send a whole manuscript in to a publisher in CS. Hehe. Is that the modern-day equivalent to green ink?

    I’m quite fond of Copperplate Gothic and Franklin Gothic and used those for quotationy bits on cards as they reproduce nicely small and also Calibri and Cambria for small bits of text.

  4. Jackie
    February 3, 2011

    Oh, this sounds like a wonderfully fun book! It also sounds very considerate of the reader in having examples of the fonts, right there.I’d love to learn the stories behind some of the fonts & read more on how size affects their impact. I really must find this book! Thanks for telling us about it.

  5. Hilary
    February 3, 2011

    Oh good – so there are other font fans out there! This link to an article by Simon Garfield summarises his chapter on Comic Sans, and gives some idea of his style and approach to what can be a very technical subject.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11582548

    And – Moira, I thought I was the only person in the world still looking obsessively for the perfect handbag. You may be right about the perfect font, though some are just right in context – but, as far as I’m concerned, generally chosen by someone other than me.

    I remember that when MS Office first became ubiquitous, I very soon got thoroughly fed up with Times New Roman, because everybody used it everywhere. It ceased to be a signifier of serious, important or carefully composed writing. I could have joined a Ban TNR movement if one had existed. These days, I prefer to use sans serif fonts for what I write myself – the standard at work is now Arial, and I was so grateful to see the back of TNR that it cheered me up strangely. You see? You see?? Fonts really do get under the skin. I definitely need to get out more.

  6. Nikki
    February 3, 2011

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Hilary, you have such odd but fascinating taste in books! A book about font! So I’m not the only one that gets het up about it (I recently saw a GP referral letter written in… Comic Sans!! Wildly inappropriate). It would never have occurred to me that there would be a book about font, so thank you! I feel this justifies the time I spend tapping through the available ones on my computer.

    Hilary, I salute you!

  7. Clare
    February 4, 2011

    At least one good thing has now come out of our shared pain in the Albert Hall during Proms season, Hilary – your splendid review of Just My Type. Those bobbles where no bobbles should be still have the power to make me froth at the mouth. Gaah! If I ever get my hands on the visual illiterate who added them …… the most sublime music played by the finest musicians and I’ve got this eyesore of a typeface snagging my enjoyment like a trapped eyelash.

    Somewhat bothered by the level of mania unleashed within me by a glorified advert at a classical music concert, I found Just My Type quite a reassuring read, revealing as it does a world of typeface … let’s call it ‘commitment’ … that made me realise I but paddle in the shallows of obsession when it comes to fonts. Or is it typefaces? Like you, Hilary, I found Garfield a bit lumpy on the technical stuff. Unlike you, I didn’t persevere. For me, the appeal is all in the aesthetics. Baskerville and Garamond actually make me happy. I’ve worshipped Johnston Sans and its descendents on London Underground for years – and with the tube service the way it is, I’ve had plenty of time to admire. It took Simon Garfield to point out to me, though, that the deep pleasure I get from the typeface actually resides in the fact that the dot over the ‘i’ is a diamond-shape, not a square. Gorgeous!

    Hmm, maybe I need to get out more. Not to a Proms concert though … not without an eyeshade anyway.

  8. Biblibio
    February 4, 2011

    I’m not a font fanatic, but I get very frustrated when a book is presented to me in a clunky, awkward, childish or even internet-y font. Sometimes a book needs a slightly less conventional type, but more often than not I hate the result. Does this make me a simplistic fool? Possibly. But the best font adjustments are the ones barely felt, the ones that make the reading enjoyable but you don’t quite figure out why it’s so much nicer…

  9. CuriousBookFan
    February 6, 2011

    Have heard only good things about the book and like the joke: Comic Sans walks into a bar and the bartender says ‘We don’t serve your type’. Thanks. Sounds like a good fun.

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2011 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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