Just My Type – Simon Garfield

(Profile Books 2010)

subtitled: A Book about Fonts

This is a very readable and interesting book about typefaces and their history, and how we have become much more aware of type in our daily lives with the advent of personal computers. While discussing the history of type, from the early blackletter type of Gutenberg and his compatriots to the Roman type of the Italians (particularly in Venice, where there were many printers) and the contributions of various type designers to the written word, there are frequent “Fontbreaks” in which Garfield discusses several specific typefaces (I’m being quite careful about using typeface rather than fonts, since they aren’t quite the same thing, apparently!), such as Garamond, Gill Sans and Mrs Eaves.

Along the way we learn why Comic Sans is so reviled – and why it was designed in the first place – why Helvetica has taken over the world, and why Baskerville is considered (by some graphic designers, anyway) the most beautiful typeface for books. There are also interesting discussions of how our road signs were designed, and how (and why) most signs in airports, on the Paris Métro or the New York subway have the same font and style throughout each – and which makes each of these transportation networks immediately recognisable. London Transport, for example, uses Johnston Sans for all its communications, signs and posters, a typeface specifically designed to be readable and distinctive. Words all in capitals tend to be harder on the reader, and when it comes to road signs, it was found that destinations in the form Watford rather than WATFORD were easier to read and comprehend at speed.

Most modern fonts are licensed to specific type foundries (and that’s a lovely hangover from the past, given that most type is probably digital nowadays) such as Adobe, ITC (International Type Company) and others. And type designers often have several typefaces to their names (though very few, apparently, make any money by designing specific fonts – once a typeface is published it’s considered to be in the public domain, for example).

Garamond (which is one of my favourite typefaces) is one of the oldest still in use, though many of those in widespread use nowadays date only from the 1950s, such as Helvetica, Futura, Univers and Optima or later. Also in the book, it is revealed that Arial is a a rip-off of Helvetica, and that the Gotham font may have helped Obama to the presidency. Garfield even discusses how type is classified, depending on the serifs, and the relationships of the ascenders to the descenders, and which letters are most characteristic of each particular typeface.

The interviews with type designers are also illuminating, with many having distinct views about their work – and, sometimes, its ubiquity – as well as their theories about typefaces and what they can convey subliminally.

Of course, much of the reaction to certain typefaces is down to personal preference, but it’s generally considered that certain fonts are inappropriate for certain applications or uses whilst being entirely suitable for others. Just My Type is an entertainingly written history of typefaces, with a wealth of anecdote and interviews, and acts as a succinct summary of the subject for the interested layman.

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This entry was posted in 2011 New Reads, Non-fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Just My Type – Simon Garfield

  1. Ella says:

    Ohhhh, I may have to read this. I have always wondered why nothing looks right to me unless it’s typed up in Times New Roman.

    • Ela says:

      Times New Roman isn’t one of my favourite typefaces, but it has a not so very long history, interestingly. The book is currently in hardback, I think.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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