Ian Tregillis's Reviews > Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

Just My Type by Simon Garfield
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Sep 18, 2011

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Recommended to Ian by: The Baskerville "Q"
Recommended for: Fans of the Helvetica documentary

I'll recommend this when the opportunity arises. But I won't gush when I do.

For the most part, I enjoyed it. It was entertaining, informative, and changed how I look at the world. (The written parts of it, anyway.) But it also irritated me in a few places, enough to make me knock it down a whole star from 4 to 3. Which would be meaningful if I actually had a knack for using the rating system consistently.

Prior to reading this, I had never given any serious thought to issues of font and typeface design. I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind there might have been the vague understanding that fonts do not, in fact, grow on trees. That they are designed and constructed. But I'd never explored that notion. I don't have an inclination for the visual arts and so, prior to reading this book, the inherent artistry of typeface design has always slipped right past me. I admit this with chagrin.

But reading this book has made me acutely aware of the writing that surrounds me-- and aware that somebody made a conscious choice so that my street sign looks just that way. And somebody chose a design so that the warning label on my venetian blinds looks just that way. Was there a meeting, somewhere at some time, where a dozen people sat around a table and argued about the best possible font to use for a warning about choking hazards? I honestly wonder. Hard not to, after reading about the level of consideration and planning given to the font choice for signage when the M1 motorway was under construction.

This book introduced me to the concept of the "type foundry". Old hat for many people, but a completely new idea to me. I am enthralled by the very notion. Surely, there is magic in such a place.

I also enjoyed the biographical asides about famous typeface designers and their creations. (Although from now on I will always worry that people might think me a pervert if I use Gill Sans.) But for crying out loud, once you write about Hermann Zapf and his efforts to lobby for greater legal protections for typeface designers, you're obligated to also take the time to answer this question: WTF, Zapf Dingbats? Because seriously. Am I the only person in the world who has ever wondered who Zapf was, and why he created his dingbats? Well, after reading this book, I have some sense of the man, but no better understanding of his dingbats. They're mentioned in this book several times. They're just not explained.

I also wish there had been a more complete explanation of the font-design process, both historical and modern. Speaking as a reader who knows less than nothing about printing presses and moveable type, it would have been really helpful (not to mention interesting) if the author had taken some time to systematically explain the process in detail. How did people approach the problem in the years immediately following Gutenberg? What did it mean to construct a typeface? How were they used? This information is present in the book, but not in the organized fashion I would have preferred: tt deserves a dedicated chapter.

Similarly, how do modern designers tackle their craft? I know this is really a question of artistry, so it's a bit akin to asking how a sculptor shapes clay, or how a painter chooses a particular color. But a good font has a recognizable character, a thematic consistency from glyph to glyph. How do modern font designers think about such things? Do some start with the letter "A" and work their way down the list? Do they start with a particular word? What are the rules of thumb? What guidelines do they use? Again, some of this information is present, but not in an organized fashion.

And finally. It's very difficult for me to take seriously a nonfiction book that refers (non-ironically) to YouTube comment threads. Nothing says "serious scholarship applied to an illuminating examination of a topic" like quoting things that anonymous strangers said on bloody YouTube. But I'm an ornery cuss that way.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Sidsel (new)

Sidsel Pedersen There was an interview with Garfield on KERA Think the other day if you have not already heard it. I hope the book is as interesting as the interview!

message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Tregillis I had no idea! Thanks for telling me. Do you know how I can find that? I'd really like to hear that.

message 3: by Sidsel (new)

Sidsel Pedersen It is on itunes. All their shows gets podcasted. They do not have a super long back archive so it is a good idea to check in there every now and then.

message 4: by Tamahome (new)

Tamahome Verdana ftw!

message 5: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Tregillis Sidsel wrote: "It is on itunes. All their shows gets podcasted. They do not have a super long back archive so it is a good idea to check in there every now and then."

Cool! I will definitely do that. And now I have a new podcast to enjoy :)

Tamahome wrote: "Verdana ftw!"

Would it be weird if I admitted I've suddenly become obsessed with the capital "Q" in Baskerville? I never, ever gave any thought to fonts or typefaces before reading this book. But now I'm looking at everything I read a little differently.

There's still a lot of stuff I'd like to find out about, so I hope the rest of the book doesn't let me down...

message 6: by Sidsel (new)

Sidsel Pedersen Q is a beautiful letter in some fonts and Baskerville is a really lovely serif font.

message 7: by Tamahome (new)

Tamahome Is sans serif better for faster word recognition?

message 8: by Sidsel (new)

Sidsel Pedersen No, it just means without serifs - the little feet on letters. You read serif or sans serif fonts fastest depending on what you are used too really. ON the screen sans serif fonts tend to be easier readable than serif fonts, but it really does depend on the font

message 9: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Tregillis I'm just plain fascinated by the amount of consideration that goes into font design, not to mention the entire process of font selection and typography.

It's like I've just become aware of a vast, complicated world that surrounded me all along.

(That said, I'm not a very visual thinker, so I fear some of the points in the Garfield book are lost on me.)

message 10: by Tamahome (new)

Tamahome HTML E-Mail: Text Font Readability Study: http://www.wilsonweb.com/wmt6/html-em...

message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Tregillis That's interesting. The differences in readability are quite vivid when the different fonts and sizes are placed side by side like that.

My eyes definitely found the sans serif fonts easier to read, and Verdana definitely wins at smaller sizes. Says the person who is waaaay overdue for an eye exam.

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