Book Review

Janet Mackenzie reviews Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield.

"Today we can imagine no simpler everyday artistic freedom than that pull-down font
menu. …Twenty years ago we hardly knew them but now we all have favourites.
Computers have rendered us all gods of type."


This entertaining book is a guide to the world of type in which fonts take the leading role in a centuries-long drama. The story begins with Gutenberg's Textura and leads eventually to software programs like Fontographer that allow you to create your own typefaces. Simon Garfield explains why Comic Sans causes revulsion and loathing, how Gotham helped Barack Obama to a presidential victory, and how the influence of letters carved on Trajan's Column in Rome in 113 CE can still be seen in fonts used today.

Garfield describes the characteristics of typefaces, their bodies, beards, shoulders and faces. As he teaches the reader to see the detail of serifs (bracketed, unbracketed and wedge), ascenders, descenders, counters and bowls, we begin to understand why he describes particular fonts as 'warm, homely, reliable' or 'industrial and tough' or 'precise and scary', or even 'curiously sexless'. We learn the difference between legibility and readability, between beauty and clarity.
Garfield explains the traditional process of cutting metal type with punch, strike and matrix. He describes fashions in type, from Blackletter to faces classed as Modern or Grotesque, via Dymo labels and Letraset to today's grunge fonts and Ecofont, designed to save ink. Gothic typefaces are popular for newspaper mastheads and pilsener beers; Trajan is often seen on the posters for bad films; and Futura was the choice for the plaque that the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the moon, perhaps because it is likely to be legible to extraterrestrials.

The font designers include some amazing eccentrics. There is the priapic Eric Gill, whose Gill Sans graced the covers of the first Penguin books; Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir, whose Transport font makes motorway signs legible; Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, who dumped every bit of his font Doves into the Thames for fear it would be used “in shoddy printing and undesirable subject matter”; Edward Johnston, who defined the London Underground with Johnston Sans.

The book makes excursions into byways of typographic history. We learn that Caxton's Vocabulary in French and English, c. 1480, “has so many misprints that you feel like writing in disgust to the publisher”. Garfield recounts the Nazis' embrace of the heavy Blackletter Fraktur, with its nationalistic overtones, and their sudden rejection of it in 1941 for lack of metal to cast the type. On a lighter note, Garfield recounts the story of the famous Republic of Sans Seriffe, with its two islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, its Gill Sands beach and Bodoni airport, which was an April Fools' Day hoax by the Guardian in 1977.

Reading this book will open your eyes to the world of fonts that surrounds you - advertisements, shop signs, brand names, TV credits, websites. Editors often find themselves swearing at a sign for its spelling and apostrophes; after reading this book, you'll get annoyed about the typeface as well.

Janet Mackenzie