November 8, 2010 8:11 am

Just My Type

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield, Profile Books RRP £14.99, 352 pages

 

Beatles fans can hardly fail to be grabbed by Simon Garfield’s chapter “The Serif of Liverpool” – and in particular its discussion of “the font used to display the band’s name ... thick black letters, small spiky serifs, the large boastful B at the start, that long T that extends below the baseline of the other capitals”.

Paul McCartney explains: “It wasn’t a typeface ... I think I drew it when I was at school. I used to sit around endlessly with notebooks, drawing Elvis, drawing guitars, drawing logos, drawing my signature...”

McCartney isn’t altogether sure of the logo’s origins, and Ivor Arbiter, the owner of a London drum shop, claims he designed it for £5. “Whoever was responsible,” says Garfield, “it seems likely that the main subconscious influence on the look of the letters came from Goudy Old Style – which would place the nameplate of the most famous English pop group of all time firmly in the heritage of early 20th-century America.”

Garfield is the London-based author of 12 non-fiction titles, including a book about stamp collecting, one on the colour mauve and several on the second world war. He is not, however, a familiar name in the incestuous world of design journalism and commentary (where I happily reside) or on the type conference circuit; but that is one reason this collection of essays is so enjoyable.

He jumps headlong into the swelling waves of type minutiae, and is extremely knowledgeable about its history while ignoring the politics (and egos) of this world, except as fodder for his stories.

The tone is often funny and always entertaining. Type people are crazy when it comes to letterforms and the quality thereof, and can be downright nasty when a bad face or a poor “cut” crosses their path. Beware of the typographer scorned!

Garfield’s first chapter, “We Don’t Serve Your Type”, begins with a terrible joke: “A duck walks into a bar and says, ‘I’ll have a beer please!’ And the barman says, ‘Shall I put it on your bill?’”

The joke is set in one of the worst typefaces ever designed – Comic Sans, the approximation of hand- printing by a young child. But Garfield uses the duck joke as a way of commenting on the typeface in a way that is both elucidating and empathetic.

“Comic Sans is type that has gone wrong,” explains Garfield about the face designed by Vincent Connare, a “typographical engineer” working for Microsoft. “It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing ... it was intended to be fun. And oddly enough, it was never intended to be a typeface at all.”

The book’s chapter titles range from “Can a Font be German, or Jewish?”, “The Worst Fonts in the World” and my favourite “Can a Font Make Me Popular?”.

Just My Type is a love (and hate) story about the good, bad and ugly, as well as about the tension between old and new, the archaic methods that are often pined for – although the old craft was time-consuming and dirty.

Garfield has read virtually all of the literature, which given the technical-speak is not easy to do. Yet I do have one bone to pick. Although he acknowledges that fonts (aka founts) “weren’t the same as typefaces, and typefaces weren’t the same as type”, noting that “a font was a complete set of letters of a typeface of one particular size and style”, he insists on using “font” throughout the book to mean typeface.

It is true that these days we use the terms interchangeably. Still, damn it, a typeface is not a font. While I can bend to current trends, this is where I draw the line; though I’ll make allowances for this thoroughly enjoyable book.

Steven Heller is the author of ‘Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig’ (Chronicle Books)

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