Sunday, October 14, 2012

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Source of Book: I own this.

This book was a gift from my brother, who said that it would either turn out to be really good, or really boring. Since this is a book about fonts and typography, this proves that he is almost as much of a nerd as I am.

I will assume that any reader of this blog has at least a passing knowledge of fonts, since he or she owns or has access to a computer. It was the computer, of course, that made fonts known to the average person, rather than just those in the printing business.

My family’s first computer was a Commodore 128, purchased when I was probably around ten years old. I had played on a friend’s computer on a few occasions previously; and, while I found a few adventure-type games interesting, I was primarily interested in the programs that made publishing possible. I was fascinated by anything that allowed me to print stuff. Nothing was quite as interesting, however, as two particular programs. I believe they were entitled “Printshop” and “Newsroom,” and allowed the printing of greeting cards and banners for the first, and basic newsletters by the second. It was through these programs, eventually purchased for our own computer, that the young version of myself gained a knowledge of fonts. And, it goes without saying, did my best to bankrupt my parents through excessive use of ink and paper.

I recall that there were around a half dozen fonts available for Printshop, mostly decorative rather than readable at small sizes. None were particularly memorable, other than a “tech” style font that looked something like this:

While I loved printing those ten page banners and greeting cards for every occasion, I enjoyed Newsroom even more. There was something fun about setting writing imaginary stories (and a few that were true) and “selling” my creations to family and friends (for the cost of making copies). Eventually, I did the editing and design for a home school group we were part of during my high school years. I suppose it was natural that I would eventually end up on the editorial committee for our County Bar Association.

Newsroom had a total of three fonts. One was a basic “serif” font like Times New Roman, which I use for the vast majority of my writing, including this blog. (I know, it’s boring, but it is available on everyone’s computer, is easily readable at small sizes, and is acceptable for use in legal documents filed with every court in the nation.) For those uninitiated into basic typography terms, “serifs” are the little protruding details at the ends of some strokes. If you look closely at the letters in this sentence, you can see them at the bottoms of most of the letters. In contrast, a “sans serif” font, such as Arial, lacks these additional details. In addition to a single serif and sans serif font, Newsroom had a Gothic Style font, which imitates the original hand lettering of the middle ages, and was widely imitated by early printers. It is also pretty much unreadable to our modern eyes, except at the larger sizes used for headers. Needless to say, I used all three fonts in various combinations for fun, until I eventually decided that, at least at the terrible screen resolutions of my old Commodore, serif fonts were the way to go - unless I wanted to go blind. This is probably the reason I still prefer good old Times to Arial or Helvetica.

This book is not a boring treatise on typography - although it has plenty of useful information. It is written in the form of a series of stories about the history of typography from Gutenberg to modern times, with a focus on the stories of the development of the most influential and popular fonts.

Some of the fun tales include the famous “San Serrife” hoax of 1977 (see below), and the history of interesting fonts used for movies and albums. (The beautiful font, “Albertus” used on such works as Coldplay’s Parachutes, for example.)

I also found much of the history to be fascinating. We take for granted the use of serif fonts derived from Roman and Italian sources in our printed materials. However, Gutenberg and his successors originally preferred the Gothic style fonts, and it was a hundred years before the new “Venetian” style printing became popular. (Much to the disgust of the traditionalists, too!) The Gothic was not content to fade away, however, and lingered on with a few enthusiastic partisans. Newspapers have often used the Gothic script for their mastheads, of course. The Nazis considered modern sans serif fonts to be “degenerate,” meaning Jewish, for some reason not particularly historical, leading to a revival of the Gothic blackletter. In our times, heavy metal bands and tattoos still utilize these fonts, probably for their association with the Nazis as well as their inherent heaviness and emotional impact.

Another fun association is that of “Trajan,” which has become the font of choice for historical movies. The stereotypical “voice-over” artist for movie trailers presumably uses Trajan for his business cards.

One of the most familiar fonts is Garamond, which is used for the United States editions of Harry Potter, and also for those formative books by Dr. Seuss.

My new hero, after reading this book, is Aldus Manutius, who invented my favorite form of punctuation, the semi-colon - and is also credited with establishing the modern book trade with his affordable editions of the great Greek and Latin classics.

A few other fun discussions include the timeless “serif” versus “sans serif” debate. Which is more legible? There is yet to appear a definitive answer, although there is some slight indication that serif might be less tiring to the eyes on paper, at least in long works. Also, is type better designed digitally, or on paper in an old fashioned analogue style? Can a better sentence than “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” be invented to show all twenty-six letters? Finally, is Helvetica (used by Apple - and everywhere else) the typographical equivalent of the Borg?

Whatever your opinions on these important questions, if you care about typography and printing - or even about the display on your smart phone - you will likely find this book to be a fun and informative read.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book (which probably shows something about my own nerd level).

    We had a C-64, and one of the most useful programs on it was "Printshop." The poster feature was incredibly useful and very easy to use.

    I use Palatino Linotype for my letters here at work. It's a nice compromise between Times New Roman and Garamond, I think.

    And to be both picky and nerdy :) The correct sentence uses "jumps" not jumped - otherwise there's no "s"

    1. Oops. Serves me right for writing this late at night. I'll fix the sentence in question.

      Apparently we share both the C64 and Printshop as formative experiences.

  2. :D Ok, I'm sort of curious about this book but I KNOW Jonathan would absolutely go for it. So I'm not going to tell him about this book or your review and can hide it under the Christmas tree. It's so hard to surprise him with things sometimes but this is PERFECT! I confess, I never much paid attention to fonts but being married to Jonathan has made me Aware. He is forever commenting/criticizing and offering his opinion on people's font selections. :D This is awesome!!!