Sunday, 23 January 2011

Just My Type - Simon Garfield

Christmas is a time for reading books you can dip in and out of between TV specials. My Christmas book of choice this year was Just My Type, a book about fonts.

My own interest in typography came from computing. Growing up in the 80s meant blocky 8x8 characters and dot matrix printers. Just My Type describes a mysterious parallel world of Apple Macintoshes, where letters came in many shapes and sizes. But my first encounter with this black magic had to wait until Microsoft cribbed their work in Word for Windows. OK, so it may not have the romance of the Mac, but there was the same intoxicating mixture of art and technology as the letters kerned themselves perfectly before my eyes. What could be cooler? (don't answer that).

My last literary encounter with the subject was an aside in The Art of Travel by the pop-philosopher Alain de Botton, who describes how the modernist lettering on an airport sign provokes the pleasurable feeling of being somewhere exotic. Just My Type is a whole volume devoted to such feelings.

In true Christmas book fashion it is divided into bite-sized chunks, each one focusing on a different aspect of typography. The main chapters cover everything from the history of the printing press to the outcry in 2009 over Ikea's decision to end their iconic use of Futura in favour of boring Verdana. They are separated by 'Fontbreaks', which are full of 'a-ha!' moments as you're introduced to the likes of Trajan (the Movie Font), Optima (the Perfume Font) and Cooper Black (formerly Dad's Army, now the EasyJet font).

This is also a book about people: the strange tribe of typeface designers. Naturally Garfield tells the well-known stories of Edward Johnston's work for the London Underground and Kinneir and Calvert's designs for the motorway system. But there are plenty of anecdotes I hadn't heard before, such as the bookbinder who drowned his own font in the Thames to spite his business partner. And you will never look at Gill Sans in the same way again after finding out what Eric Gill was getting up to while designing it.

The most enjoyable chapter in the book is, of course, the author's choice of Worst Fonts in the World. I was pleased to find that I'm not alone in my hatred of the 2012 Olympic font. Papyrus is unsurprisingly also in the bottom 10, although I don't agree with Garfield that it was a baffling choice for the subtitles in Avatar. It may be hackneyed elsewhere, but to my knowledge it's never been used at the movies and I thought it suited the hippy-drippy alien vibe very well.

There are a couple of minor niggles, such as the chapter that purports to explain the difference between legibility and readability but forgets to define either, and a few occasions where the font wrangling is either not obvious or has gone awry. But they don't detract at all from this lavish feast of a book. I recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in the printed world around them.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts
by Simon Garfield
First published in 2010