Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 1

Periodic Table of Elements by Cameron Wilde/SquidSpot

Periodic Table of Elements by Cameron Wilde/SquidSpot

I love this book. How can you not love a book with the Periodic Table of Typefaces on the endpapers?

I love it so much (and I’m not quite done with it yet), I’m going to stretch it out over a series of posts, so I can include all the things I loved. Sure, I know I have a problem with editing, but this book, even if you don’t care about fonts or typography, there’s probably going to be something in it that appeals to you. Like one of the greatest April Fool’s Day hoaxes ever perpetrated on Great Britain. Or the quandary Westminster Abbey was in when it was discovered the designer of the signage at the Stations of the Cross was an incestuous pedophile (among other things). Or the games people play with fonts. Or the story of the font that was drowned to keep it out of the wrong hands. I don’t want to leave anything out.

It’s arranged in a rather stream-of-consciousness style rather than chronologically or by sections and subsections. Most of the 22 chapters – they’re fairly short, maybe six to eight pages each – end with some kind of lead-in to the next. They’re separated by Fontbreaks, two- or three-page spotlights on a specific font.

You won’t learn much about type design or page layout here; for that, you need a different kind of book. If you’re a total type novice, a two minute browse of any site explaining typeface terms – bowls, stems, descenders and counters – might be helpful in a few places. But it’s not essential; most of it’s pretty intuitive, and plenty of illustrations are included. In fact, the Introduction is mostly a fifteen-page graphic essay of how type is used in everything from TV show logos to the New York Times classifieds to iPhones.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, informative, readable, and fun – particularly when read at your computer, with the book in one hand and your mouse in the other. I spent nearly an hour on some chapters, just checking out what’s mentioned. I’ve included links to some of the most fun stuff; the book provides an appendix of online resources.

Introduction: Love Letters

Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A and a B that had never been done before? And how did an American friend of his make the typeface Gotham, which eased Barack Obama into the presidency? And what exactly makes a font presidential or American, or British, French, German, Swiss, or Jewish? These are arcane mysteries, and it is the job of this book to get to the heart of them.

Chapter 1: We Don’t Serve Your Type
The introduction ends with a warning:

But we should begin with a cautionary tale, a story of what happens when a typeface gets out of control.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? Comic Sans, developed by Vincent Connare, originally designed to accompany Microsoft Bob, a dog-icon that would serve as a Help function on Office. The idea was to make computers, and Microsoft Bob in particular, less threatening to first-time users. But the font proved too big, so it was never incorporated; Bob wasn’t a hit, and was discontinued (replaced, I suppose, by Paper Clip Man, whom I despise with a passion unaccounted for by reason). Since it was there, Comic Sans was included in the supplementary fonts package for Windows 95. It’s now the most hated font in the world. The first six or ten sites you’ll find if you google “Comic Sans” will be anti-CS groups and websites. In my travels I’ve noticed some literary journals (like Plain Spoke and Puritan) specifically forbid it; the Futures SF column of Nature also forbids it on a guidelines page in a font that looks very much like CS, lending an ironic tone to the whole thing. A friend of mine used CS for her personal emails – purple, no less – and it suited her. But, like a hoodie, it could lead to trouble.

Chapter 2: Capital Offenses
In 2007, Vicki Walker, New Zealand insurance worker, was fired for causing “disharmony in the workplace” by sending an email in upper case (plus red and bold sections); her later wrongful termination lawsuit was successful. The chapter blends into history: Guttenberg, and the origins of moveable type; Upper Case referred to the box in which capitals were stored.

But that’s all preface to the main event: On April 1, 1977, the UK’s Guardian ran a seven-page supplement touting the newly discovered vacation spot, the islands of The Republic of San Seriffe, complete with map of the two major islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, with feature stories on the lovely beaches of Gill Sands and the charming port of Clarendon, and a profile of President Maria-Jesu Pica (helpfully archived online by the newspaper). This was, of course, before everyone had a PC on his or her desk with those font names in a drop-down menu at the top; no one knew from serifs. Travel agents, swamped with requests to book passage to this unknown paradise, could find no Bodoni Airport, no Garamondo Inlet. It ranks as one of the best April Fool’s Day hoaxes in modern history.

See why I love this book?

More to come…

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5 responses to “Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 2 « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Simon Garfield–Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (2011) « I Just Read About That…

  3. Pingback: Chip Kidd–Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design (2013) | I Just Read About That...

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