Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 2

Beatrice Warde's manifesto

Beatrice Warde’s manifesto

And we pick up where we left off in Part 1, right after Chapter 2: Let’s be a little more serious (don’t worry, just a little, and just for a while), starting with a Fontbreak:

Fontbreak: Gill Sans
In the mid-1920s, Eric Gill painted a sign for a bookstore with what evolved into one of the most common typefaces in Britain, used by the Church of England, the BBC, and Penguin Books. In 1989 Fiona MacCarthy published a biography of the designer, which may give you pause the next time you see this “most British of types….spare, proper, and reservedly proud” – he kept a detailed diary which included the notation, “Continued experiments with dog… and discovered that a dog will join with a man.” Oh, and then there’s the incest and pedophilia… Yes, the guy was a pervert of the lowest order. Maybe that’s why the penguins waddle, y’think? It creates an interesting question for organizations like the BBC and Westminster Cathedral, both of whom use Gill Sans: Is it censorship (and artistic treason, not to mention economic hardship) to replace the work of a pedophile, or common sense?

Chapter 3: Legibility vs Readability
Is the perfect font a crystal goblet – transparent so the wine is the star – or a golden chalice, to be admired on its own? Opinions differ. Beatrice Warde, publicist for the Monotype corporation in the 20s and 30s, and, lord help her, “friend (and sometimes lover) of Eric Gill” wrote the eloquent essay The Crystal Goblet, stating the case for her point of view. The sign above (it’s not the same version as printed in the book) was her Credo, and was found in most printing offices of the time (and is well-known enough to be parodied and adapted to the printing press of today). Kind of makes you want to salute when you walk past Kinkos, doesn’t it?
As I understand it, readability is legibility in practice, and in volume. A bold all-caps stylized headline can be legible from across the room, but would be a poor choice for a paragraph. While I was able to prove the “dot test” to my satisfaction – the dots of the “i” in New Times Roman and other serif fonts is indeed slightly shifted to the left – I’m dubious about the “stem test” – the stem of the “t” is thicker at the bottom to keep it from falling over (visually, of course). Unless they mean that extra couple of pixels which curve more quickly on the left side, resulting in an extremely brief increased thickness.

Font Break: Albertus
First a fairly thorough description (“…combining Roman values with individual flair….The large rounded letters are complemented by the narrow horizontal E, F, L, and T, which are even more effective when doubled. The S has a smaller counter at the bottom than at the top, which can make it appear upside-down”) with examples, and history (Berthold Wolpe created it in 1932 for use on bronze memorial tablets), the punch line comes in the explanation of why it (with some small modifications) was used for the signs in the old TV show The Prisoner (which I was just barely old enough to appreciate on first run): it was “visually stunning” and “perfectly suited to the unnerving psychological landscape” but above all else – for use on late-1960s televisions – it was highly legible. A clone of the variation (the dots of the “i” removed, and some minor changes to other letters) is available; and a restaurant in France has deliberately recreated the look, emphasizing the Celtic elements, to mimic The Village. That’s the power of a well-chosen font: it evokes a forty-year-old tv series that only ran for seventeen episodes, and it makes a French chef want to appear Celtic.

Chapter 4: Can a Font Make Me Popular?
Matthew Carter, creator of Verdana and Tahoma, has trouble at movies:

…so often when Carter sees films he notices niggly things wrong with type. How could a story set in Peru in the nineteenth century possibly have a sign on a restaurant door that had been composed in Univers from 1957? How could the film Ed Wood, set in the 1950s, use Chicago, a font from the 1980s, as the sign at the entrance of a studio? And how did the props team of a movie set at the start of the Second World War get the idea that it would be okay to print a document in Snell Roundhand Bold, when Carter, watching in the muliplex, would recognize the face as something he himself created in 1972?

Designer Mark Simonson devotes a section of his website to such faux pas.

Font Break: Futura vs Verdana
The consumer backlash when Ikea switched fonts was so dramatic – and unprecidented – it even made the Business section of Time.

Chapter 5: The Hands of Unlettered Men
The post-Guttenburg proliferation of type in the late 15th century, from the da Spira brothers in Venice, epicenter of the printing explosion, to William Caxton in England.

Font Break: Doves

Doves type is most easily recognized by its ample space between letters, a y that descends without a curl, a ligature connecting c and t, and the bottom bowl of its g set at an angle, giving it a sense of motion, .like a helicopter tilting at take-off.

The type that was drowned – creator and owner Thomas Cobden-Sanderson threw it in the Thames in 1916 to keep it from passing to his former Doves Press partner upon his death. Too bad – the Doves Press Bible is beautiful, with a drop-cap for the ages.
ADDENDUM: 2/6/15 Breaking news from the World of Fonts: 150 pieces of Doves was recently recovered by font designer Robert Green, who looked in the last place they’d been seen: the Thames River. Seriously. Sometimes the simple solution works.

Join us next time for the Ampersand Chronicles and the tale of a Superior Cub…

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One response to “Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 2

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

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