Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 3

Art by Tom Gabor

Art by Tom Gabor

Just like people, many books sag in the middle. That isn’t to say the group of chapters here is boring; I was still fascinated. But in some of them, there is less of a “fun” factor, and readers who aren’t generally interested in printing and typography might wonder where the magic has gone. Don’t worry – it comes back, in spades. But there’s still interesting stuff to discover here.

As an incentive – just today I got “I Shot the Serif (but I did not shoot the san serif)” game (unrelated to the image above, which is also fun; you can it, or variations, on a t-shirt) in my feed from the NYT’s newly named “Page-Turner” blog.

And now back to our scheduled book:

Chapter 6: The Ampersand’s Final Twist
Caslon, then Garamond, created what many consider to be the finest examples of ampersands, the typographical character even the most staid designers get a little wild with. You can get Caslon’s on a t-shirt (oh, how I want one). In 2010, the Society of Typographic Aficionados released “Coming Together“, a digital font of over 400 different ampersands to raise money for victims of the Haitian earthquake. They did something similar with Japanese characters in 2011 for the Japanese tsunami relief. Typographic Aficionados care.

Chapter 7: Baskerville is Dead (Long Live Baskerville)

…it has one one attribute that makes it infallibly recognizable and timelessly stunning – the upper-case Q. This has a tail extending well beyond its body width…The lower-case g is also a classic with its curled ear and its lower blowl left unclosed, as if all the ink was being saved for that Q.

In spite of Benjamin Franklin’s support, Baskerville never enjoyed much success during his life. But all things come to those who wait: his font was one of the five initially available on the iPad. And it’s a beautiful Q.

Font Break: Mrs Eaves & Mr Eaves
Baskerville may have missed out during his lifetime because of social disapproval: his wife came to him first as a housekeeper after her husband abandoned her and her five children. When things turned romantic, they couldn’t marry until the absent husband died. In honor of this sad and romantic tale, Zuzana Licko used the name Mrs Eaves for her 1996 update of Baskerville. And Australian artist Gemma O’Brien took the name Mrs Eaves for her “Write Here, Write Now” video project to support creation of open-graffiti zones as places of self-expression.

Chapter 8: Tunnel Visions
Even if you live in a city with a subway system, you may never consider that thought went into the signs used. First was the London Underground. During WWI, Edward Johnston – friend of Evelyn Waugh, teacher to Edward Gill – created the first modern sans and the first created for random public(as opposed to academic) use.

In the lower case the key letter was the o, whose counter (the internal white space) he created equal to twice its stem width, thus giving it “ideal mass-and-clearance.” His most distinctive letter was the lower-case i, which had an upturned boot…. The most beautiful was the i, on which Johnston placed a diamond-shaped dot that still brings a smile today.

But that was 1916, and of course things change. In 1979 Eiichi Kono was brought in to update the Underground font: “when he came to present his work for the first time he displayed his vaious New Johnston fonts with just one word: ‘Underglound.'” Now there’s a man with a misch sense of humor.

Chapter 9: What is it about the Swiss?
It’s the title character in a movie and the sole subject of a book. Type designer Cyril Highsmith tried to avoid it for one New York day and couldn’t travel, eat, shop, or get dressed, without great difficulty. Bloomingdales, Jeep, Gap, American Airlines, Panasonic, North Face, Toyota, Nestle, Verizon – and countless other companies – stake their corporate images on it. Only on the French Metro has it failed.
Oh, Helvetica:

…it’s Swiss heritage laying a backdrop of impartiality, neutrality and freshness….The font also manages to convey honesty and trust…a friendly homeliness….designed with some wit, and certainly with the human hand….the inner white shapes serve as a form guide to the black around them, an aspect that one designer called ‘a locked-in rightness”.…..[the lowercase] a has a slightly pregnant teardrop belly and a tail… the t a nd j have square dots….[The capital] G has both a horizontal and vertical bar at a right angle, Q has a short straight angled cross-line like a cigarette in an ashtray, and R has a little kicker for its right leg.

But Helvetica is not just one font: it is a typeface family, Helvetica Neue by Linotype, and contains over 50 fonts from Ultra-Light Italic to Black Condensed Oblique. How is the amateur to tell? The most telling distinction seems to be “horizontally cut finals” particularly on the c and s. It’s the sort of thing I never noticed before, but will always see from now on.
This feature also applies to Univers by Swiss-born Adrian Frutiger, which marked a new era: “the point when the design of type moved from something performed primarily with the eye through the hand, to something that resulted from science….Men in labcoats and clipboards were now defining our alphabet – a long way from ‘gutenberg, Caslon, or Baskerville.” It’s such an interesting point, I’ll resist trying to imagine men in clipboards.

Fontbreak: Frutiger
Though the successor to Univers (a little more relaxed, less mathematical, with some quirks that are simply pleasing to the eye) is the focus, it’s really an excuse to discuss use of fonts on sports jerseys around the world – an issue that most likely has never crossed anyone’s mind before, except the people who decide what players will wear. Germans use something like Serpentine, the French Optima, and those crazy Argentines go Bauhaus. Don’t you just love it?

Chapter 10: Road Akzidenz
This chapter would have been a lot more interesting if I knew more about English roadways, though it does end in New York City. The takeaway for me: only Germans would design a font named Grotesk Akzidenz for road signs.

Chapter 11: DIY
My cheeks hurt from smiling when I got to the end of this chapter. I remember the toy printing press my brother and I used to churn out a newspaper. “Just the mention of it may send a grown man to Ebay” – or a grown woman, who’ll find a Superior Cub for $9.00. And Letraset – oh, the agonies, one letter would get stuck halfway down the stem and break off, or something would be crooked. I’ve never had the eye for lettering: spacing matters.

Chapter 12: What the Font?
So you want a reference book of fonts listed alphabetically by name? Try 1953 Encyclopedia of Typefaces (the next chapter will bring in Fontshop’s more recent Fontbook). Say, though, you want to identify a font, maybe the lowercase “g” on the cover of the Encyclopedia – Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder might be more helpful, listing fonts by characteristics such as a sloping e-bar. Or you can go digital and try WhatTheFont, an iPhone app. The author found that highly unreliable, and turned to the Forum which was far more helpful (odd, since MyFonts makes the iPhone app; but in a forum, you have all kinds of crazy people with nothing better to do than flaunt their arcane knowledge; that’s how Dan Rather got fired, IIRC).
Would it surprise you to find out I spent a couple of days fooling around with this stuff, trying to identify fonts on everything from prescription bottles to clothing tags? Hey, I don’t laugh at your hobbies (I found Identifont to be very helpful)! And now maybe you understand why I’ve been discussing fewer short stories lately. And by the way, Eyehawk at the MyFonts forum had an answer for Garfield: the “g” on the cover of the 1953 Encyclopedia within minutes: “Font identified as ACaslon Pro-Regular. Case marked solved.” I love geeks of all stripes.

Chapter 13: Can a Font Be German, or Jewish?
Erik Spiekermann, co-founder of FontShop, is an authority on type. He’d have to be, since his FontBook contains 100,000 fonts, including things that will never show up on a PC, like Stoned, Elliott’s Blue Eyeshadow, and Monster Droppings. And he has his own interpretation of a little-known facet of the Third Reich. Up until 1941, roman type was in the same category as modern art and music: degenerate. Only gothic script would do. Then there was a change, as gothic type was labeled Jewish; now roman type was required. Spiekermann’s explanation? The elaborate blackletter script was barely legible outside Germany. And the Reich was running out of typeface; French and Dutch foundries didn’t have much, since they hardly used it. But what I’ll take away from this chapter (besides Monster Droppings) is the 1933 arrest of Paul Renner, designer of Futura, for being “too sympathetic towards roman types” in his college lectures. But he did have the last word: in the next Fontbreak, we discover Futura was used for the plaque left on the moon in July, 1969 by Appollo 11.

Chapter 14: American Scottish
American type didn’t start until 1790 with Binny & Ronaldson, two gents of Scottish descent who broke away from the previous English monopoly on type used here (the Declaration of Independence, for example, was printed in Caslon) with Monticello. But the “most enduring” American font is Franklin Gothic, named after Benjamin Franklin: “Things ‘All-American’ have a habit of using Franklin Gothic to press their case, be it the titles on the Rocky films or the block capitals on Lady Gaga’s album The Fame Monster.'” I find these examples of All-American-ness hilarious. Frederick Goudy was our premier type designer: “one of those rare things – a prolific type designer with a penchant for the jazz life.” So prolific, his fonts were used by William Barrett to create “My Type of People” – a series of graphic representations of various people made up entirely of Goudy-created typographic characters.

Fontbreak: Moderns, Egyptians and Fat Faces
As technology developed in the eighteenth century, the Moderns emerged: fonts with more extremes of thick and thin strokes, and more delicate serifs, such as Bodini. Then fonts went in the opposite direction, with Fat Face and Egyptians.

Chapter 15: Gotham is Go
In 2000, Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler and Frere-Jones designed a new typeface for GQ, based on the sign over the entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In 2004, it was used for the cornerstone of the in-progress Freedom Towers at Ground Zero. Is it coincidence the Obama campaign decided to use it in 2008? Maybe – they started with Gill Sans, but found more variations with Gotham. For the record, the McCain campaign used Optima, the same font as used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And oh, by the way, Sarah Palin adopted Gotham for SarahPac. Politics, and fonts, make strange bedfellows.

And finally there is the ultimate tribute, that point when you know your typeface has really joined the pantheon of the greats. This is the point where people decide not to pay for it.

Chapter 16: Pirates and Clones
It ain’t easy being a type designer. The simplest typeface can consist of 600 characters – the alphabet, plus numerals, punctuation, accents, and special characters, in multiple varieties (bold and italic at the very least) and a comprehensive one far more. Obviously this is easier in the digital age than it was when each character was punchcut and molded, then produced in metal or wood, but it’s still an investment. Max Miedinger designed Helvetica, one of the most used fonts in the world, was “virtually penniless” at the time of his death because the company, Stempel, got the royalties, while he was paid a fee for services rendered back in the day. And piracy isn’t only about movies. Microsoft’s Arial is regarded by type designers as a ripoff of Helvetica – a situation played for humor in this CollegeHumor video, “FontFight“); though it looks different, it fits the same grid and was designed to be swapped in for the more expensive-to-license font. Lawsuits have historically been unsuccessful; just ask Hermann Zapf, creator of Zapf Dingbats (subject of another hilarious CollegeHumor video, Font Conference) who pushed for greater protection as early as 1974. And piracy isn’t always done with malice: the French agency conducting an anti-piracy campaign released their materials in what turned out to be a pirated font.

Chapter 17: The Clamour from the Past
Sue Shaw oversees the Type Archive in London, a collection of typeface from the past from 1500 to the dawn of the digital age:

…all the 23,000 drawers of metal punches and matrices, hundreds of fonts in every size, all the flat-bed presses, all 600,000 copper letter patterns. All the keyboards and casting machines setting hot metal type, all the woodletter type collections and machines from the DeLilttle company in York, all the steel history from Sheffield, all the hundredweights of artefacts that made the great libraries of the world. This is where it ended up when computers arrived. All quiet now….
The names of other fonts may be found elsewhere in the archive in the bound records of Stephenson Blake, Britain’s oldest and longest surviving typefounder in Sheffield and London – or it was until it shut for good in 2004 and sold the Sheffield site to be made into flats. In its heyday,which covered 1830 to 1970, it swallowed up the punches and matrices of the vast majority of British typefoundries, streching back to John Day in the sixteenth century, and encompassing hallowed designs and equipment….. Stephenson Blake manufactured typefaces for the world, and the names are regal, distant, and grand…They even had a precursor of Comic Sans: Ribbonface Typewriter, created in 1894.

Ozymandias springs to mind: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, this storage awaits you, some day.
And where is this treasury of type, printing machinery, and historical documentation housed? In a stone fortress with a marble façade? A modern glass and steel tower? No, it’s in an abandoned horse hospital.
The chapter also covers the rise of Monotype and Linotype, from automated typesetting to digital composition. There’s a palpable sense of history in the description of White Books, who publish only eight classic titles but treat each one with care; and the disappearance of the font notation from the title page of most modern books. That’s what charmed me most about Pear Noir!, you know: a little blurb about the Garamond type they used in issue 4 (where Zin was featured). And Rabbit Catastrophe, which not only names the type but hand-makes their journals. These may not be the most august literary journals around, but they are doing things worth doing.

Fontbreak: Sabon
It’s the font used for the main chapters of the book (not the Fontbreaks), and is considered one of the most readable book fonts.

And next time, things start getting a little wacky again…as if Monster Droppings and those College Humor videos aren’t wacky enough.

One response to “Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 3

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

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