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Book Review: Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

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Blame it on Steve Jobs. As a young man searching for something interesting to study, he audited a calligraphy class at Reed College. Jobs became fascinated with the myriad variety of fonts, a.k.a., typefaces he was exposed to. Ten years later he decided to incorporate an assortment of fonts into Apple’s Macintosh computer. It would prove to be a popular addition. When Microsoft’s Windows added the feature later, interest in fonts by the general public skyrocketed. And with Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, we now we have an entire book devoted to the subject.

Author Simon Garfield’s often hilarious study of all things font-related was initially published in England in 2010, and became a surprise hit. With that in mind, Gotham Books have just published it in the United States.

A major reason for the book’s success has to be the quality of Garfield’s writing, and the way he makes such a seemingly dry subject come to life. Consider this sentence from a description of the Helvetica font: “On the upper deck, the 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.”

The very first font was Gutenberg Textura, introduced with the Gutenberg printing press around 1450. Over the course of the book, the author walks us through the history of printing and type, and it is a lively journey. In so many ways, a government, business, or individual’s choice of font creates the de facto first impression.

For example, there is the Comic Sans font. Developed just in time for inclusion with Windows 95, Comic Sans became ubiquitous almost overnight. Just a few years later however, there were people so incensed by it that websites such as Ban Comic Sans sprung up.

On the other side of the coin, a man by the name of Tobias Frere-Jones developed a typeface he called Gotham in 2000. It was moderately successful for the first few years, then 2008 rolled around. Barack Obama chose to use Gotham for all of his printed material, and the popularity of the font exploded. Frere-Jones now happily takes full credit for Obama’s presidential win. In a wonderful bit of irony, this dyed-in-the-wool Democrat’s creation has now been adopted by the other side. First Sarah Palin, and now the Tea Party have gone Gotham.

Another intriguing font fact is their misuse in the movies. The Coen Brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy is a case in point. In almost every detail, they meticulously depict the 1950s, from Hula-Hoops, to beatniks, and men in grey flannel suits. But the font used in the newspapers of the day is Bodega Sans, which was not designed until 1991.

In between stories of the uses and misuses of fonts, Garfield takes “Fontbreaks.” These quickies focus on specific fonts such as Futura. Developed by Paul Renner in 1924, it has been the typeface used by Volkswagen for decades. It is also the font chosen for the plaque left on the moon by the astronauts of Apollo 11, in 1969.

There was even a movie titled Helvetica (2007), which took the ubiquity of the font as its premise. Director Gary Hustwit contends that on the streets of the world, Helvetica is so prevelant as to be like oxygen. You have no choice but to breathe it in.

Who knew font trivia could be so much fun? Simon Garfield did, and Just My Type makes the subject come alive in ways I never thought possible.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://www,yearningforwonderland.com Anna Meade

    Great review, Greg! I’ve always enjoyed picking the exact right font for a project – it can make a magnificent difference…or kill it dead :)

  • Greg Barbrick

    Anna,

    I know what you mean – it can make all the difference in the world.