With the simple addition of a pull-down font menu in every version of Microsoft Word, we all became type connoisseurs. From the reliability of Times New Roman, to the ubiquity of Helvetica, and the immaturity of Comic Sans, the average person now suddenly has the opportunity to match their font choice to their personality and the nature of their project, a right previously reserved for an intimate community of artists. In Just My Type (Gotham Books, 2011), Simon Garfield charts the history of fonts from the very first painstakingly carved blackletter created by Gutenberg in the 1440s, to the familiar classics of the early part of the 20th century, and to the most recent novelty typefaces.
While categorized as a history, this book doesn’t follow a strict chronological telling of the story of type. It reads more as a collection of font anecdotes. Chapters are topical, presenting us with a question, situation, person, or story, which then segues into an exploration of a moment in font history. Sprinkled between chapters are short “Fontbreaks” that give a more detailed account of a select few typefaces. The stories are rife with love, deception, and money… perhaps even a little intrigue.
Garfield shows us how the honesty of “Gotham” helped shape the immediately recognizable look of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; how the script “Fraktur” was at first embraced by the Third Reich as a nationalist celebration of Germany, but was then abruptly discarded when it was decided it was too “Jewish.” We read about the tawdry private life of Eric Gill (designer of Gill Sans) and the romantic tale of “Doves,” the font that now lives at the bottom of the River Thames. For anyone who thinks that the shape of a “G” is boring, Garfield’s wit and warmth in writing show them how exciting, alluring, and controversial it can be.
There is so much information here, but it’s not at all overwhelming. Garfield does a masterful job of weaving together the cast of characters, the nuts and bolts of how fonts are designed, their terminology, and the notable historical moments in a manner that is accessible, humorous, and memorable. After reading it you really won’t look at words in the same way again.