Just My Type

When I was a child I knew that Baskerville was a typeface long before I had any idea it was also a hound. My dad worked in a printing firm by day, and on evenings and weekends disappeared to his shed in the garden, where he had a little printing press that he operated by hand. It was an Aladdin’s Cave – for those who like that sort of thing – packed with miniature shelves that held case upon case of cold metal type, Bembo, Gill Sans, Times New Roman, in various point sizes, along with packs of paper, and big round tins of pungently smelling ink. Out of that shed came a stream of invitations, menus, headed invoices and notepaper for local businesses. We were all involved one way or another, my mother lending her unerring eye for design, colour and style, and my brother and I earning extra pocket money by helping with interleaving – placing a sheet of rough paper between each printed page as it appeared, so that the ink wouldn’t smudge or transfer. It was a lovely occupation, rhythmic and meditative, with dad’s radio playing quietly in the background and the clunk and wet kiss of the printing rollers under his practiced hand.

So when Profile publishers sent me an ARC of Just My Type by Simon Garfield, I knew exactly for whom that book was destined. That didn’t prevent Mister Litlove from scooping it up and instantly asking if he could read it first before I passed it on. Although a book about typefaces may at first sight seem rather a niche interest, it turns out to have surprisingly widespread appeal. As Mister Litlove pointed out, it’s the sort of thing that’s under your nose every day, without you paying much attention, and then a book like this suddenly opens up a whole world of interesting information. Both men found it a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read, and they were impressed by the range and depth of research that the author had undertaken.

The book covers the development of typefaces from Gutenberg to the present day. For 500 years typeface design was constricted by the demands of hot metal and printing techniques. There were no such things as designers; instead, it was printers who covered the whole process and were both artists and manufacturers, like William Caslon, in the 18th century who created Caslon and set up his own printing factory. It was so expensive to create the type and it required so much storage space that there were very few different typefaces available and they were easily distinguishable. The computer revolutionized typographic design, with several typefaces now being produced a week, and there are even computer sites springing up where anyone can construct a typeface to his or her liking.

Why would something so esoteric produce so many variations? It’s strange at first glance and yet, like many other readers, I know that there are books I open and read with pleasure and others that make me wince and put them aside because the typeface is too small or too fussy or just plain distracting. Something is genuinely added or taken away by the way the letters appear. Simon Garfield quotes Adrian Frutiger, the designer of the sans serif type Univers who argues that: ‘You may ask why so many different typefaces. They all serve the same purpose but express man’s diversity. It is the same diversity we find in wine. I once saw a list of Medoc wines featuring 60 different Medocs all of the same year. All of them were wines but each were different from the others. It’s the nuances that are important. The same is true of typefaces.’ What’s intriguing though is that typefaces, because of their impossibility to copyright, are one of the few remaining artistic ventures that are undertaken purely for the love and the look of the thing; you can’t make money from them, although most new ones are created now to sell particular brands or serve particular situations (direction signs, for instance). But some remain far more popular than others. Apparently Helvetica is sweeping the boards in this respect, according to an academic study conducted in 2007 by Anthony Cahalan, who surveyed more than a 100 graphic designers. In response to his questions it transpired that Helvetica was one of the most used, most visible and most disliked typefaces, even though it is one of the most recent ones.

I think this book could be a surprising hit this year, if the reaction of my menfolk is anything to go by. It’s a quirky and intriguing little book, with a great diversity of information, ranging through the history of print and design, to biographical sketches of some of the key designers (Eric Gill whose typeface graced the London underground in 1934 has his own chapter because he was such a crazy and eccentric character). If you know someone who’s difficult to buy for at Christmas, I’d think about this as a possible present. There’s clearly more to typefaces than meets the eye, and it’s an area that has undergone radical change. My dad’s shed still resides in the garden, although my mother swears it is slowly sinking under the weight of all that lead type. It’s funny to think that its contents, as perfectly usable as they ever were, are almost museum pieces now. But I still remember how beautiful a newly minted card could look when it came hot off the press, the ink still gleaming wetly on the paper. Computer printouts just aren’t the same, even if they are more democratic than the whole paraphernalia of a print workshop.

With thanks to Dad and Mister Litlove for their information on this one!


15 thoughts on “Just My Type

  1. I must get this book. I have a more academic book about type on my shelves but Just My Type sounds like it is just my kind of book. If you haven’t seen it, you should really check out the film called Helevetica. Very ineresting indeed.

  2. Wonderful learning more about you as well as this book. I never before gave thought to typeface until I read my library’s copy of “The Road”. It was unusual (at least for my normal reading fare’s typeface) and added to the already disquieting and unique work (the grammar was also slightly unusual with no chapter marks or quotation marks). Thank you for bringing this work to my attention and for sharing your stories. 🙂

  3. When I was in college I took a class on hand set type and we each produced our own book. Mine was a book of poetry by Robert Frost with tipped in B&W photos that I took and developed myself, and to this day I remember standing there with this little metal holder selecting my little letters and worrying over the spacing. I still have a copy or two of my book and despite the challenges of doing it all by hand I loved the class. The book sounds fascinating and I think I’ll have to request it for the library where I work!

  4. This sounds like a wonderful book. It’s not in the States yet but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for it! have you seen the film Helvetica? It’s all about the typeface and the people who love and hate it.

  5. A year or so ago Georgia Public Television aired a film from an Emmy Award winning series, Independent Lens, on typography in general and the Helvetica font in particular. Up to that point, I had never given much thought to typography and found the subject fascinating. Helvetica, it seems, was developed in the late 1950’s by Max Meidinger and Eduard Hoffman for the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland. Now, a relatively short time later, we come across it every day in highway signs, corporate logos (J C Penney, for one), and advertisement signage. On the way to work the next morning I caught myself pondering a STOP sign…Helvetica, the interstate exit signs…Helvetica, the EnMark Station…Helvetica. This type is all around us; but, who in the general public has ever heard of it? I guess it’s used because it’s used in street signage because it’s easy to see. But it’s butt ugly.

  6. Well done litlove – you may have found my partner’s next book! He spent the first few years of our relationship assiduously not reading, and then all of a sudden just took off, and it’s incredible to see the eclectic mix of reading material that’s taken his fancy: ‘comic’ books about mathematical theory, which you have to have a pure maths degree to see the humour in; an autobiography of the last British Head of Police; an account of Britain’s failed attempt to start a penal colony in Africa prior to Australia… I’ve had a lot of fun trying to pick things that I think might pique his interest -and I have a good feeling about this one. Thanks for the inspiration! And I love your opening sentence.

  7. I love the way there can sometimes be a whole world of information behind things that seem so simple and ordinary, as you say. It’s great to discover a history you had no idea existed.

  8. I too love typefaces. I remember doing a type face project in college and loving every second of it. (I don’t remember what the project was, exactly, though). I’ll have to look for this book.

    Have you seen the movie Helvetica? Very interesting documentary.

  9. Very cool. (and I love your words here: “the clunk and wet kiss of the printing rollers under his practiced hand.”
    I purchased a font for our boat name because I wanted it to be extremely original. Everyone thought I was so weird! And I was shocked how difficult it was for me to find a sign-company who would allow me to bring my own font to the design.
    I would love this book.

  10. Thomas – I would love to know what you make of it. I get the feeling that this has been an area of only academic-type interest before, and it’s great to see it getting such good treatment. I had no idea there was a film about Helvetica, but my sources tell me that it features heavily in the book!

    Bluestocking – thank you! I tried to leave a comment on your site, but I’m still blocked from it (boo hoo). But I do visit.

    Lilian – my father’s shed is still a very vivid memory! And I do like books on unusual topics.

    Doctordi – doesn’t it just? I was reading the other day that no one knows what makes a book work – it’s completely unpredictable still to the industry, and this one seems to be making quite a smash hit on a topic you’d never think would attract a lot of attention!

    Kimberley – that is so sweet, thank you. It isn’t something you think about every day. When I read books in French, some have this absolutely awful typeface that looks like the strokes of the letters don’t quite join (they do, it’s an optical illusion) and it drives me mad. Haven’t read The Road – am a bit scared to!

    Verbivore – you are welcome! I really hope he enjoys it!

    Danielle – oh your comment really brought back the image of my father with his metal slide-thingy in his hand, putting a sentence together with tweezers. I wish I could see the book you made – it must have been a wonderful project.

    Stefanie – no I haven’t seen that film, although apparently the book does talk about it a lot. I had no idea typeface had such a niche following!

    Grad – that must be the source of the survey’s results about helvetica – the most seen, the most useful and the most hated!

    Baker’s daughter – you are very welcome and I am always pleased to come across a comrade in the buying-books-for-a-tricky-husband brigade. I think mine is random but the books you mention there put yours in a different league! I am impressed by your achievements!

    Plashing Vole – you are quite right. My dad did tell me something about that but I shamelessly simplified the story! Thank you for putting the right version up.

    Dorothy – I know – all these things I never think about! I’d love to write a book myself about something niche and unusual, only I can’t think of anything at present. 🙂

    Rebecca – I’m impressed by all these bloggers with typeface/printing experience! I’m sure it was a very fun course. And I haven’t seen the movie, but clearly should look out for it!

    Care – how lovely to think of you creating a special font for your boat – were you pleased with how it came out? I do hope so. And I’d love to know what you think of this book if you get hold of it.

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