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!