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The best books on Typefaces

recommended by Simon Garfield

It used to be said that you could be parachuted into any country and know where you were from the typeface used on its road signs. The author of Just My Type tells us about the variety and meaning of different fonts.

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Letterform Collected is the first book you’re recommending. 

You can’t buy this in the shops but you can hopefully get it online. Grafik Magazine, which closed down in 2010 but may hopefully reappear this year, gave this book away – a compilation of a regular monthly feature.

It’s a collection devoted to a love of letters. Every month they asked a type designer or someone involved in the graphic arts to pick a letter in any font and describe why they like it. It’s a small format book and without any question it’s my favourite typeface book. It begins with five As, two Cs, five Gs and so on.

Which is your favourite A?

My favourite A is actually the first one in the book, picked by David Quay, who I don’t know at all. He’s picked the Egyptian Bold Extra Extended A. They don’t all have long wacky obscure names. There is a Gill Sans G, for example. If you get type designers on a project like this, the risk is that they’re all going to go for the most obscure thing they can find and they’ll try to out-something each other and be as elitist as they can, but that’s not the case here. This Egyptian Bold Extra Extended A is something that comes from the 19th century and you see it on Victorian music hall posters, and it’s also a popular letter in early American wood type. They’re known generically as a ‘fat face’ because they are large, bold letters. In my book I describe them as letters you’d imagine seeing on the side of Victorian trains rushing past you with steam billowing out. They’d look great on the side of a boiler and you can read them even going past at speed. Each of the letters comes with a description by whoever chose them.

“The cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover is wrong. You clearly can and all you need is a book of cover jackets to prove it.”

The A that follows it in the book is quite good – from a typeface that I absolutely love called Albertus, which is the classic face of Faber cover design – but the guy who picks this, Michael Bojkowski, says: ‘Since I’m a fully paid-up member of the type geek squad, you can imagine how having to choose a letterform to talk about is kind of mindboggling. Being the graphic glue that sticks the world together, typography is endlessly fascinating and the variety of letterforms seemingly infinite.’ That’s the point of this thing – it’s by people who love letters. It’s also got the pound sign and the interrobang – a mixture of the question mark and an exclamation mark. If you want to say ‘What the f***!?!’ you use that instead of having lots of exclamation marks and question marks. You have a symbol that does the whole thing.

Typographers on Type.

This is a lovely book because it’s the sort of thing you can dip into without having to have a huge grounding in typography. A biographical and philosophical survey of famous type designers – mostly 20th century. The biographies are brief, and are then followed by texts the type designers wrote about their work, or about type design and its purpose. The most famous one is by Beatrice Ward – ‘Printing Should Be Invisible’. She means that the best type is type you don’t know is there. It’s better known by its other title ‘The Crystal Goblet’, the idea being that if you’re drinking beautiful wine you want to notice the wine and not what you’re drinking from. So, if you’re reading a novel you don’t want to be thinking, ‘That’s a weird font,’ you just want to live in the tale.

There are lots of theories about text, and obviously this one doesn’t apply to display advertising when you want the text to arrest you on a tube platform. You also get observations by Edward Johnston, who designed the London Underground typeface, and then Adrian Frutiger, who designed a typeface called Univers which is everywhere. There’s a little bit from Eric Gill. It’s almost a beginners’ guide, a fantastic book if you’re interested in type and want to dip into what the great designers thought about their world. Most of these people are conservative, pre-computers, so they now come across as fairly traditional, though what they said may have been radical at the time.

Types Best Remembered/Types Best Forgotten. 

This is another really quirky book, originally published in America, where this guy called Robert Norton badgered all his friends into sending him anecdotes about types they love and types they loathe, so it’s a truly subjective thing. Now everyone would pick Comic Sans – traditionally known as the most loathed typeface in the world, and used all over the place in the wrong way. Google it.

I am Googling it right now. 

It’s the worst thing. It was designed originally for Microsoft, for a computer program, but then they put it into Works and Word. It’s a fantastic typeface for party invitations and for kids to use. It’s good for dyslexics too. What it isn’t so good at is when it appears on the side of ambulances because it’s a jokey, jaunty thing. People who don’t like type tend to use it.

Which font do you hate most? 

I don’t mind Comic Sans if it’s used correctly. In my book I’ve got a list of eight that I don’t like and heading that list is the 2012 London Olympic font, this ghastly jagged thing. It looks as though… I have to be careful what I say because the person who designed it is a really nice guy, and he’s done other really good work. But this one is like having needles put into your eyes.

Oh God! It’s horrible! I’m looking at it now. 

I know the Olympics isn’t all about athletics. But it is all about speed and beauty and elegance and this is everything but.

I hate that squat font that’s supposed to look 60s space age. 

There are lots of them like that. In this book you have to turn the book over and start from the other side for Types Best Forgotten. There’s one space age one called One Up, a ghastly 60s thing, and the guy who designed that, Leo Maggs, talks about how he wished he hadn’t designed it. ‘Way back in the swinging 60s,’ he says, ‘when my youthful soul was consumed with enthusiasm, if not naked ambition, I was surprised and delighted to have my first typeface, Westminster, accepted by Robert Norton. I produced several further designs, most of which were properly strangled at birth. One Up unfortunately survived… Looking at it now I feel much as I imagine a mature film star must feel when, 30 years after the event, she comes across photographs of herself as a struggling starlet revealing all for the readers of popular girly magazines, and I wish I hadn’t done it.’

The other interesting thing about this book is that Helvetica, one of the most widely used typefaces in the world, used by everyone from BMW to American Apparel and the New York Subway, is both one of the types best remembered and one of the types best forgotten! People weigh in saying why they love it and why they hate it. Obviously, when one talks about typefaces it’s often a subjective thing. There’s one 60s one that I love, it was on the cover of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album.

I hate it already. 

Oh, not a Bowie fan? This typeface is called Zipper.

That’s the one I hate.

I really like it. The thing is that typefaces have associations, like childhood confectionery. If you don’t like David Bowie and you see that typeface you will then hate that typeface.

Also things have their place. There was a trend ten years ago to have hip club logos in this Zipper, in an attempt to look all kind of cool. I hate that about it. It could look good somewhere else. 

It’s all about context.

Signs: Lettering in the Environment. 

Again, this is all about context. It’s a large format book and it’s written by two people who work at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. It’s predominantly photographs with brief captions and it just shows you how type is used on signs throughout the world: road signs, engravings on big important buildings in Rome, signs on departure boards. It just makes you think about information and the way that the type, if it’s done fantastically well, is almost unnoticeable. If it isn’t done well you look at it long and hard and it ruins your eye.

The classic example of this, which they look at in the book, is the battle to find the perfect typeface for the British motorway and road signs. So this was the late 50s, early 60s, when two people, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert – and she’s still alive, I talked to her – designed the motorway signs. They suggested that a mixture of upper and lower case letters are read far more easily than capitals alone, and they also did a lot of semi-scientific research by getting a group of airmen to sit in a field in Oxford as a Ford Anglia car drove towards them with different signs on its roof, and they had to note down, inevitably on clipboards, which signs they could read and when.

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Then there is the significance of how lettering varied from country to country, so every country had its own style. The German style used to be very heavy and gothic but is now neat and information-heavy. The French style is classically still more ornate than the British. It looks as though the signs for every country with an underground system dictate the mood for the rest of the city. That’s certainly true for Paris with the art deco lettering. It used to be the case that you could be parachuted into any country in the world and know where you were by looking at the typeface. Now the influence of globalisation and branding means it’s all there for the taking from the digital font menu. We’re losing that lovely individuality and that’s what’s clear from this book.

Eighty Years of Book Cover Design. 

The cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover is wrong. You clearly can and all you need is a book of cover jackets to prove the nonsense of that phrase. Faber jackets have traditionally been very beautiful things because they’ve used a mixture of very good typographers and artists, as you see throughout this book, which itself has a beautiful jacket – a traditional Faber jacket but twice as big. If ever a publishing house had its own typeface, there are two that you can see. Penguin with Gill Sans, and Faber with Albertus. These were the classic early calling cards.

Albertus was designed by a man called Berthold Wolpe and he really defined the look. You look through this Eighty Years book and there’s a huge amount of variation but what is clear is that the best jackets are artworks in themselves, and it’s clear how important type is in giving the reader a clue as to what might lie inside. It’s kind of an obvious point. I got this book, having written for Faber myself, and I was naturally devastated that they didn’t include a jacket designed for one of my books, but I have since forgiven them.

This interview was first published in January 2011.

November 14, 2012

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Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield is a British journalist and non-fiction author. He was educated at the independent University College School in  Hampstead, London, and the London School of Economics, where he was the Executive Editor of The Beaver.

Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield is a British journalist and non-fiction author. He was educated at the independent University College School in  Hampstead, London, and the London School of Economics, where he was the Executive Editor of The Beaver.