‘Just my Type’ by Simon Garfield

I notice fonts. I’m not a font nerd (you know the type, someone who can spot the difference between Helvetica and Arial at twenty paces) but I will admit to writing something and then fiddling around with the font until the type ‘matches’ the writing. Which is why I pounced on Just My Type – a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Even if you’ve never switched your font from the default Times New Roman, you’re sure to find this book thoroughly delightful.

Just My Type is a history of fonts – not a chronological and fact-heavy reference book but rather a collection of stories about designers and pivotal moments in the history of typefaces.

In telling the history of typesets and fonts, Garfield entertains with amazing stories – who knew that Eric Sans (of the modest and elegant Gill Sans) was a sexual deviant? And that the revered font, Doves, drowned (quite literally – the type set was thrown into the Thames as a result of a business dispute).

There’s also the story of a New Yorker, Cyrus Highsmith, who tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid Helvetica for a whole day – the trouble began as soon as he got out of bed and reached for clothes that had washing instructions printed in Helvetica. I especially liked the story of ‘Verdanagate’ – the furore over IKEA’s switch from its proprietary Futura to the egalitarian Verdana as the corporate type used from catalogs to store signage across the world.

The book is studded with interesting facts – early iPods featured Chicago (font, not the band) and the classic Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, used Cooper Black – perfect on the large-format record sleeve but less successful squashed onto a CD cover. Vincent Connare is the guy responsible for Comic Sans (the font that has basically become a joke) and Matthew Carter, creator of Verdana, Georgia and a number of other fonts is hailed as “the most widely read man in the world”.

Garfield describes letters and fonts with particular eloquence –

“…a sharply cut face combining Roman values with individual flair, its subtle serifs (little inky swellings rather than staunch cast legs) ensuring great legibility. Albertus looks slightly theatrical…”

and

“Snell Roundhand, based on an eighteenth-century calligraphic style, very festive, good for ironic party invitations…” 

and

“Much of what one needs to know about the history and beauty of a font may be found in its ampersand. Done well, an & is not so much a character as a creature, an animal from the deep. Or it is a character in the other sense of the word, usually a tirelessly entertaining one, perhaps an uncle with too many magic tricks.”

and

“…it is with the g that designers let themselves go. It is not usually where they begin – that’s often a, n, h and p – but it is where a lot of big decisions are made with regards to history and expression.”

Garfield includes a chapter on what he considers the worst fonts in the world which include Souvenir Bold (it peaked with 1970s soft porn) and Brush Script, which you may have last seen when you were watching the open credits of Neighbours. I couldn’t resist throwing in these video clips about the ‘less-desirable’ fonts –

Just My Type is a unexpectadly entertaining and surprisingly humourous book. Read it cover to cover (as I did) or dip into any chapter that takes your fancy – chapter headings such as ‘Gotham is Go’, ‘What the Font?’ and ‘Can a Font Make You Popular?’ are quirky enough to reel you in and chapters stand-alone as mini-essays. Either way, you’ll learn so much and a trip to the train station, airport or shops will never be the same again.

And, for the record, I now know the difference between Helvetica and Arial  – in Garfield’s opinion, they are as “different as pineapple and mango”.

In the tradition of Cheese or Font, pair this book with a creamy Havarti.

5/5 Big score but on the non-fiction scale, you won’t find a more engrossing, beautifully written book.

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3 responses

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