REVIEW: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Just My Type – A Book About Fonts

Simon Garfield

Profile Books

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

After finishing this book, you might rush off and design your own typeface – you have been warned. This is a book about pleasure and delight; in the union between eye, hand and its modern partner – process. Printing presses can be called the first modern machines and their lubricant, type, the first test of the evolution of handcraft.

Just My Type is an attractive book, with much thought given to its design and layout. The cover seems unnecessarily attention-seeking, since the title is laid out in a jumble of different and rare fonts, but here the central thrust of the book already becomes clear: for a typeface to be successful, it must not draw attention to itself. This sounds simple but the enormous scope for interpretation of this stricture forms the bulk of the story.

It is also a book-lover’s book. The smartness of the design runs throughout the hard cover edition. In spite of the transfer of fonts from the type foundry to the software studio, which the book does not shy away from, this reading experience is immersed in what the printed page can be. The structure of the chapters does as much to educate as to draw the reader through the delights of all the major typefaces. There is the role of Gill Sans in the branding of 20th century London, the Swiss takeover of the world by Helvetica, the development of Transport (designed by a South African woman) for Road Signs, Barack Obama’s capture of the White House with Gotham, and the never named serif on the base drum that accompanied Beatlemania.

The development of the book is tightly paced and holds together throughout. However, its just as useful as a reference work and any chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece. The driving force is always the inquiry about why and how typefaces work, what makes them beautiful and how they are made. This last point is particularly important, as the book never abstracts its subject matter. The craft of letter-making is real enough to make one catch a whiff of printing ink.

Garfield also discusses many issues related to typefaces and printing, some humorous and some verging on pop-psychology. But how else does one discuss “Why not to use Comic Sans?”? Many of the designers of contemporary fonts are still alive and the author reports on extensive correspondence and interviews with them: what does the creator of Comic Sans have to say for himself? What is the world-view of the creator of the latest default Microsoft font, Calibri? Further discussion relates to licensing and piracy of fonts, designers ‘borrowing’ ideas from each other and the rise and fall of Letraset. Without getting too technical, Garfield remains authoritative.

It should be essential reading for architecture and graphic design students. And if you have even the faintest interest in the fabric of the cultural world around you, you’ll enjoy this immensely.

Read here how this book inspired the reviewer to design his own font.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2011.



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