Monday, October 29, 2012

On Fonts

I originally published this review in Wales Arts Review, a publication I regularly review for. But I thought it was worth posting it here too.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Why does font matter? How does the choice of font affect the way people read text or what impression they get of a website or a film? Who creates fonts, and how, and why? Simon Garfield explores all this and more in his new book, Just My Type.

You might think that this sounds dull. In fact, this book about fonts is highly entertaining. It gives short histories (“font breaks”, as Garfield phrases it) about various fonts and the people who shaped them, while also exploring the history of print and the importance of fonts in general. Garfield manages to impart information while also giving juicy titbits of information about the often eccentric people and/or circumstances involved in the development of new fonts.

The author ranges all over the field in this book. Garfield discusses why legibility/accessibility/readability are such essential concepts in the field of fonts, how they have been understood in different ways over time, and how some appear more honest than others (such as Gotham, as discussed on p. 209). And he explores why particular fonts have become successful and now appear all over the place (such as Helvetica, which he says is everywhere in urban settings (p. 132)). Then he moves easily into giving background about some of the people behind the fonts, such as Margaret Calvert, who developed many road signs (p. 149), or sixteenth-century Frenchman Claude Garamond, who offered “the first real flight of fancy” in text (p. 96). Sometimes, Garfield even offers gossip about others, such as Eric Gill, the creator of Gill Sans, who was also known for his “dramatically outrĂ© [sexual] meanderings with his daughters, sister and dog” (p. 48). Gill was influential in the way he created typefaces without serifs (i.e. sans serif, hence the sans in Gill Sans). Since Garfield has already explained what serifs are and how bracketed versus unbracketed serifs differ, and what x-height is (as on p. 45), the reader feels part of the world of the typographer and understands the lingo. This is the case even if the average reader is unlikely to become obsessed by identifying particular fonts, which Garfield says is a problem for font designers that is “far worse than trying to identify a song from a snippet of lyric or melody.” (p. 174)

Garfield also explores the influence of font on particular types of text. For example, he talks about the fonts used in comics and how the typographer of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns “achieved that near-sublime melding of visuals and text, where one didn’t swamp the other, and both could be absorbed simultaneously” (p. 21). Staying with the theme of media, he explores how anachronistic some historical films are, because they show signs in fonts that didn’t exist at the time when the film is set (an example is Ed Wood, which is set in the 1950s but uses a font developed in the 1980s (p. 72)). But in a rather more serious and dramatic section, Garfield analyses fonts in Nazi Germany, and how Gothic was “outlawed by decree”, because it was viewed as Jewish and also was hard to read, especially by foreigners, which was a problem as Germany wanted to invade other countries and expected the people there to read any signs and materials they published (pp. 191-2). Instead, the regime switched to a roman type.

In short, this book is packed full of detail about a topic that should fascinate just about anyone. After all, whenever we read, we are being subconsciously influenced by the font the text is printed in, and we get ideas about the author, the content, and the context from it. This review is printed in Century Gothic. What do you think that’s doing to you as you read it? For one thing, I hope it encourages you to go out and get Garfield’s book.

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