Just my type : a book about fonts

by Simon Garfield

Paper Book, 2011




New York, N.Y. : Gotham Books, 2011.


A romp through the history of fonts and the lives of the great typographers, revealing the extent to which fonts are not only shaped by but also define the world in which we live.

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Book Report: The book description says:
A hugely entertaining and revealing guide to the history of type that asks, What does your favorite font say about you?

Fonts surround us every day, on street signs and buildings, on movie posters and books, and on just about every product we buy. But where do fonts come from, and why do we need so many? Who is responsible for the staid practicality of Times New Roman, the cool anonymity of Arial, or the irritating levity of Comic Sans (and the movement to ban it)?

Typefaces are now 560 years old, but we barely knew their names until about twenty years ago when the pull-down font menus on our first computers made us all the gods of type. Beginning in the early days of Gutenberg and ending with the most adventurous digital fonts, Simon Garfield explores the rich history and subtle powers of type. He goes on to investigate a range of modern mysteries, including how Helvetica took over the world, what inspires the seeming ubiquitous use of Trajan on bad movie posters, and exactly why the all-type cover of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was so effective. It also examines why the "T" in the Beatles logo is longer than the other letters and how Gotham helped Barack Obama into the White House. A must-have book for the design conscious, Just My Type's cheeky irreverence will also charm everyone who loved Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Schott's Original Miscellany.

My Review: I confess it: I am a type geek. I love a well-designed book. I love to immerse myself in a book and lose all sense of time and space, and then after I've returned to the dull confines of mortal reality, look closely at the object in front of me to winkle out its secrets. Often I find the design of a book can make it a better read (The Night Circus being a great example) or pop me so far out of the story there's no way for me to get back in (no names, I don't want to hear from all those shady gray twilit ladies with their dripping fangs).

So this book was meant for me. Simon Garfield, not a first-time writer apparently though one couldn't prove it by me, is the perfect cicerone into the mysteries of typefaces, fonts, and typography (three separate things); he's as nutsy about the subject as one can get (did you know there's a type museum? It's not open to the public, yes the author knows about it, knows the curator...that's deep), and able with his clear and pleasant prose voice to bring the reader right along on his trip.

It might not be instantly obvious, but every single thing you look at has some relationship to type. TV and movies have type in their credits, the box your microwave dinner comes in is loaded with type, the computer you're using? All type interfaces. The dashboard of your car: Type. The entire made world relates to us through type at some level. Yet many, if not most, of us are blind to its specifics, absorbing only its results and usually its subliminal messages. And they are many. Some typefaces convey authority (Futura, anyone? Helvetica! Trajan!) and others soothing calming pleasure (Optima). Some are bluntly informative (Times New Roman, Baskerville) and others whimsically amusing (Papyrus, the loathed Comic Sans).All of them, without fail, were created by crazy people called type designers to fulfill a function. For better or worse, some become standards, and some sink into the great morass of indifference. Such is, after all, the fate of most things...and most people, even type designers.

The stories of the type designers Garfield profiles were entertaining, and often illuminating: Eric Gill, designer of the famous typeface Gill Sans, was a lech of the first water. He was, in fact, criminally culpable in today's world for many of his sexual adventures. Funny thing...I've never liked Gill Sans. Now I have an excuse! John Baskerville, whose beautiful solid-yet-graceful serif typeface is one of my personal favorites, lived a tough life as a type-founder and, within months of his death, was so little valued by his widow that she offered a stranger who came from Europe to meet her recently deceased husband all his fonts and tools for a song. I suppose it's my subliminal response to underdogs that makes me love the typeface so.

Since type has been part of my existence from little on up, it's hard for me to gauge how good an introduction this book would make to a type-tyro, but my sense is that Garfield's obsessiveness about the topic makes him a good and reliable conductor on the train. Get on with a pleasant tingle of anticipation, alight at each small station dedicated to the history of one specific typeface, and arrive refreshed and amused at the destination, the place of expanded appreciation of the nature of your entire visible world.
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
Are you one of those people who reads the typeface information in the back of books? Do you look at the individual letters in the words on posters and signs? Do you frequently change out of the default font on your computer because it's not your favorite? If you said yes to any of the above, this is the book for you. If you didn't say yes to any of the above, this book will get you thinking about all of these things and more.

Garfield's very readable history of fonts and typography is fascinating and accessible even to the layman. Main chapters about the development of printing techniques, the evolution of fonts, and the aesthetics of both surround interstitial "fontbreaks" that focus on a story connected to one particular font. The chapters range from examinations of the difficulties with creating new fonts, the politics and meaning that some fonts carry, the issue of intellectual property and piracy, the most used fonts in the world, those that inspire scorn and loathing in the arts world, and the dramas that have occurred when well-known and corporately identifiable fonts have been abandoned in favor of something new.

Garfield explains what makes a font successful and only delves into the technical aspect of design very briefly. When he discusses the differences in letters between fonts, the astute reader will notice that more often than not, that particular letter is printed in the font under discussion (however, it is only that letter so the font change can be hard to notice for a speedy reader). Some differences are miniscule so the backstories on why certain fonts were adopted for specific uses and how they were tested out to ensure effectiveness are definitely interesting.

The anecdotes make this a fun and informative read. I can now say with confidence that I prefer serif to sans serif and am definitely a traditionalist with regards to my fonts. I don't think I have the aesthetics of a font designer though as each time Garfield asserts that anyone who likes a particular font has no taste, I found the font under discussion perfectly acceptable. Ah well, as long as my books are legible and readable, I suppose I can accept almost any font the designer wants to use. In the meantime, I will now be trying to recognize the more common fonts whenever I come across them thanks to Garfield and his quick and quirky book.
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LibraryThing member eichin
One of the most accessible bits of font-geekery I've ever seen; bite-sized chapters dive into individual corners of our obsession with type, and helps put names to faces - names of designers, to typefaces, that is. One of the few modern books that is important to get on paper - someday Amazon will step up their game, and producing a Kindle edition of Just My Type that accurately captures the extensive use of obscure fonts as example and illustration would be a good indicator, but in the meantime, it's not a serious option.

Excellent book for anyone who already has even the slightest interest in typography, even if it's just "Saw Helvetica-the-movie and looking for more". Not, mind you, a *useful* book - though I made about a page of notes of things to look up online, they were things like "see if anyone's done a monospace version of the ClearView or Interstate traffic-sign fonts" and "find Font Fight and Font Conference on youtube" (cute, but entirely composed of font-name in-jokes, not so funny for beginners.) If you need a book about doing better design with typography... this isn't the book you're looking for; on the other hand, if you want to *love* type and how it got that way, you'll get a lot out of Just My Type.
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LibraryThing member jztemple
This is one of those rare books you come across, not expecting much, and find yourself immersed in it. Typography is rather a niche subject; many folks know nothing about it and many know just a little. Garfield takes what could be a rather dull history and turns into a whimsical, charming narrative. It's full of heroes and villains, successes and failures, and many somewhat technical but surprisingly fascinating tidbits. It is a book as much about people as it is about fonts. It is a survey of font history, pop culture and tiny nuances which, like serifs, have impacts greatly out of proportion to their size. It is highly recommended to anyone who loves books and just as highly recommended to anyone who likes a good story, well told.… (more)
LibraryThing member akmargie
Thank heavens for British writers. Garfield slyly weaves some biting and witty zingers throughout what is a suprising fun and not dry entre into the world of type design.
LibraryThing member Edith1
The author can't write, but the material is very interesting.

The author must have had a pretty heavy-handed editor -- seeing how many concepts only get explained the fifth time they are mentioned it is likely that the book got a major overhaul shortly before publication -- but he could have used more. Clunky sentences, lapses in grammar, words that don't mean what he thinks they mean, failure to explain jargon are just some of the glaring annoyances.

That being said, he knows about type, and he has good stories about the history and the personalities. I just wish he were a better writer; or had a better editor.
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LibraryThing member Lord_Boris
This book is an introduction to the world of typography that manages to be both entertaining and informative. The book is divided into 22 'proper' chapters interspersed frequently by little 'font breaks' where a specific type is discussed e.g. Gill Sans, Futura, Optima. In these font breaks the history of the type is given, designers are profiled etc. The rest of the book is mainly a kind of history lesson that takes in various changes in technology and how type design continues to progress despite there being many thousands of fonts readily available. Particularly interesting was the chapter on the font for British road signs designed by Kinneir and Calvert. Only when you see how clear and simple it is compared with an alternative design by Kindersley that you appreciate it. But this is what these people are generally trying to achieve. A font that is so good it can be read without being noticed.… (more)
LibraryThing member e1da
I'm a big fan of book & printing history having taken three grad courses in that area while pursuing my library degree. My small history of the book collection is presumably why I was able to snag this Early Reviewers copy.

Overall, it's a fun quick read. It jumps around a bit much for my taste and I struggled with reading it as an ebook. They did a good job of including all the font changes, but the spacing/justification wasn't very good with many lines that were very cramped. Presumably this is because it can be resized, but it's an uncommon issue for books on typography/graphic design, so it stood out. It's also more difficult to flip easily between looking at the picture examples and back to the text than it would be in a print format.

My last complaint is that it would have benefited immensely from more pictures. The author describes all of the aspects of various letters with copious adjectives, detailing the differences between this g and that one. There are many pictures of the typefaces being discussed, but often those didn't include the specific letters the author was describing. I have to imagine this was the result of not being able to afford the specific images needed rather than an intentional choice.

To end on a more positive note, I really enjoyed the discussion of the feelings that different typefaces evoke, and what aspects contribute to those feelings. I also loved the overall style. The author clearly loves typefaces and his language shows it. It could be too flowery for some, but I enjoyed it.
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LibraryThing member SimonMSmith
An overview of the world of fonts without ever delving into serious analysis of what makes the good ones good, and the bad ones bad.... Was left slightly disappointed, although I do now look at the world a little bit differently, which is a lot to say for any book.
LibraryThing member caffron
Fair notice up front: this reviewer received a free copy of this book in Adobe Digital Editions format. Since it is quite possible that others might consider purchasing this book in e-format, I must make a few notes on format before moving on to other details of the book's contents.

Adobe Digital Editions did not render all the fonts or any of the pictures in this book. As a result, the book was seriously hampered, since the shape of the letters can be precisely the topic of discussion. This was, after all, a book about fonts and typesetting. The irony was inescapable, and truth told rather frustrating.

Reader be advised: this is not really a book about fonts. Really this is a book about people who care about fonts. This includes people who create fonts, and people who get annoyed by other people who misuse fonts. Talking about the fonts themselves generally takes on a supporting role to the fontsmiths, the gurus who have dominated the field. These names might be unfamiliar to the general reader, but the tone of the book seems to hint that targeted readers are expected to already have at least some reverence for these figures. As expected, there is a bit on Gutenberg and the historical development of today's font diversity, including the role of Steve Jobs. There's a brief stroll down memory lane for those who remember label makers and rubbing letters onto posterboard.

If perhaps you are not a font-aisseur, all is well as long as you admit your ignorance and swear to become better informed. But, if you fair reader dare admit that sometimes you find Papyrus charming and don't think Comic Sans is the spawn of Satan, perhaps the mild elitism of the book may rub you a little. If so, still carry on because there are some interesting stories to be had. Quirks abound in the book, like the tale of an ampersand collection (Font Aid) which raised money for Haitian relief, or the controversy over Ikea's changed font, or a not-so-tongue-in-cheek list of "bad fonts." There are discussions about fonts in politics, and about the fact that type cannot be intellectual property, unless one goes to the effort of patenting every letter individually.

I would have liked to have read more about the fonts themselves and how the designers approached their craft. I was not quite the reader targeted, I think. But the book was still worth the read to this general reader, and I certainly would recommend it to anyone with more than a minimal interest in typography.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Designing a typeface is a tricky project, as Simon Garfield demonstrates in his informative, engaging book Just My Type. A typeface should, of course, be beautiful. It should be both readable and legible (Garfield shows readers the difference using the Cooper Black font on the cover of the classic Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds as an example). And above all, it should be "banal". Huh? It's a paradox, but as Adrian Frutiger, creator of the "perfect" (in Garfield's estimation) typeface that bears his last name, has said, "If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape...When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful." (p. 140).

Garfield takes readers through the 560 history of movable type, beginning with Gutenberg's first Bible and ending with Calibri, the ubiquitous font that has served as Microsoft's default since 2007. Along the way, he highlights particular typefaces, interviews designers, and discusses typographic trends.. It's an entertaining journey, and one that's highly recommended for those who are fascinated by fonts.
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LibraryThing member ilokhov
This is an excellent introduction to typography for the uninitiated. If you want to get an overview of the history of typography and grasp just what an impact choosing a font has on a message without delving too deep into subject, this is the book to read.

Humourous, concise and entertaining, "Just my type" is consistently to the point. I have to admit that at certain points I found it hard to put the book down. Perhaps it's just the inner geek in me who is interested in relatively obscure things, but I found this history of typography utterly fascinating. Every other chapter focuses on a particular font which the author has deemed significant in some way - this gives an insight into how fonts are born, adopted and how they influence what is yet to come.

As is expected of a book on typography, all the mentioned fonts are set in the corresponding type, giving the reader a "live" instant impression of the font.

Although "Just my type" offers no complete recipes for choosing the right font for a particular situation, it makes for a solid starting point for understanding what constitutes great typography.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
How wonderful to find an even more thankless career than sub-editing! Font creators are rather strange (or worse, as in the case of Gill Sans), and this book delivers plenty of colourful vignettes once it gets past the dull but necessary historical introduction of typography.
LibraryThing member hugh_ashton
That was meant to be a 4.5 star rating, but I'll leave it as 4. Not exactly the world's most technical book on typography, but one of the most entertaining I've read for some time (ever?). Slightly snarky, but basically the right amount of snark when called for, and some rather dry British humour at times. I would have expected it to appeal only to a rather specialist audience, but judging by the number of readers here on LibraryThing, it attracts more than I would have thought - but then LibraryThing members are bibliophiles.

Anecdotes about fonts and their creators are jumbled together in a way that should be chaotic, but actually flow better than you might imagine - more of a collection of articles than a book, but linked together in such a way that you can go with the flow without having to jump too strenuously over the joins.

This is a book that would never work as an e-book, by the way - the typographical complexities and subtleties would be lost. The fact that I have a hard cover edition (good paper) is also a plus point for me - maybe it's not the sort of book where a first edition will ever become valuable, but it's good to have.

Recommended for anyone who has an interest in the shape of the letters that they are reading – in print, or on-screen.
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LibraryThing member alsatia
This book is okay; it's even quite amusing at times. I prefer the documentary Helvetica, but had I not seen the film first, the book might have been my favorite. If you're at all interested in fonts, take a look at this one. One tip: pick up the hard copy, not the ebook. Many different fonts appear thoughout the book to illustrate what the author is talking about, and you'll miss something if you try to read this as an ebook since that will likely limit the number of fonts you'll see.… (more)
LibraryThing member eglinton
Entertaining look at the hige variety of different fonts and types we now use. Which it turns out have proliferated hugely over recent years, as has interest in and awareness of them, now there are so many within our daily desktop reach. The book is written with humour and verve, and covers much, but somehow not in a way that sticks. Perhaps lacks the depth or the gravity or just the breaking down into parts that would educate the reader to create a font (or even choose or recognise one).… (more)
LibraryThing member jontseng
Taxis without ever quite truly taking taking off.
LibraryThing member LyzzyBee
12 Jan 2011

An excellent gallimaufry of information about typefaces, their history, development, variations, etc., with interstitial chapters on particular fonts or families of fonts. I did like that it ended with Calibri, a font of which I've become fond. Only one (bizarre) proofing error spotted in the whole book. Entertaining and informative - I can't really find anything else to say about it, but it was a good read!… (more)
LibraryThing member cvanhasselt
Simon Garfield is passionate about fonts. His book is entertaining and informative without veering into pretension, or condescension toward novice font-o-philes. Once an obscure craft that flourished among the pools of ink in the publishing houses of Europe, typography developed an idiom of its own, giving us words like kerning, leading, serif, ascender, and ligature. These terms, if not entirely ordinary today, are much more common, as everyone now has the work of myriad font foundries available at the click of a mouse. We are all publishers now, capable of setting our own words in our own type.

But, as Garfield might point out, with this great power comes great responsibility. As typography has become more accessible, bad typography, or good type badly used, has become ubiquitous. Garfield guides his readers through the history, language, and art of typography for a reason: to encourage people to think about design, and not simply accept Arial or Times New Roman just because it is the default. We have a wealth of choices when it comes to fonts now, and learning something about their aesthetic value makes us better communicators. And that is after all the purpose of typography.

As a matter of full disclosure, I read this as a Kindle ebook giveaway through LibraryThing's early reviewer program. My practical advice after that experience is that the typographic and layout capabilities of the Kindle are not suitable for such a lively book about type. I dreaded advancing through the book, as every few pages their would be some strange character signalling a missing font of some sort. NetGalley had provided the book as a PDF, e-mailed to my Kindle and the conversion process was not pretty. In any event, based on my experience I would advise you to just buy the print version, the Kindle just didn't cut it with this one.
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LibraryThing member CarltonC
Enjoyed whilst I was reading, as very interesting about most fonts discussed, but I remember little of the actual history and the book becomes a bit too repetitive.
One annoying matter that is important to the point that Garfield makes is when he talks about fonts of specific letters, the letter illustrated in the book is often different and so does not complement the text. I do not know why this is, as it does detract from a light and enjoyable book.
Best to dip into, rather than to read without breaks to other books.
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LibraryThing member Katya0133
The first chapter of Just My Type is pretty basic, and it had me worried that I wasn't going to learn anything new from the book. However, the rest of the book surpassed my expectations. This book tends to focus more on the human side of typography, which makes it an excellent companion to books that focus more on the technical aspects. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on, the man who designed Comic Sans, the man who threw all his type into the Thames, and the list of the worst fonts in the world.… (more)
LibraryThing member Laura400
This is an absolutely charming and enjoyable introduction to the world of fonts. It's not for the professional or the font fanatic. But it's engagingly written and wryly humorous, and thus perfect for an interested layperson. It has me wanting to read further on the topic, so I'd call it (positively) infectious.

It's another book that really benefits from being a physical book. The presentation includes examples of different fonts incorporated right in the text, as well as numerous larger illustrations and photographs. You need not only to see the referenced fonts, but to flip back and forth in later chapters. I have a Kindle and iPad, but I recommend this in book form.
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LibraryThing member sweeks1980
Type and fonts surround us, but many people give them little thought. Luckily, there are others like Simon Garfield who are not just fascinated by font and typeface but are willing to share their passion with the rest of us. Garfield’s interest and enthusiasm for his subject are evident throughout the book. Furthermore, he does a good job making his explanations accessible and engaging for those who do not share his awareness and knowledge of font.

“Just My Type” provides a history of typeface and printing starting from Guttenberg up until present day. It also dissects different fonts, such as the much maligned Comic Sans, and provides stories about the fonts and their designers. Garfield also includes lots of graphics and examples from history and popular culture to help illustrate his points, which contributed a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of the text. In addition to his lively account of the IKEA controversy that arose after the company changed its typeface from Futura to Verdana, I also appreciated his explanations of such issues like the use of period inappropriate fonts (often found in film) as well as the differences between legibility and readability (using the record cover of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”).

That said, given the myriad of topics included under the general umbrella of font and type, the book can be very uneven, and some chapters undoubtedly will have more appeal to the general public than others. I would have preferred to see more discussion on the use of type in branding and advertising rather than the chapters dedicated to minutiae like the ampersand. However, after the first few chapters, it is easy to go skip around in the book and focus on your interests without sacrificing understanding or consistency.

In a similar vein, the text is sometimes so information-rich that it can seem overwhelming for the typeface neophyte. Though I consider myself a fast and avid reader when it comes to most books, I often found myself reading a single chapter and then taking a break from the book to prevent font overload. Garfield does guard against this somewhat by mixing shorter, lighter chapters with the more dense ones, but even then all of the ideas still seem to mix together.

The final problem and caution I have about the book has nothing to do with Garfield or the actual text and everything to do with the medium. Although I understand the cost-saving measures involved in providing electronic copies to people for review, this is not a book that lends itself well to reading on a device. The number of graphics and the different fonts used make this book almost impossible to read on most e-readers. I tried reading it on my Nook Simple Touch before realizing the incompatibility between the device and the content.

Overall, although this isn’t the type of book I would read on my own, I was very pleased to have the chance to read such an informative and pleasant treatise on font and typeface. For people who are interested in knowing more about font and print, this would be an excellent starting point (just try to get a physical copy rather than an electronic one!).
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LibraryThing member andy475uk
A fascinating, always informative read for font geeks, but it does drag in a couple of places as you approach font overload (!)
LibraryThing member GirlMisanthrope
Clever, intelligent, and humorous account of the development of the fonts we find all around us. The humor throughout juices this potentially dry topic.


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