Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Simon Garfield's "Just My Type: A Book about Fonts": Review

This lively look at how fonts fight to be noticed, even as we look right through them into the content they embody, depicts their tension between transparency and visibility. Simon Garfield-- first inspired at the age of eleven by the LP typography of David Bowie's Hunky Dory and T. Rex's Electric Warrior--displays a love of fonts. He delights in conveying too their impact on culture and their incorporation of meaning. 

Chapters introduce designers such as Eric Gill, Beatrice Warde, Adrian Frutiger, Matthew Cooper, Jim Parkinson, Neville Brody, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, and Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans. The book is filled with representations of type in many guises. PopMatters' audience may recognize the cover of a 1980's issue of The Face, a Rolling Stone nameplate (not the same as a masthead, we learn), an Amy Winehouse CD graphic, or the Victorian poster's inspiration for Sgt. Pepper's Mr. Kite. Garfield explores a rich intersection of musical graphics with typeface, itself worthy of a much larger book. 

As this is a small book, Garfield packs as many graphics and photos into its contents as he can. The narrative hurries one along. Its balance tips here and there as the fascinating if brief treatment of album covers leaves scantier attention to the equally evocative realm of rock band nameplates (not the same as a logo, we learn). Too much time on battles between "pirates and clones" in this digitally reproducible age means less space for, say, the impact of the changes that professional soccer players might show as their surnames change with the font shifts on the backs of their jerseys, or the effect the iPad may have on font variety. While he credits many sources and websites in his coverage, I wish he would have nodded towards Gwyn Headley's comparatively compact The Encyclopedia of Fonts. It's graced with witty pangrams (phrases including all the letters of the alphabet) beyond "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." 

Still, Garfield features a YouTube still of just such an event, and he urges us to click it on ourselves. That sentence shows the possibilities of a font. For a shorter example of a font's range, by the way, look for "h," "b," and especially "g" as the best indicators of its subtle distinctions. These varieties prove akin to those in wines even of the same vintage and same year, but harvested by rivals from neighboring vineyards.

His enthusiasm for this subject keeps the pages turning rapidly. After all, Garfield takes on a lot of digressions as it is, and if he had paid as much attention to all the aspects of this ubiquitous topic, the book would rival massive compendia of font types which number now in the thousands, compressed into closely-printed directories over hundreds more pages. Even for experts, it can be challenging to tell one font from another, as the limitations of size and shape constrain the font designer into a fixed range of expression.

Here and there, Garfield shifts the font from Sabon, his workaday text for this book, into one of 219 fonts that fleetingly signal the type under discussion. Naturally, this enhances the power of his lesson. For example, we learn what distinguishes the familiar Arial from the ever-present Helvetica. Microsoft, not wishing to incur higher licensing fees for its software, chose Arial. Made by Monotype, it was cheaper than Helvetica. That was bundled with Adobe, and designed by Linotype, the printer firm which would later buy out Monotype. Microsoft calculated that Arial could fit the same dimensions as Helvetica, and so its choice became for users almost as predictable, starting with Microsoft's word processing and desktop publishing systems of the early 1980s, as that most common of current fonts all around us, Helvetica. 

Out of such near-similarities emerge differences. IKEA switched from Futura to Verdana. Futura, rooted in the political ferment of the 1920s, stood for bold, European identity. Verdana, designed by Matthew Cooper (compare his serif version, Verdana, itself a response to Times New Roman), stood for his client, Microsoft, and a multinational, corporate conformity. Many fonts, in Garfield's presentation, symbolize subtle loyalty and dogged allegiance, and they also fit into what style appears better to marry form with content. The now-ridiculed Comic Sans would not work for a death-metal band. However, it pleases dyslexic children. 

The battle emanating from nearly six hundred years of fonts resounds as each generation finds its own favorites, fonts that fit its moods, ideas, and ambitions. "In type, the appearance of beauty and elegance depends on trickery and skill--perhaps the most fruitful and longest-lasting collision of science and art." Garfield explains how Kinneir and Calvert designed the lower-case dominant motorway junction signs that enabled postwar British drivers to make quick decisions on roundabouts thanks to a readable and legible font that could be seen at longer distances. No matter how elegant the fonts it defeated to win the national contract, the Kinneir and Calvert entry matched better our visual necessity to find an exit straightaway, an imperative that had not changed since, Garfield notes, the days of trying to find one's way out of the cave. 

"Fonts are like cars on the street--we notice only the most beautiful or ugly, the funniest or the flashiest." The good fill many pages, and as for the bad and ugly, author's best moments come when he lists the eight worst fonts in the world. I list them here, regrettably or thankfully shorn of their appearance, in case you wish to compare your list to his. Ecofont (full of holes to save ink on the printed letters); Souvenir (a 1970s' soft porn, disco and/or pop psychology staple); Gill Sans Light Shadowed (shames the name of Gill, as a three-dimensional "optical" raised-letter nightmare); Brush Script (looks folksy but no avuncular neighbor wrote like this); Papyrus (used to save money on Avatar ads even as it evokes a grade-school report on ancient Egypt); Neuland Inline (report on Africa, or Lion King revival); Ransom Note (when Jamie Reid designed the Sex Pistols' LP, he had to cut out newsprint; the ease of digital downloading makes this font's attempt at menace risible by its ease); and London 2012 Olympic Font (as a native, Garfield will have to endure this a while longer, accompanied by the reviled "Lisa Simpson having sex" spastic attempt at a Games logo). 

The abundance of fonts such as Ransom Note, replacing the craft of manual design with instant access, for Garfield diminishes the legacy of print. Fewer people press a pencil onto a sheet, a nib into a journal. You read this review not on an elegantly embossed page but through a plastic-covered screen. Its font may be standardized by a program neither of us have any control over. Yet, as you and I share this medium of print, these 26 letters endure in a form combining legibility with readability. You notice the font and you do not, alternately, and the wonder of this encounter, the shift between awareness and immersion, testifies to the legacy of print in new forms as new fonts keep replacing and contending with old ones, six centuries on.
(Amazon US 9-25 in shorter form. As above, featured at PopMatters.com 10-7-11)


Tony Bailie said...

As a sub editor I have a passing interest but one of my best friends, who plays bass in my band, is an ad designer and has been known to casually drop into conversation what his newest favourite font is and why it is beautiful.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, weirdly I tried to find a hated font used by my undergrad university as its 'official' choice, and I have scoured hundreds of types, and yet, I cannot find it! I wanted to use it as an example of a despised one in my review. Hard to search for them even by era and visual "type"--Garfield mentions errors the experts make here in crediting as different ones that are identical.

As for me, I love (or hate) fonts, and like maps, I can lose myself in contemplation of what's on a page. I wish we had far more choices on line and in software, even though Garfield laments how this choice leads to unwise uses. Digital reproduction, as in music, is a boon and a bane!