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Maybe my type

…they don’t realize any human agency is involved, because fonts for them are part of the software ether that appears mysteriously on their computer, manifestations of some ghostly form. So they’re very astonished when they hear that people do this.

– Matthew Carter, type designer (of types such as Verdana and Georgia)  in Just My Type (2011)

Simon Garfield, in his book Just My Type: A Book about Fonts (2011), aims to correct this very notion. The book is essentially a history of typography which highlights the human aspect that might easily be overlooked when all one has to do is to browse through a really long dropdown of funky sounding font names to select one that looks like it might work. Designing types and setting them, especially in the analog era, was painstaking, laborious work. Garfield peppers the long story of types with font related anecdotes, some more engaging than others.

I used to be a font virgin until a few months ago, when I read and re-read Robin William’s utterly absorbing The Non-Designer’s Design & Type Books. While this book, as its title implies, does not document the history of fonts, my font literacy did go up by a notch. Having some familiarity with them, I am now more visually aware and notice fonts on road signs, product labels, music records, and children’s books.

The subject of Garfield’s book is endlessly fascinating, especially since it addresses both the creation and the application of typefaces. However, except for some parts, I found the book a bit tedious. I sometimes think what really motivated me to finish the book was the fact that it was due at the library. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a total fontophile. I may know Old Style fonts from Modern fonts, but I still am a font novice, and it is unlikely that I am going to remember the unique stories of several of these unique fonts, let alone what they look like. After I put the book down, all that remained of those vignettes about FrutigerSan Francisco, and Johnston Sans was mostly just a hazy blur. I think I was overwhelmed by all those fonts. It didn’t help that the book seemed a little lacking in organization (again, my perceptions might be biased because I know so little about fonts). In the end, a bunch of font trivia could not really sustain my interest.

I do remember some of the stories –  the beauty of the Ampersand and the readbility exercises for motorway signs. I will always remember that Obama used Gotham (as did some other forgotten contenders). I was also drawn to Blackletter.

Third Reich propaganda not only employed gothic lettering for its message, but it made the message itself: one slogan read “Feel German, think German, speak German, be German, even in your script”.

Blackletter might be based on medieval calligraphy, but makes frequent appearances on modern newspaper mastheads, heavy metal album covers, T-shirt lettering, tattoes, and is generally denotative of extreme cultures.

Pompous or sublime, legible or difficult to decipher, most fonts have their use. As I was reading Garfield’s book, I do remember feeling that all sorts of typefaces were being lumped together – desktop fonts, decorative fonts, invisible fonts meant to be used in vast quantities of text, quiet fonts meant to be used in large sizes, and loud fonts meant to be judiciously. You really cannot compare a Frutiger  with a Fraktur. That’d be akin to likening a banana with a durian. But then maybe I just experienced font overload.

I would like to take a moment to highly recommend The Non-Designer’s Design & Type Books even if, and especially if, you re not a graphic designer. I would have done well to read this book four years ago. I am certain that my posters, reports, and newsletters would have benefited from a knowledge of basic design principles. Robin Williams, the author, sums up all her design wisdom, wittily and frequently thus:

There is one more general guiding principle of Design (and of Life): Don’t be a wimp.

Be brave! Be Bold!

Sound advice, indeed.

Garfield writes of Robert Bringhurst in Just My Type. In The Elements of Typographic Style, the Canadian typographer says:

By all means break the rules and break them beautifully, deliberately and well.

Robin Williams also has some words for those of us who like to break rules. This rule is aptly titled Robin’s Rule about Breaking Rules which warns us:

You must remember what the rule is before you can break it.

We know Bringhurst will concur.

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