Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting

If your writing is used in graphic designs or websites, it’s probably a familiar scenario. You receive an email and open the attached PDF, or follow the link, with trepidation. What has the designer done with your text?

It could go either way. Will your content form part of a beautifully balanced, flowing layout, so each carefully chosen word can unfold with clarity and resonance in the reader’s mind? Or will it be crammed into a corner, ranged right and reversed white out of a hectically detailed image?

Of all the design decisions that affect the way a piece of text is received, perhaps the most profound is the choice of typeface. While language exists in the abstract, it’s only through speech or writing that it can be transmitted from one person to another. And just as accents profoundly affect the way we hear speech, so fonts affect the physical shape and appearance of our words, giving them both their atomic detail and their general tone.

Typefaces can make you seem upstanding and moral (Gotham), cool yet authoritative (Helvetica) or arty and feminine (Mrs Eaves). They can make you look like you’re from London (Johnston Sans), Egypt (Papyrus) or Ancient Rome (Trajan). And they can place you with uncanny accuracy at any point in time from the 1770s (Baskerville) to the 1970s (Souvenir).

Having worked alongside graphic designers for many years, I’d been hazily aware of all this at a semi-conscious level. But this brilliant book has brought it all into sharp focus, outlining the principles and history of type design an typography with insight and humour, never becoming boring or didactic.

Along the way, it relates some fasinating stories, like how Comic Sans came to be so ubiquitous (and as a result, so hated) or how the Nazis endorsed – and then rejected – gothic black-letter script. You’ll also learn how technology affected type, from Caxton’s presses through to the demise of Monotype and Letraset.

These accounts are interspersed with ‘font breaks’ – potted ‘biographies’ of typographic big-hitters like Helvetica, Frutiger, Gill Sans, Optima and Sabon. The book closes with a so-bad-it’s-good rundown of atrocious typestyles as it hunts down The Worst Font In The World, and a look into the future of type.

Apart from being very well written, the book thrives on the thrill of recognition – finally being able to put a name to a font you’ve seen hundreds of times, or sudenly realising how designers use a certain typeface to push particular psychological buttons. Garfield’s enthusiasm for typography shines through, sweeping you along, making the whole thing a pleasure to read.

Strongly recommended for any writer with the remotest interest in how their words end up looking on the page or screen.


1st July 2012

Ben Locker

Love this book. It was serialised on the radio last year; and I must have raved about it a lot because my wife bought me a copy for Christmas.

The politics of typefaces was fascinating “” especially the story of how the Nazis expediently went from Blackletter to Roman fonts as they invaded more countries that used Roman type.

3rd July 2012

Francis Glibbery

I found a copy of this book in a friend’s loo. I straightaway discovered that it’s more valuable than any collection of Jak cartoons! In fact, I bought a copy for myself and – far from leaving it in my loo – it’s been read and sits on my shelf alongside other indispensable works such as The Economist Pocket Style Book and Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug’s excellent book on web usability.

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