‘Just My Type’ Is a Love Letter to Letters

BY Annie Strother  September 14, 2011 at 2:18 PM EDT

'Just My Type'Simon Garfield’s book “Just My Type” opens with an epigraph from a 1936 issue of TIME magazine: “In Budapest, surgeons operated on printer’s apprentice Gyoergyi Szabo, 17, who, brooding over the loss of a sweetheart, had set her name in type and swallowed the type.”

Passion and fonts — love for them, conviction about their usage, and the dedication of their designers — are the chief actors in his book, released first in the U.K. and now in the United States this month.

In “Just My Type,” Garfield, a British journalist and author, looks at the use of typefaces throughout history, as well as the history of specific fonts. He recounts stories of how powerful and pervasive (even insidious) they can be for both individuals and whole cultures: A man tries to live without Helvetica for one day, avoiding the money, newspapers, clothing and public transit that all employ it. IKEA adopts a new typeface, Verdana, abandoning its former typeface, Futura, and sets off a furor of outrage among its customers. When a typographic engineer needs to style a new font to humanize a specific computer program with an illustrated dog, he ends up creating the widely-used, widely-loathed Comic Sans.

In the early 1900s, bookbinder Thomas Cobden-Sanderson avoided relinquishing ownership of his typographic masterpiece to a former partner by making more than a hundred trips to the Thames to secretly dispose of the wooden blocks that made up the famed font Doves.

“I love that romantic idea that someone cares so much about type that they will do anything to protect it,” he said in a recent interview with Art Beat. “Even now, I think that there are words forming, unbeknownst to us, in the muddy depths of the Thames.”

The story of evolving typeface is the story of evolving technology. The development of the printing press produced the first reusable letters (initially resembling handwriting), and the IBM Selectric Typewriter offered a “Golfball” from which an office worker could choose different fonts. Letraset made dry transfer lettering available before word processing was a household term.

Today, behind the multitudinous font options that appear in our drop-down computer menus are some very ardent ideas espoused by their ardent designers. Garfield writes, “There seems to be something about type design that lends itself to philosophizing,” and zealous opinions and their enthusiasts permeate the book.

“People think that somehow type descends from the ether,” Garfield says. “I’ve tried to show in the book that it’s not only that people care so much about type and the shape of letters, but also how much love and work goes into creating a particular type face.”

There are the defenders of type’s utilitarian purposes, such as Eric Gill, creator of Gill Sans and Perpetua: “Letters are things, not pictures of things.” And there’s Adrian Frutiger, who developed Frutiger for Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport in 1975, who said, “The reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.” Frutiger once emphasized that “if you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape.”

Perhaps the most famous of these theories comes out of a lecture by Beatrice Warde, an early 20th-century scholar of printing and typography, who likened type to a window between readers and “that landscape which is the author’s words. He may put up a stained-glass window of marvelous beauty, but a failure as a window.”

Garfield aligns himself more closely with the contemporary designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who says: “Typography truly reflects the whole of human life and it changes with each generation. It may well be the most direct visual representation of the tone of voice with which we express the spirit of the time.”

The message is encouraging for the designers of the future — in essence, try anything. Change is part of the fun.

“My thinking on that is that any rule that anyone makes needs to be broken,” says Garfield. “The only rule, I would say, is that choice of font depends on its use. If you’re going to a sober business meeting you don’t want to wear a Grateful Dead T-shirt — necessarily.”

Garfield opens the book with an anecdote about a student who dropped out of college and enrolled in a calligraphy class: Steve Jobs. The first Macintosh computer came with a wide selection of fonts, and it helped familiarized the public with Times New Roman, Arial, Garamond, Palatino and Book Antiqua.

“Twenty years ago we hardly knew them, but now we all have favourites,” he writes. “Computers have rendered us all gods of type, a privilege we could never have anticipated in the age of the typewriter.”