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Just My Type

He’s my type. He’s not my type. No such thing as type. As a young adult still among the ranks of singlehood, I hear a decent bit of talk about type.

But a preferable type of type is the subject of my most recent read. Simon Garfield’s “Just My Type” is described on the book jacket as “a delightful inquisitive tour that explores the rich history and the subtle powers of type.” And delightful it was.

Typography was one of my favorite graphic design classes in college, although upon graduation, I felt it wasn’t my strongest skill. I figured one of the best ways to remedy that would be to learn from the most skilled typographers in history, so when I passed this gem of a book at the library the other week I had to pick it up. The book covered personal and professional histories of famous typographers from the past several centuries, details about the projects that led to the creation of some of the most famous fonts in the world, and various printing methods from Gutenburg’s printing press all the way up to modern technologies. I took quite a few notes as I read through, but as most of them are fairly technical, I won’t type them all up here.

One of the fonts described in the book is Comic Sans. Perhaps one of the most infamous typefaces in the world, it was designed for a specific manual for Microsoft (to accompany that little yellow dog, Bob, who is oh-so-friendly-and-helpful). It ended up not being able to be used for that project, but it did make its way out to the masses who lacked the good judgement to not use it on, well, everything. One of my favorite quotes from the book was about this font:

“If you see a word somewhere with each letter in a different color, that word is usually in Comic Sans.”

Along with Comic Sans, several of the other fonts people love to hate were mentioned (Papyrus, anyone?). Interestingly, one of the studies reported on in “Just My Type” surveyed designers on the fonts they used most regularly, believed to be most visible, and their least favorites. The top ten in each category were listed, and  4 of the 10 least favorites were included in both the favorites and most visible lists! I think a prerequisite for being a typographer is being a snob.

I’m a little behind the times, but ampersands have really gotten my attention lately, and it seems there is just no limit to these beautiful marks. Garfield has similar feelings about ampersands, as he writes, “Done well, an & is not so much a character as a creature, an animal from the deep. Or it is a character in the other sense of the word, usually a tirelessly entertaining one, perhaps an uncle with too many magic tricks.” In reference to Caslon’s ampersand, he writes that it “seemed to come from an altogether more hallucinogenic place, from the playground perhaps or the alehouse.”

Interesting fact: ampersands are documented to have been first used in 63 B.C.(!!) as shorthand for “et”, meaning “and” in Latin. The name “ampersand” therefore stemmed from “et, per se and”.

Speaking of beautiful typographic designs, another quote I loved from this book came from William Morris. It inspires me to frame prints of some of my favorite characters to place around my home:

“Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

There was also a great chapter on the copyrights for typefaces, which helped open my eyes to the injustices for type designers and lack of legal protection for their intellectual property and design work. After reading about Arial being a copycat font created explicitly to be able to be a substitute for Helvetica (rather than purchasing Helvetica itself), I especially don’t like it. Check out the similarities:

A theme throughout the book showed that typographers aren’t in it for the money though. One typographer’s response when asked about designing fonts was:

“Can there be anything more valuable? And if there are no jobs at the end of it, that’s not necessarily a reason not to do it. There’s no jobs after reading poetry, either.”

And a final little tidbit to end the post, the ubiquitous brown fox and that lazy dog:

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One thought on “Just My Type

  1. Pingback: Foto Friday | A Year in Learning

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