Just My Type, By Simon Garfield

A fun romp through the world of type design, from serifs lost in the Thames to Obama's Gotham mien
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The Independent Culture

Like a bass guitar in a great rock song or dash of salt in an exotic dish, good type design can easily be overlooked, but when replaced with something less apposite, its importance swiftly makes itself felt. When you start to look for them, you quickly realise that fonts are everywhere, and that the decisions made about their application drastically affect your perception of the world – of your books, your computer, your favourite products, the public space we share. As Gary Hustwit's superb documentary Helvetica argues, fonts can be as inescapable and essential as oxygen.

Hustwit's 2007 film coincided with a rise in our general cultural awareness of the importance of type. Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency is unimaginable conducted in anything but dynamic, reliable Gotham; few aesthetic choices better evoke London's collective disenchantment with the coming Olympic Games than its godawful, infantile font of choice. Into this fecund environment comes Simon Garfield's tour of typographic history, Just My Type.

Garfield's great strength is his storytelling. His book comprises dozens of lovely vignettes, anecdotes that make a potentially dusty subject – the difference between a bracketed and unbracketed serif is not to everyone's taste – utterly compelling. He is an agreeable and enthusiastic amateur, and for that the general reader can be grateful. Among the stories he digs up, my favourite is probably that of Doves, "the type that drowned", an exquisite serif lost in its original form forever after its bloody-minded creator, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, secretly chucked the metal letters from which it was printed into the Thames over the course of three years, in an act of aesthetic puritanism and professional bitterness. Garfield rarely allows himself to lapse into aesthetic reverie, instead anchoring every typographic discussion with this kind of evocative history lesson.

When he does discuss the specifics of what makes a font special, he does just as good a job, showing as judicious a sense of imagery – Cooper Black, easyJet's type of choice, is "the sort of font the oils in a lava lamp would form if smashed to the floor" – as he has of more technical description. If the book has a deficiency, it is in an insufficient awareness of its existence as a whole; there's no real argument here, no strong sense that any one chapter relies on another, and that's a pity for a work that exists partly to justify bringing this fascinating conversation into the mainstream.

So it's not a monumental work, and is unlikely to make you think radically differently about the way words look. But in its enthusiasm and range, it provides a fine primer for anyone who finds themselves pondering why, exactly, Ikea has seemed rather less quirky since it went from Futura to Verdana, or those who would like to know a little more about the history of the interrobang.

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