Here’s the thing about fonts – they are sort of invisible. Most of the time, they are the ultimate vehicle – conveying us from tautology A to syllogism B smoothly and effortlessly, and facilitating our efforts to quickly and efficiently suck the meaning out of a sentence. Like that one, for example.
But you and I both know that nothing operates efficiently and effectively by accident. I don’t have to know how a watch works to know that someone sweated and cursed and revised until they got something they thought was good – who then showed it to some other people with whom they argued and cursed and sweated and revised until they had something really great. It’s true of the watches we use to tell time, the algorithms we use to find things online, and it’s true of fonts.
And like algorithms and watches, their design subtly impacts what we think and do. Why does this sign look dowdy and stiff and that one look hip and cool, and that one look like it was once hip and cool about forty years ago, but now, well, looks a little silly?
That’s part of why Simon Garfield wrote “Just My Type”, a wonderful, breezy, wonky and ultimately charming series of essays about fonts, fontographers and the impact of both in places where you wouldn’t expect them. Garfield, whose other books have ranged from a profile of the photographer Bob Carlos Clarke to a the story of how we got mass-produced dyes, to a celebration of the Cooper Mini (you can check out his complete oeuvre here: http://www.simongarfield.com), explores everything from the choice of type in various subway systems to why people hate comic sans, to the “rules” of using fonts, to the lives of some of the more famous font designers (I may never look at Gill Sans the same way again…)
Admittedly, this could get pretty tedious. I mean, how much does the average person really need to know about ascenders, ligatures and kerning? What saves it, indeed, what makes it enjoyable, is Garfield himself. He’s funny, self-deprecating, interesting, and just as surprised as you are. In other words, he’s a delightful guide and would be the kind of person you’d pray you sat next to at a dreary dinner party.
The book is divided into twenty-two chapters – where Mr. Garfield explores the stories behind the stories (from how Britain tested fonts with motorists to a brief overview of the relationship between fonts and pop music to the obsession the Swiss have with sans serif fonts) – and a handful of “fontbreaks” in which Mr. Garfield focuses on the story of a particular font or even a punctuation mark (Interrobang, anyone? It’s between chapters 18 and 19).
Now, it may seem obvious why agency folks should pick up this book. Hey, we use fonts all the time, right! (Didn’t I just use one right there! That’s right, I did!) One could say that the more we know about fonts, the better, right? Well, sure – because the more we know about everything the better. But here are two reasons why everyone – not just art directors and designers – should pick up Just My Type.
First, because as miserable and under appreciated as you feel, fontographers have it a hundred times worse. Sure, you both labor in obscurity, but your obscurity is infinitely better rewarded than theirs was. Or is – since the digital revolution has made the joys of font creation available to everyone. (“joys of font creation” – there’s a sentence you don’t read every day…). So read Just My Type and feel slightly better about your miserable lot in life.
And second – and more importantly – because once you start looking at type this closely, you find yourself looking more closely at everything that you took for granted. Everything that you used simply as a tool in order to accomplish other things. The process forces you to reconsider your paths, your processes, your assumptions. What’s arbitrary? What’s not? What’s invisible? What’s not? And how are those things that I never thought about before ruling my life?
Fair questions for anyone in any line of business, but for those of us who make our living trying to persuade people to do things, it’s fairly vital.
If you liked this review of “Just My Type”, you might also enjoy reading about “Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era”