Simon Garfield's Just My Type explores typography
‘A fairly jaunty, easy read about a subject that might otherwise be daunting’
To date, Simon Garfield’s books have covered topics as diverse as the World Wrestling Federation, the history of Radio 1, World War Two diaries, and the colour mauve. Continuing this trajectory of unrelated subjects, the journalist and non-fiction author’s new work – Just My Type – is a surprisingly fascinating book about fonts. It includes interviews with seminal typographers and comprehensive histories of popular typefaces. Helvetica, Verdana, Times New Roman, Futura, Calibri, Comic Sans: even non-type enthusiasts will recognise these names from their word processing software.
Garfield’s brief for the book was to reconcile people’s everyday recognition of fonts with their illustrious but often inaccessible background. ‘In the past, I’ve taken a subject that might otherwise be considered arcane and tried to make it accessible,’ he explains. ‘We all think about type by default, every time we turn on our computers. You’re aware that they are always there, so this was an attempt to link fonts and typographers to the real world.’ However, while his description of the book as ‘a fairly jaunty, easy read about a subject that might otherwise be daunting’ is accurate, it belies the thoroughness of Garfield’s research. Just My Type is not simply a casual account of typographical history but an absorbing portrait of a highly-specialised design sector that has perhaps been more greatly affected by the digital revolution than any other.
The book’s engaging style is clearly fuelled by the writer’s own passion for the subject. ‘Originally, I dismissed how obsessive and involved I would be in the whole process,’ says Garfield. ‘It began as a journalistic exercise but it’s now quite hard to pass a shop sign or see a poster on the railway without trying to identify the font, and it’s quite unsettling if I can’t. Obviously, there’s no way I can because there are over 100,000 fonts. I don’t have any evidence of this but I imagine there are more typefaces being produced now every year than there were in the first 200 years after the invention of the printing press.’
Garfield’s book is also well designed. Illustrations of typeface in action, type designers and creative book covers depict the trends he describes, as do lists of the world’s best and worst fonts. Garfield’s favourite display font is Festival Titling, originally designed for the Festival of Britain in 1950, which he describes as ‘a typeface that should adorn a bunting on a village summer fair’. The biggest offender, in his opinion, is the London 2012 font, which, like Avatar’s use of Papyrus in its subtitles, has attracted much criticism. ‘I think it just comes down to taste,’ he says. ‘The fact that a lot of people think it’s ugly obviously doesn’t seem to bother them too much.’
But despite covering so much ground, Garfield does not think Just My Type presents a complete picture of type history and design. ‘I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. Not to say there’ll be a volume two because I’ve clearly covered most of the important history. I can’t say my book is going to have any great effect but who knows.’
Just My Type is published by Profile on Thu 21 Oct.