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Just My Type: A Book about Fonts
Just My Type (UK cover)
Book Review

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

Reviewed by Patrick Barber on April 27, 2012

We’re in something of a period of Enlightenment with regards to typography. Thanks to the ubiquity of computers that give every user a choice of what font to use, along with an increase in the number of young designers and design-interested people, fascination with typography among the general public has never been greater. As the genuine interest in typography becomes more and more mainstream, a demand exists for sensible resources, such as books and websites, aimed at both neophyte designers and the general public.

Simon Garfield’s “Just My Type” aspires to be one of those books. But it is not.

“Just My Type” reads exactly as if Garfield proposed “a book about fonts,” and then, upon securing a publishing deal, set out to learn enough about fonts to write a book about it. The result is a well-intentioned but sloppy book that focuses on anecdotes and personalities, instead of providing an organized introduction to the world of type.

A generous analysis of “Just My Type” is that Garfield hoped to lure in readers with gossip, and didn’t want to bore anyone with facts and fundamentals. Even if this is the case, the opportunities he misses are impressive. Garfield mentions the fundamental difference between a “typeface” and a “font,” but then gets bogged down in the origin of the word “font” and finally claims that “in common parlance, we use font and typeface interchangeably,” followed by one of my favorite lines in the book: “Definitions should not cloud our appreciation of type … ”.

Certainly not, and in Garfield’s world, the appreciation of type is crystal clear, unclouded by such troublesome “definitions”. In the few pages following this statement, the author then offers some definitions, but, perhaps in fear of those clouds, swerves into a story about a newspaper hoax involving the island of San Seriffe. It’s all very jolly, but, in my estimation, more clouding than crystallizing — if the point is to teach the meaning of serifs and their uses in type design. Similarly, Garfield attempts to discuss basic type anatomy and classifications, but, again, claims that type will “resist absolute categorization until it is worn thin”. Yet any design teacher could helpfully describe a few basic classifications that would aid in the understanding of typography through the ages. Surrounding these vague claims of un-classifiability are a series of unhelpful, poorly labeled diagrams attempting to show things like x-height, ligatures, descenders, and ascenders. If you already know this stuff, you’ll be able to tell what Garfield’s talking about; if you’re actually reading this book with the intention of learning something, you’re out of luck. Again.

It’d be easy to tear this book apart, and it must seem like I’m warming up to give it a right rending. But Paul Shaw has already done this, eloquently, in his review for Imprint and on his own blog, both of which are well worth a read, and it’d be redundant to repeat all of that here.

I’ll keep it simple: If you are interested in typography, and learning more about typefaces, and how type works, don’t bother with “Just My Type”. There are many well-written books that provide beginning and intermediate typographers with a foundation of information, using systems, classifications, beautiful examples, excellent diagrams and art, and, yes, even a sense of humor.

For an excellent introduction to typography, get your hands on “Stop Stealing Sheep, and Learn How Type Works” by Erik Spiekermann and E. M. Ginger. Robert Bringhurst’s classic “The Elements of Typographic Style” provides instruction as well as the history of typography and fine typesetting, and is an indispensable resource for book designers and typographers. For an in-depth, workbook-style look at typesetting, read Carolina de Bartolo’s “Explorations in Typography” (or just visit the book’s terrific website). And Ellen Lupton’s “Thinking With Type” is a good all-round introduction for students, or for teaching oneself the basics.

The amazing thing about typography is that you can go your whole life never thinking about it (or so I’ve heard) yet once you begin to study it, you discover a vein of material so rich enough to mine for a lifetime. Typography is about the way we form language into pictures. It is where the literary and visual arts rub together and make sparks. And those sparks are visible to anyone who wants to see them.

The field remains open for a book that will appeal to the casual reader with a genuine interest in learning more about fonts. Those who fit that description would do better to watch Gary Hustwit’s film “Helvetica”, a fun and engaging introduction to typography and graphic design; and this is the first book review I’ve ever written that suggests you go see a movie instead. Rather than dwell on that, I’ll extend my welcome to readers who come to Typographica wishing to learn more about type. And to those readers with more experience and knowledge, an invitation to suggest typographically splendid books and websites in the comment area below.

Patrick Barber is a graphic designer and photographer living in Portland, Oregon.

14 Comments

  1. As someone who played a small part in this book and even proofed some of the chapters (though not the more historical bits) it stings to read reviews like this one and Paul Shaw’s. While these reactions are quite valid — errors, even nitpicks, should always be important to typographers — I came away from reading “Just My Type” with a better taste in my mouth. Like Steven Heller or Janet Maslin in her review for the Times, I think the book offers non-designers an entertaining and worthwhile entry point into the world of letters.

    Still, I can’t deny that “Helvetica” and “Stop Stealing Sheep” do a similar job with a larger helping of main course than dessert.

  2. I wish there were more of these anecdotal books about the things type people nerd out about. Not books about typography or how-to guides, but fun and casual (and occasionally steamy) tales from type history. The kind of books I can buy my relatives and recommend to strangers.

    In that vein, and I wish it was mentioned more often, Simon Loxley’s “Type: The Secret History of Letters” is a really fun read. Not sure it would stand up to the P.Shaw treatment, but it’s worth pointing at for people who are in the casual “Just My Type” audience (which we, being on Typographica, clearly aren’t).

  3. Actually, if my logs and correspondence are any indication, the Typographica readership is made up of as many novices as experts. Lots of folks visiting who are design beginners or only tangentially interested in typography.

  4. Meredith says:

    The title of the book is not “Everything You Need to Know About Type.” Sheeze! If every book on type was technical they would have an extremely small readership. Today, with desktop publishing available to ordinary Joe, Scrapbookers looking for “cute” or at least appropriate fonts, and many many businesses opting to do their own ads etc. this is a great book to give the average person who is not a typographer or graphic designer: a little more info about typefaces and fonts. It’s important to think about the audience this book was written for!

  5. I did think about the audience, Meredith. I believe that ordinary Joe Scrapbookers, along with experienced typographers, are entitled to enjoyable books about typography that provide accurate and helpful information. If only “Just My Type” fit that description.

  6. teresa says:

    Thanks for the excellent and useful review. I’m an average person who wants to understand more about typography, and I know now this isn’t the book I want to read.

  7. Andy says:

    I fail to see the point of writing such a negative review, for starters nowhere does it purport that this book is anything but a light read, certainly not a replacement for solid typographic textbook or reader. In fact the first line on the back of my own copy states “Just my type is a book of Stories…”. I personally enjoyed the anecdotal quality of the text, and whats more so did my friends and family. This really is an achievement, because lets face it, to the uninitiated typography can come across as immensely dull, and many of the books about it can also seem that way. For that I think we should champion Garfield’s text, not chastise it.

  8. Richard Stokes says:

    What an arrogant dismissive reviewer! Garfield’s book is a wonderful read for the novice. It opens up a world which I’ve taken for granted or been oblivious to. And its web references are useful. That’s how I got here!

  9. KEB says:

    I have to say I found the book enjoyable – & I’m in the middle ground, a design-literate and artistically-trained writer (& erstwhile publications manager) but not nerd. (Though tbh I’ve commissioned work from a few designers who really don’t respect type.) To be precise, I found it like reading a series of entertaining Sunday Supplement articles. So, ultimately a bit frustrating. But the human element was interesting, I love an anecdote, it was fun, I finished it, reading it in bed, and I did learn a lot about the history of some of the older typefaces you never really see written about.

    I’m a poet, so I really get your specialism thing, too, Patrick. I always champion the anthologies that people complain are ‘dumbing down poetry’. What those books are really doing is alerting the general reader that this stuff exists! I think this book is fun, a little shallow, but aimed squarely at the intelligent computer user who’s never really thought about typography before. You can’t ask more from it than what it is.

  10. Geoff says:

    Teresa, you go and get this book – you will thoroughly enjoy it. Sometimes books (and CDs) are given to the wrong reviewer!

  11. Josh says:

    This book, was actually the one that got me so interested in the world of typography. :-)

  12. Ciprian says:

    I just finished the book a few minutes ago and all I can say is that was a pleasure to read it. Although English it’s not my native language it was very easy to understand the stories behind some typographic curiosities. I totally recommend it!

  13. I recently discovered Shaping Text, by Jan Middendorp, and found it to be an amazing book to recommend to anyone at the beginning/intermediate levels. It’s very approachable, visually interesting, but also packed for information for those that know a little more. I’ll start recommending it highly to my students.

  14. I second that, Julio.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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