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Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton
Book Review

Thinking with Type

Reviewed by Ricardo Cordoba on September 24, 2004

With the advent of the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing software in the 1980s, tasks once performed by others, such as typesetting and the creation of mechanicals, fell upon the designer. But what of the typesetter’s knowledge and craft? The appearance of new technologies seems to produce a disconnect between old and new ways of doing things. Something valuable gets lost in the shuffle.

Written for “anyone who regularly and enthusiastically commits acts of visual communication”, as well as to accompany her own courses in typography at Maryland Institute College of Art, designer, author and curator Ellen Lupton’s new handbook, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, provides not only the how but also the why of basic typesetting practices for both print and screen, grounding this practical knowledge in a historical and theoretical context. Much care has gone into the creation of this third title in the Design Briefs series from Princeton Architectural Press, bringing the instruction of typography into the twenty-first century.

The book is organized into three main sections — Letter, Text and Grid —, each of which starts with a well-researched, thought-provoking essay. The article on Letter furnishes a brief overview of major trends in typeface design, from the fifteenth century to the present. The second essay articulates the evolution of text from linear page to non-linear screen. The third piece presents the different ways in which grids have been used to organize typographic matter.

Each essay is followed by an amply-illustrated how-to section and exercises. And like any good educator, Lupton doesn’t just tell you typographic dos and don’ts, she shows you, with examples that are smart and humorous. The different typographic choices available to today’s computer-enabled designer are displayed, along with reasons for picking one over the other.

An Appendix offers a crash course in editing and proofreading, as practiced today, and some excellent free advice to boot.

The book is beautifully designed and finely illustrated. Carefully chosen graphics of historic and contemporary works inform the text, and vice-versa. Every surface has been used to communicate some aspect of type, and Lupton’s wit is evident throughout. Even the title page, a tightly rendered sketch that echoes the cover layout, seems to imply that thinking, or designing, with type is best done on paper, before one sits at the computer. Color is used subtly, not only to differentiate page content and sections, but also to demarcate examples and reproductions. Relevant quotations are judiciously placed throughout the text — Lupton practices what she preaches, providing the reader with plenty of points of entry and exit on each page.

It’s hard to find something not to like about this volume. I suppose that some readers, wanting more, will find Thinking with Type too brief! It is meant to be a basic text. Nevertheless, the author covers a lot of ground in just 176 small (7 in. × 8.5 in.) pages. For those whose interest is piqued, there is an impressive bibliography at the end. Lupton has also created a companion website that includes much of the practical instruction from the book and adds a special section for educators. (The essays and examples of designers’ work are not on the website, but some additional didactic material not found in the book is included).

This is a rewarding and recommendable guide, all the more so because of Lupton’s gifts as an educator and critic. Her expositional style is sophisticated yet approachable, and her analyses refuse to take anything for granted. By taking apart even the oldest of typographic conventions, Lupton casts them in a new light, bridging the gap between type’s long-standing traditions and its newest, most up-to-date practices.

Ricardo Cordoba is a graphic designer based in Brooklyn, New York. His interests include book covers and typeface design. He is a frequent contributor to Typographica and Quipsologies.

7 Comments

  1. Ack, at a moment when I have a ton of things to do and with more magazines just come in the door (added to the stack of 12 or so still unread), along comes this great little website. Without having perused it fully, I’ll fire it off to my typography students as it stands as pure vindication of everything I’ve told them. (I love the “Crimes Against Typography” animation.)

  2. Ricardo says:

    Yeah, the animations and games are great!

  3. Nicole Ferentz says:

    The book is fantastic, as is the web site, which has actually been available for a year or more in partial form. It’s exciting that such a terrific book has finally been written that can serve as a lively introduction to type. We’re now seeing a number of new developments in this area (John Kane’s Type Primer, James Craig’s web site, Designing With Type), but Lupton’s is the broadest and most insightful. The syllabus and assignments she shares are well conceived as well.

    It was a great idea to pair the book with the web site, for every teacher who has spent hours developing their own audio visual materials to supplement text books.

  4. Ellen Lupton says:

    I was pleased to see the book reviewed here on the elegant pages of Typographica. Best wishes to everyone!

  5. It’s available in French too.

  6. Kenneth Smith says:

    I read this last spring and really enjoyed it. It has helped me better understand how to achieve a certain feel associated with the typography I use when designing sites. Now we just need better/more universal font embedding so I can use the fonts I really want to.

  7. [...] “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 [...]

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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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