Book Review

Dangerous Curves

Reviewed by christopher hamamoto on May 19, 2008

Hermann Zapf introduces Doyald Young’s Dangerous Curves, not by discussing Young, but instead by singing praise to the pencil.

Zapf then goes on to describe the typical height at which he drew letters, the difference between drawing for a punchcutter and a scanner, and a desire to show his own hand in his typefaces. While it’s odd not to mention the author in the introduction to a retrospective of his work, Zapf’s comments encompass the sensibility of Young’s book. An ode to intense scrutiny, “Curves” demonstrates Young’s dedication to type, nuance, and the human hand in design.

“Curves” is a collection of logotypes and typefaces designed by Young. Each piece is presented from preliminary sketch to finished product, showcasing the process as much as the finished design. Young describes the context in which the design was developed, and the motivations that drive decisions to completion — ranging from a client’s desire for “something bolder still,” to thorough discussion of the limitations of a Bodoni. Young’s work, while almost purely typographic and rarely pictorial, is amazing in breadth. From casual scripts to serifless romans Young’s designs present the immense variation possible with logotypes and type design.

While not a workbook (although it claims to be on the dust jacket), “Curves” offers practical advice and suggestions on how to improve technique. Useful for young designers, Young references the typefaces he uses and reveals the faces’ historical usage and associations. Young discusses the characteristics of a typeface or logo in refreshingly tangible terms, offering criticisms mostly free from vague emotional terms that so often accompany descriptions of design.

“Curves” can feel self-serving at times, and the organization is less than ideal. Arranged alphabetically rather than by subject-matter, or date, the reader is left wishing for the context of time period and stylistic categorization for ease of comparison. The best way to approach reading “Curves”: expect to bask in its pages rather than follow a narrative arc.

This book excels when Young discusses the revision process. Offering insight into the shortcomings of an initial design and the decisions made before delivering a final design. Young’s straightforward writing guides the reader through the process. Also liberating is Young’s willingness to critique and alter established typefaces if the project demanded. In the age of digital typography designers often accept the characters provided for them as inmalliable. Possibly the result of never drawing a typeface or the percevied barrier a mouse creates between the hand and work on screen, it’s rare that designers take such care and liberty to modify type. A good lesson can be learned from Young regarding appropriateness and appropriation.

christopher hamamoto is a designer and educator based in Berkeley, CA. He holds an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts. He co-designed and developed Typographica.


  1. barbtastic says:

    Thanks for the review. Saw him speak a few months back and he was surprisingly sarcastic & funny!

  2. Eben Sorkin says:

    Thanks for this review. I have been really looking forward to this book – now even more so.

  3. haracas says:

    Great, Thanks! Been looking for a book that covers design techniques regarding fonts. I’m very interested in typography, but the design school i’m in (and to a greater extent, nation) doesn’t really support its own typeface market, so its hard to get any mentoring in this field of design.

    Are there any other books you might recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about designing type?

  4. I have Young’s Fonts and Logos, and it is one of the books I have learned most from about type and logo design, along with Tracy’s Letters of Credit and G. Briem’s web site. The price here is a bit painfully high, so I will keep hankering after it for a while.

  5. Peter Bain says:

    Young’s outstanding work builds on the standards set by his teacher, Mortimer Leach. Leach’s Lettering for Advertising and David Gates’ Lettering for Reproduction are still great resources for display typographic design and hand lettering even today.

  6. The book is terrific and inspirational. He makes me feel like such a slacker, relying so much as I do on the computer for my own lettering.

    I didn’t realize Mortimer Leach was his teacher. I got Leach’s book in the late Seventies for $2.47, which even then seemed like a steal.

  7. Peter Bain says:

    Mark, what strikes me about Young’s work, the letter designers who worked with Herb Lubalin, you, or anyone who’s had to finesse the ear of a “g” for a wordmark, is this bespoke aspect of modernism.

    One that persists from Rodchenko’s lettering, through the execution of Rand’s Westinghouse mark, to leading work done today. Drawing letters with a pencil happens to be a great teaching tool, and it’s a good reminder for students.

  8. I still do my best work when I start with a pencil, no matter how I end up finishing it. I have a Cintiq monitor/tablet, and my biggest disappointment with it is how unlike a pencil it feels, even when I use software that mimics the look of a pencil. I thought it would be perfect for lettering, but it hasn’t worked out that way. The emphasis in Young’s book on the persistent relevance of the pencil was reassuring.

  9. Jelmar says:

    That looks like a interesting book. Nicely designed too. I might just have to buy it. :)

  10. Slaw says:

    Fonts and Logos is awesome as well.
    If anyone can find it, there was a funny bit on the naming of “Dangerous Curves” in his interview by Debbie Millman.

  11. While we may all weep at the beauty of the pencil, I doubt it is any better at teaching students about lettering than a sponge or a stick.

    Until students “see” what a letter truly is, it doesn’t matter what tool they use or do not use. I think Doyald is a master, but sooner or later it all winds up as a digital outline, so the sooner the better. And Doyald is quite good at the ol’ bezier tools as well.

  12. Bill,

    I wouldn’t say that $100 for Dangerous Curves is painfully high. Just think how much money you will make drawing letters once you buy it!

  13. D says:

    100$ might seem like a lot but Doyald Young produces beautiful books. I have his Fonts and Logos book. I contacted him through his own website for it and he shipped it to me himself and signed it. One of the nicest people I have never meet — if that makes sense. I wouldn’t think twice about buying his work.

  14. Tracy says:

    Does anyone know what the font in the white-on-red graphic (reads “Looking”) above is? Obliged.

  15. Hi Tracy. That’s not a font. Those letters were made “by hand” (or in Illustrator). One basis of the book is the value of drawing letters from scratch.

    That said, you might enjoy Coquette.

  16. Lilian says:

    I’m a huge enthusiast of handmade elements in design, and advocate preserving that human element in a world where we rely so much on technology to ‘make it pretty’. Personally, I find process to be far more fascinating than the outcome at times. I don’t think I can wait till Christmas to get this :)

  17. David Croy says:

    Thanks for the review. You’re a better man than I: he’s just such a hero and his drawings so amazingly beautiful that I couldn’t do anything but gush over the amazingness.

  18. Ryan says:

    Doyald just came out with a new boxed set of all 3 — it’s really great.

  19. I had the privilege of taking two classes from Doyald Young, he is amazing. His skill is almost unrivaled by today’s designers. His ability to see/draw a curve is something most graphic and type designers will never be able to do. This book is for the designer willing to go above and beyond the standard laziness of just picking a font for a logotype to learning the skills needed to truly create something original.

  20. I recently bought the 3 books, and let me say that these are the most beautiful books you can dream of.

    If you are thinking about buying it.. don’t think any more, just give Doyald a call and by the books. You will learn a lot.

    Also, Doyald was kind enough to send me some tips for improving my Lobster font.

    I’m waiting for the release of his upcoming book: Learning Curves.

  21. Remy says:

    This book is absolutely amazing, and as I am his student, I was extremely fortunate enough to have it signed. His other two books, “Fonts & Logos” and “Logotypes & Letterforms” are amazing as well.

    Of course his books do not do him justice and I know this because I was his student at Art Center College of Design. Let me tell you, he is one of the best uses of my tuition at Art Center, and Art Center is extremely expensive. In addition to the incredible things you will learn in his class that you won’t be able to get elsewhere, he is as intimidating as he is gentle and charming.

    Do not even think twice about buying any of his books. I would suggest just going ahead and buying them.

    And yes, he is in the process of creating a book called “Intro to Scripture” I believe. I can’t wait for it to come out!

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