Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: Simon Garfield's Fabulous 'Just My Type: A Book About Fonts'

No one can say that the O's roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple or of a girl's breast or of the full moon. Letters are things, not pictures of things.
Type faces dominate our lives, subtly or not so subtly attracting us to everything from underarm deodorants to fast food joints to record album covers, while type faces on signage get us to our destinations without getting lost. And in this age of personal computers and their myriad fonts, type faces dominate our lives as never before, enabling us to be our own graphic artists. How else to explain those kitschy party invitations we all get?

I should make it clear from the jump that I am a font wonk, one of those annoying people who obsesses over type faces, as well as have font fiend friends who named their dog Bodoni. I can trace this affliction/addiction to my early years in the newspaper business when I would stand in the composing room on one side of a turtle (a moveable steel table) while a compositor would assemble a newspaper page from mirror-image hot metal linotype type that would become a readable work of art as the page came off the presses.

I love some fonts -- Garamond, Tempus Sans ITC, Gill Sans (but not the somewhat similar and ubiquitous Arial) and Papyrus, used by James Cameron throughout Avatar -- while sneering at others -- Comic Sans and the crapoid WoodPress for The Moderate Voice headlines and body type to name but two. I'm a sucker for ampersands (a conflation of the Latin et, the more elaborate ones seemingly creature-like, and enjoyed a font feast nonpariel while staying at a friend's flat in New York's East Village last Christmas holiday and wandering the streets ogling store signs.

This brings me to Simon Garfield's just published Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, a quick, quirky, elucidating, pun drenched and often hilarious read that several reviewers have already noted will do for fonts what Lynne Truss's runaway 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves did for punctuation.

On its (type)face, Just My Type is a history of fonts from Gutenberg in the 15th century through to modern day, and Garfield's primer on the differences between serif and sans serif, ascenders and descenders, kerning, font sizes, legibility versus readability, and so on, is beautifully simple. As well as his explanations of the tricks of typography, one example being that if all letters of a given font were exactly the same height they wouldn't appear so. Because our brain demands evenness but our eyes play tricks on us, round and pointed letters would appear shorter.

"In type, the appearance of beauty and elegance depends on trickery and skill," Garfield notes, calling this "perhaps the most fruitful and longest-lasting collision of science and art."

But Just My Type is much more as Garfield explains why certain fonts can elicit gut-instinct or emotional reactions, which is what the Gotham typeface on Barack Obama campaign posters and bumper stickers did, hurtling the obscure font to sans serif stardom.

Tempus Sans ITC is a personal turn-on (okay, so I'm wired weird, because many professional typographers hate it). I selected Tempus Sans ITC it for the cover type of The Bottom of the Fox, my real-life murder mystery, because it was open and accessible yet stylish. I redesigned the signage at the rare book
and manuscript library where I toil using Bookman Old Style for its historicity and because it's easy on the peepers in the subdued light of our exhibition gallery.

Then there are font controversies such as when Ikea changed its logo from elegant and quirky Futura to modern and commonplace Verdana, eliciting howls of protest
from people who hadn't known that they cared about type faces but suddenly did. (I myself didn't give a fig.)

This brings us back to Comic Sans, which Garfield decimates by comparing it to the following joke:

A duck walks into a bar and says, "I'll have a beer please!" And the barman says, "Shall I put that on your bill?"

How funny is that? Garfield notes that it's quite funny and the sort of joke you can remember even if you're like me and unable to tell jokes anywhere near as well as Joe
Gandelman, who is to jokes what Mel Torme is to crooning.

Comic Sans is unforgettable because it looks as if it was written by an 11-year-old
with good penmanship: Smooth, rounded letters reminiscent of alphabet soup. It is also, as Garfield writes, "a type that has gone wrong. It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing . . . It was intended to be fun. And, oddly enough, it was never intended to be typeface at all."

What it was intended to be by typographer Vincent Connare was an accessible typeface for Microsoft Bob, a software package designed by a group headed by the future Mrs. Bill Gates with a cute dog barking out instructions that even the most feeble minded computer user could grasp.

Connare came up with Comic Sans too late for use with Bob, which used clunky Times Roman, but it later was added as a font for Windows 95. Comic Sans quickly went global, which is to say viral, and before long had appeared on the sides of ambulances, at porn sites, on the backs of Portuguese national basketball team jerseys, in advertisements for Adidas sportswear, and on too damned many restaurant menus.

"Suddenly, Times Roman didn't seem so bad any more," writes Garfield.

Accessible it was, so loathsomely accessible that it was the beginning of the end of my love affair with Microsoft that accelerated to supersonic speed with the introduction of Clippy, the paper clip with the bug eyes that insisted on barging into my
computing to ask stupid questions. Clippy eventually drove me into the arms of Steve Jobs over at Apple. Which is kind of appropriate because Jobs was the first to offer a computer with a wide choice of fonts in addition to modern type faces like Univers and Helvetica.

I told you that I take this stuff seriously.

Comic Sans walks into a bar and the bartender says, "We don't serve your type."

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