Rob Hardy on books


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A Beautiful Display of How Typefaces Work



Rob Hardy


It used to be that people who used machines for written communication were using typewriters, and the letters that came out on the page all looked the same. There was some variation when IBM introduced the "Selectric" typewriter in 1961, with a "golf ball" full of letters that struck the ribbon and printed on the page. You could change your golf ball from a "Courier" typeface, which looked just like typing, to a "Letter Gothic" face which was straighter and without serifs for decoration. With computers, we get a lot more choices; unless you leave everything to default, you get to select, for instance, what letters you want used when you are reading e-mail. This has made typefaces more interesting to a lot of people, the type of people who were happy to read Simon Garfield's fine book of typeface stories, Just My Type, a couple of years ago. If you liked that, and you want to dig a little deeper, and also want a good-looking book for your coffee table, I strongly recommend The Anatomy of Type: A Graphic Guide to 100 Typefaces (Harper Design) by Stephen Coles. It is enormous fun to look at the variation of the strange shapes of letters here, most of which are not exuberant show faces, but are working letters meant to be read. For any job, you want to get the right worker, and this book will help get a typeface that will do a particular job, but the book is also simply an enjoyable display of useful and attractive design. 




In an admiring forward, the typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann describes the author as having "a typographic memory." He can remember what typefaces he has seen in books and websites but also recalls the names and characteristics of thousands of typefaces. As befits a book about typefaces, the displays here are clear, with a happy use of color and a two-page spread for each typeface. In his introduction, Coles says the hundred typefaces have been chosen because of their versatility and practical use. (You won't find the often-derided Comic Sans here.) He begins with a glossary, which includes, of course, "font" and "typeface." The two terms are often confused and used interchangeably, but not by "typomaniacs" such as Coles. Typefaces are what are in this book, sets of characters with a unified design; fonts are the metal pieces that print them, or in this age, the digital files that show them on a screen. You see typefaces, and you use fonts.  




The glossary also introduces terms that have to do with parts of letters, and these are included in two pages displaying those parts and the way they are stretched or supplemented. "Just like the human body," writes Coles, "the Latin alphabet can take on a surprising range of shapes and proportions." And it is surprising that our bodily anatomy has lent its terms to those of type anatomy. Letters can have arms and legs, for instance (the k shows both); they have ears (the mark attached to the upper round part of the lowercase g); they have eyes (the enclosed part of the lowercase e); they have spines (the curved middle portion of the s). There are serifs added to ascenders and descenders, and brackets between the serifs and the main letters, and tails, and bowls, and spurs, and stems, and more. 




It is important to get these basic terms right, because they will have much to do with the taxonomy which Coles lays out in the display pages that are the main part of the book. He has classified the typefaces here by similar design, with categories like "Humanist Serif," "Geometric Sans," or "Script." He warns, however, that there is no universally approved classification system for typefaces any more than there is for music or literature. Some are going to insist, for instance, that the Boldoni face is Modern, not Rational, but the classifications Coles makes, based on appearance rather than historical periods, help in navigating between sections. 




Each of the hundred typefaces here gets a two-page spread, and the pages are laid out clearly and with uniformity for each typeface. There is the name of the type, a character set of all the letters in it, and attribution to the designer, foundry, country of origin, and release year. The main part of the display, however, is spread across the two pages, specimen words and letters in big print, with arrows and notes to show what it is about the typeface that gives it its character and how to tell it from others. There are comparisons to similar typefaces. There is a descriptive paragraph about the typeface, to tell its background and design.  




I found the most interesting part of these pages to be the suggestions for the use of a particular typeface. The wedges, asymmetric serifs, and notches of the "Contemporary Serif" typeface Doko, released in 2011, for instance, is "Good for: Making something fun, light hearted, or approachable." When the Luxury Diamond typeface was released in 2002, it had a price of $1,500 which was ridiculous, a spoof to make fun of exclusive brands, the sort that might use, well, Luxury Diamond. "Good for: Raising a product's perceived value. Filling horizontal space." Trajan, based on the letters of Trajan's column, is "Good for: Drama, of course. Majesty. Momentous events." But beware; it has been overused in movie posters and "has become the subject of internet parodies and design conference lectures."  




Learning the sources of the typefaces presents some surprises. Lexicon was introduced in 1992 specifically for dictionaries, and the pages here show how it has maximum legibility within minimum space. Melior was designed by Hermann Zapf, and released in 1952; its curves are based on the "superellipse," a shape midway between a rectangle and an ellipse. Interstate is a typographic adaptation of signs you see on the highway. The Grotesque family of letters look sensible now (and include the famous and ultra-orderly Helvetica), but when these typefaces came out in the early 1800s, people found them so odd they called them grotesque, and the nickname has stuck. 




Here is something this book did for me that I would not have done before looking at it. As I looked through the different display pages, I usually saw one sober face after another, and got to appreciate the richness and subtleties of their designs. But then toward the end is Farao, released in 1998, which made me laugh out loud. It incorporates some of the "uneven, untamed type of the 19th century," and has huge ball terminals, an off-center dot for the i, off center counters ( a counter is the "hole" in the circle of the b, called a bowl), and much other whimsy. "A wonderful, sparkling typeface full of humor and life." Indeed. 




The Anatomy of Type is a handsome object. It will serve as a reference guide for those who want to make good choices of typefaces for particular jobs, and it will appeal to the growing number of font geeks. Best of all, for those of us who take for granted the irregular blobs of ink or pixels that enable written communication, it instills an appreciation for artistry within a circumscribed but vital field. 




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