Just My Type
2011 (originally published 2010) • 384 pages • Gotham
I was at Michael’s the other day with a friend, in search of black wrapping paper to cover the shoeboxes I have lying around my apartment. (They have to be black to go in my room, you see, so I can put stuff in them. I have a system. A very goth system.) I always end up gravitating towards the cheap tchotchkes, and I discovered a cute little journal emblazoned with the phrase (and title of a very catchy Selena Gomez song) “Kill them with kindness.” Well, it would have been cute, if the font had been a dreamy, Pinterest-worthy script and not terrifyingly sharp block letters.
It’s things like this that remind me of the importance and beauty of typography, and it’s kind of a coincidence that I was halfway through Just My Type and seeing serifs the way David Krumholtz’s character sees patterns in Numb3rs. (That’s, like, a hip reference, right? I am so disconnected from the television landscape and yet, I save absolutely no time.)
Simon Garfield’s Just My Type is not particularly a rigorous history of type, but a Whitman’s sampler of discussion about typography and fonts. There are chapters detailing exactly what goes into a font, both in the the general sense and the specific sense, and chapters that dig into the rich history of typography, as well as chapters that deal with its cutting edge. And, of course, there’s a chapter on the worst fonts to disgrace the Earth.
As a fan of the printed word, despite my handwriting (although it’s improving with the constant use of my day book), I quite enjoyed Just My Type. It’s cool to see the thought and history that’s gone into fonts I’ve used in the course of my life, as well as be surprised by the age of plenty of those fonts. (There was a real John Baskerville!) There’s more of a focus on design than I thought there would be, which I really enjoyed.
Two typographers particularly caught my imagination—Beatrice Warde and Erik Spiekermann. Beatrice Warde delivered a famous speech, “The Crystal Goblet,” to the British Typographers’ Guild in 1930 that uses the exact same metaphor—a clear window—to advocate for clarity in type as I do for my personal philosophy towards editing and communication. I was naturally biased. And Erik Spiekermann is a current typographer from Germany who writes beautifully and persuasively about type. I’ll just quote him directly about his attitude towards digitally drafting fonts:
It’s like making a song on a synthesizer. To make a drum machine sound good is really difficult—you might as well play real drums. We’re still analogue beings. Our brains and eyes are analogue.
Fantastic, and not just because I endlessly quote the “analogue has a warmer sound” joke from Mystery Science Theater 30000. Design philosophy like this can be applied to more than just type—I anticipate utilizing this in discussion of special effects for the next rest of my life.
However, like a lot of the breezy British popular histories I’ve read, Just My Type suffers from a certain kind of… callousness. It’s evident in Garfield using the term “Red Indian” to refer to a Native American character in a comedy sketch, making a joke about how a font recalls primitive Africa rather than AIDs Africa (what is wrong with you), and a surprisingly light-hearted approach to the early revelation that Eric Gill, the man who created Gill Sans, committed incest and bestiality. I kept muttering “We have got to change the name of that font” every time Gill Sans was brought up positively in the text. It’s not offputting enough to keep me from digging for the stuff I enjoy, but it does sour an otherwise enjoyable book.
I rented this book from the public library.