Author Simon Garfield, who has previously written about stamp collecting, the invention of the color mauve, professional wrestling, and how the AIDS epidemic changed England, is a generalist. In a way, he’s the perfect author to introduce the once obscure world of typeface design to a popular audience. Just My Type: A Book About Fonts offers a bright, snappy tour of the behind the scenes world of the letterforms that are all around us. His descriptive language is vivid and affectionate: the serifs on the typeface Albertus are “little inky swellings,” the tail of the Baskerville Q “almost underlines the u, cupping it with tenderness.” The major players in the world of type design from Guttenberg to Garamond, from Zuzana Licko to Jonathan Hoefler, are all here. Somewhere.
The problem is that this book is more a collection of anecdotes than a narrative or a polemic. It clearly exists not because Garfield has an agenda, but because “computers have rendered us all gods of type.” All of us now routinely select fonts from the pull-down menu on our computers. This book seems so well-attuned to the interest level of that casual type of consumer that it’s frustrating for a more design-savvy reader. If you’re already conversant with Giambattista Bodoni, Eric Gill, Matthew Carter, or Neville Brody, this is probably not the book for you.
Garfield has no ax to grind. He takes no position on serif versus sans serif, paper versus screen, licensed typefaces versus pirated versions. Rather, his aim is to please. He engineers a popular point of entry for pretty much every typographic concept. He leads off the book with the genesis story of Comic Sans, the cartoony typeface developed and distributed by Microsoft, a hugely popular font, despised by type snobs. He uses an anecdote about a woman who got fired from her job for sending a mass email in all caps to introduce the concept of upper and lower case letters and name-checks the fictional company Dunder Mifflin of The Office to introduce the notion of legibility vs. readability. A backstage interview with Paul McCartney opens up the topic of logotypes and brand marks; apparently Paul designed the Beatles mark that was emblazoned on Ringo’s bass drum.
The problem for anyone who’s actually thought about type before is that while Garfield goes wide, he never goes deep. And because he has no particular agenda, his chapters are not arranged in any particular order. A discussion of Monotype and Linotype machines developed in the 1890s comes after a section about the use of the typeface Gotham by the Obama campaign in the 2008 elections. Guttenberg’s Bible shows up just after a mention of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
Still, there’s enough material here that even a hardcore type-head will find something they don’t already know. I enjoyed the section on the development of the British highway sign system because the story was new to me. And many of Garfield’s “fontbreaks,” mini-chapters describing individual typefaces such as Gill Sans or Futura offer small pleasures. But this book never coherently explores the ways that type shapes our experience of the written language. And while the profound change currently well underway—the migration of the written word to the screen—is the very phenomenon that makes this book marketable, the impact of screen-culture on a still bookish discipline isn’t fully probed; like everything else in Just My Type, it’s mentioned in passing.