Book review: Just My Type

A book about fonts does sound a little dull on first impression, I’ll admit, writes Gordon MacDonald. Who really cares about the shape of letters? What next, a book about the cultural and historical significance of toenail clippers? I made the (understandable) mistake of beginning the research for this review by looking at it as a history of the art of typography and its social or political uses, and even went to the lengths of canvassing the opinion of several young graphic designers on the subject. ‘Not even entry level’ was my favourite response, from a particularly fashionable twenty-something with a hairdo I do not know the name of and a t-shirt I didn’t understand. It would seem that it is not required reading for those educated in typographical understanding. So what and who is this book for?

Just My Type, by Simon Garfield,  starts off with an anecdote about Steve Jobs and his ‘world changing’ idea of offering a choice of fonts on home computers, but soon gets more interesting. One quickly realises it is a volume of short stories. Sure, the fonts are the hero of the story in every case, but the plots in each chapter are driven by some of the staples of literature – sex, power and money. The section ‘Gotham is Go’ suggests that Barack Obama was propelled to power by the canny use of the Gotham font, which, according to Garfield, managed to look ‘both establishment and fresh’.

Another chapter, Gill Sans, wanders into the dark world of the designer Eric Gill, a man whose sexual experiments make Caligula look like a chap with a great deal of self-restraint in the bedroom. Then there is a section on the anger caused in design circles by the popularity of the font Comic Sans, which seems to so offend design cognoscenti that a whole movement against it, driven by angry typo-maniacs, is still active. Who knew that this whole world was going on around us?

Just My Type is a really good and worthwhile read. My only problem is that the world around me now has another shouting voice in it. Another agent for me, a naturally cynical man, to feel I am being manipulated by. Choosing a font on my laptop now seems like a loaded decision and a statement about how I want my writing to be.

I have conducted a pseudo-scientific experiment armed with my new typographical knowledge, which involves looking at the door numbers on my neighbours’ houses. It’s quite surprising what we project into the world with these small choices. Number 8 has gone for a rustic look, suggesting a longing for a country life. Number 15 has opted for bold sans-serif numerals in stainless steel, screaming ‘I AM MODERN’ into the street. I still have the shabby brass 4, set in Times, that was on the house when I moved in. I wonder what that says about me.

Just My Type, by Simon Garfield, is published by Profile Books, RRP £9.99.

Gordon MacDonald is a writer, curator, editor and publisher.

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