In Search of the perfect typography tome

Books on typography are often dreary tomes, but a new sourcebook goes some way towards conveying the excitement of fonts. Michael Johnson, however, is still on the look-out for the definitive publication

Once, anyone interested in graphic design either had to trust one of the few journals that existed – if they could find them – or rely on a handful of dry and off-putting tomes. But since the Brody and Carson books sold copies by the container-load, publishers have wised up and supplied a torrent of books on graphics. Despite this, one aspect of graphics that has struggled to find its defining text is typography. Anyone with a burgeoning interest in this area had to piece together their own history from old type sample books, ferret in libraries, or study in almost too much detail those type annuals that geekily ask their entrants to specify which fonts were used in which layout, what point size, and so on.

There have been a few attempts at supplying the definitive typographic touchstone. Recently remixed, there’s 20th Century Type by Lewis Blackwell, About Face by David Jury, and probably the most useful of the lot, Type and Typography by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam. By and large these are practical works with the obligatory smattering of history, practice and theoretically inspirational examples.

It’s fair to say, however, that no one has yet resolved the conundrum that, while great typography remains the basis of virtually all great graphic design, when recorded in print things can seem, well, pretty dull. Maybe because the desire to ‘crack’ the student primer market is so high, most feel the need to pad out their offerings with hundreds of pages of font specimens, when paradoxically, staring at a spectacle ‘g’ or suchlike is the last thing that’s going to excite a student designer.

Presumably this is what Font: The Sourcebook is trying to tackle – how to make type interesting and relevant while retaining a good practical angle. In some respects the book succeeds – in the first half the obligatory historical surveys (you know – papyrus, Trajan’s Column, illuminated books, Art Deco, yada yada) have been interspersed with short chapters dedicated to more modern themes. There’s a visual essay from Ed Fella, some theory from Teal Triggs, and notes on type families from Peter Bilak. Some of these ‘interjections’ are terribly short – there are only a handful of pages allocated to typographic interviews with Pentagram’s Domenic Lippa and Experimental Jetset, which reveal very little and contain those rather dull form questions such as ‘How many different fonts should you use on a page?’. You’re left wondering why there are only two of these. Did they plan more? Did they e-mail several designers and only two replied?

But the chapters on David Pearson’s wonderful Penguin Great Ideas series and the typographic artist Sam Winston are great and genuinely insightful, and almost alone worth the cover price.

Two hundred pages in and we reach the ‘conclusion’, which, fairly obviously, points that ‘there’s a lot of type about nowadays’ (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly). Then, oddly, we have both the 1964 and 2000 First Things First manifestos, presumably to act as a subtle plea to any of the students still reading to go into design, not advertising.

Then we have the obligatory 100 pages of type specimens, restricted in the authors’ words to ’50 of the most innovative and interesting typefaces in use today’ – not such a bad idea, but laid out so poorly and as alphabets only, with no visual examples, that you wonder if they dared show any of these layouts to any of the typographers who contributed to the first half. And while I have a degree of affection for both Rosewood and Souvenir, two of the included fonts, I struggle to imagine that most type-heads would have them in their top 200, let alone 50.

As a book proposal, it probably seemed attractive. And certain aspects of the book, where the contributors have worked hard on their pieces or revealed something genuinely interesting, work well. But have I just read the definitive, must-have category-cracker? The Art of Looking Sideways for typography? Er, no, I haven’t. Sorry. •

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks and author of Problem Solved: A Primer in Design and Communication, published by Phaidon Press. Font: The Sourcebook is published this month by Black Dog, priced £24.95

Latest articles

Upcoming design books to look out for

Spotlighting marginalised women designers, “heads on” design solutions to environmental issues and more – these are the anticipated design books we think you should read.