Review: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Just My Type
Simon Garfield

Gotham (2010)
Released in paperback September 4, 2012
356 pages
Non-Fiction / Geekness

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Fonts surround us every day, on street signs and buildings, on movie posters and books, and on just about every product we buy. But where do fonts come from, and why do we need so many? Who is responsible for the staid practicality of Times New Roman, the cool anonymity of Arial, or the irritating levity of Comic Sans (and the movement to ban it)?

Typefaces are now 560 years old, but we barely knew their names until about twenty years ago when the pull-down font menus on our first computers made us all the gods of type. Beginning in the early days of Gutenberg and ending with the most adventurous digital fonts, Simon Garfield explores the rich history and subtle powers of type. He goes on to investigate a range of modern mysteries, including how Helvetica took over the world, what inspires the seeming ubiquitous use of Trajan on bad movie posters, and exactly why the all-type cover of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was so effective. It also examines why the "T" in the Beatles logo is longer than the other letters and how Gotham helped Barack Obama into the White House. A must-have book for the design conscious, Just My Type's cheeky irreverence will also charm everyone who loved Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Schott's Original Miscellany.

This book has changed my life. It took all of 25 pages for me to completely reset my brain to become consciously aware of the fonts that surround me. The ones I choose to use in my job, the ones I find in advertising, the ones that are abused in pop culture… they’re all jumping out to me when they were just a background visual sound to the words they created. This book is insane and fascinating and geektastic. Most people probably don’t really think about fonts or who creates them or how they’re developed – at least I didn’t until reading Just My Type – but Simon Garfield has put together a fun history of something that we interact with subconsciously nearly every moment.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, mostly because there are few topics that can hold my attention for 300+ pages, but Just My Type worked well in small doses and kept my interest to go back each day. My favorite chapters included the history of the ampersand, something I’d never really thought about before and didn’t really know the origin of before, and the story of a man who tried to go through a day without using anything involving Helvetica (probably the most used font in the US). Often I found myself having to reread passages to Fernando before this book is full of so many fun facts that I couldn’t just enjoy on me own. Yes, I am in fact a giant geek. Thanks for noticing.

Garfield has a very non-threatening, conversational style of writing, so it never feels like a boring lecture. The content will probably only appeal to a certain type of person, but if you’re interested in the subject matter, it’s an entertaining read in a format that breaks down the giant world of fonts into more manageable groups. As someone just starting graphic design, it’s a lot of fun reading about the psychological effects of different fonts and the short pieces about the history of individual fonts that separate chapters have provided me with a better mental armory to use in my day to day work.

I did get a bit confused on what typographical things happened concurrently. It felt like, for the most part, the book was going in a chronological direction, but I suppose so much happened in a small span of time that things got split between different font designs and implementation, so that concurrent moments in history were in separate chapters and it felt a little like it was jumping around. But unless you’re reading this for a timeline of typography, it doesn’t make a big difference to the narrative itself.

And just in case you don’t believe me about this book changing the way I experience my life – I spent half an hour at work today trying to determine the type of font in a marketing piece that was created before I started. Normally I would have been like, “Meh, this one looks close enough”, but not anymore. I had to know! And I found it and it was a small victory in an otherwise uneventful day, so thanks for that Simon Garfield.


I received a copy of this from Gotham Books in return for an honest review. Thanks Gotham Books!