Monday, April 01, 2013

A face for all occasions

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, typography, type faces, fonts

I have a few methods of locating new books of interest, but I missed this one when it came out a couple of years ago: Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield. Take a brief look at the book title. Why is slanty type called "Italic"? And why is the text typeface called "Roman" (though a growing number of publications use "Swiss" typefaces)? You'll find answers in Garfield's romp through the history of typeface design.

And what a romp it is! Helpfully, it starts in the middle and runs both ways through time. It would be a bit boring to just plod along the timeline from Gutenberg's Fraktur faces, what my parents called "Old German", through serifed faces based on Roman inscriptions of the Imperial period (particularly Trajan's Column, still the standard-bearer), to sans-serif faces that were more "modern" some 100 years ago. Instead, he starts by discussing what makes a typeface more or less likeable and useful.

The 22 main chapters are interspersed with 12 short chapters on individual typefaces, or groups of them (or, in one case, a very particular symbol). The first of these is the much-used but much-hated Gill Sans. Loved because it is legible, hated because Eric Gill offended nearly everybody, primarily by his Satyric tendencies.

To any who don't now, a "serif" typeface is one like Georgia, which I chose for this review. A serif is the little blip or hook such as the hangy-downs on the capital T or the feet of a capital A or small n. Fonts without these, such as Verdana, a very common Web font, are called "sans-serif", "sans" being French for "without". Also, Fraktur is a lot like Old English (look both up in Google Images; the differences appear minor until you really look), but with the extra letters needed for German typesetting. Both are also called Black Letter; they use a lot of ink on the page. Finally, a font was originally a specific style and size of a particular type face, such as "Georgia Regular 12 point" or "Headline Bold 48 point". These days, with TrueType and OpenType standards for re-sizable glyphs, a font file contains the glyph definitions for a specific style, and several files are needed to make full use of a particular typeface. Thus "Georgia" refers to a typeface, while "Georgia Bold" refers to its boldface variant. Many typefaces intended for text have four variants: Regular, Italic, Bold and Bold Italic. But many commercial fonts have 20 or 30 variants, including light, heavy, and hollow versions, plus condensed or extra-wide, even "fat".

Certain typefaces have become so widespread they seem part of the furniture. In England, for example, most road signs used a typeface named Transport, a sans-serif face using both upper and lower case. Its promoters established that a sign reading Watling 4 km is easier to comprehend at a glance than WATLING 4 KM. The Transport face is found on English language road signs around the world. This bears on a point Garfield makes repeatedly. Numerous typeface standard-bearers have stated that if you notice the typeface, it interferes with the message. Thus fancier or prettier faces are to be reserved for special uses.

Still, the number of very useful typefaces is large. This clip from Camdon Wilde's Periodic Table of Typefaces shows just a few of the 100 most popular types (at this point in time). If you're curious, #2 is Futura, also sans-serif, and #3 is Bodoni, a hugely popular serif font.

I have collected font files for my own use for many years. Though I am discriminating, still the collection numbers 1,840 files. For convenience I have them in 9 categories and 54 sub-categories. Text fonts make up a large part of the collection, with serif and sans-serif faces categorized along a wide-narrow continuum, from ultra-condensed to ultra-wide.

I also have a careful selection of decorative faces, including 200 specifically useful for initial capitals (drop caps), that I like to use to spruce up a text document.

Here is a glimpse at just a few of the 200:

Among those seen here, Goldstone and Genzsch are the most useful. The frilly ones are easier to comprehend in larger sizes. A 3-line drop cap in 12-point text is about 40 points, depending on the ledding (now spelled leading, but pronounced with a short "e", not the "ee" sound), which refers to the extra space between lines of type that improve readability.

Type design went through several stages of mechanical production, but computer design is now ubiquitous. Punch cutting is practiced only by a few gluttons for punishment. A multitude of typeface design programs makes the craft accessible to all, and the existence of more than 100,000 electronic typefaces testifies that it isn't that hard. Making a face that will last, though, that's hard. Someone I expect to make a lasting mark on typeface design is Ray Larabie, who has designed hundreds of typefaces. I have obtained several that I like very much. There are others designers who are equally prolific, something quite impossible in the days of punch cutting in metal.

The book just scratches the surface of the wonders of typefaces and their design. I seldom mention a book's bibliography, but I recommend it for those interested in the subject. There is also a fine list of useful web resources. And by all means, if you've a hankering for type design, there is plenty of freeware available. I am partial to FCP, which has a free version, but the "good" version is not too costly. Try your hand at type design. Of course your first effort will be junk, but you'll learn something. And you'll learn a lot from the book!

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