Just My Type

By Deane Barker on June 27, 2015

This is a book about fonts (or type or typefaces — I’ve learned there are subtle variations in the definitions of each, but I can’t remember what they are). The book is a series of anecdotes about fonts/types. Each chapter is short — you can read one in 3-4 minutes, but they’re all pretty entertaining.  Some things I learned:

  • Type fans are kind of a cult.  There’s an entire word of type designers and fans that you don’t even know exist. They freak out when a font changes somewhere, and they have massive arguments and flame wars on the internet about what font a particular company uses. The worst thing to hear in these situations is “Verdict: Not a Font,” which means the type was something designed specifically for the logo or service mark.
  • A font company is called a “foundry.”  There are some legendary foundries over the years, like  International Typeface Corporation (ITC), the initials of which appear before a lot of their fonts.
  • There is a character called an “interrobang,” which is a combination of a an exclamation point and question mark, meant for things like “You did what!?”  A guy came up with it in the 1960s, but it never really caught on.
  • There’s a huge war between Arial and Helvetica.  There’s even a funny College Humor video where their respective gangs meet for a rumble (the last 15 seconds is pretty funny).
  • Universal also kind of screwed over Helvetica, because it was free.  So people stopped buying Helvetica.
  • Microsoft has had a pretty significant influence on fonts, given the ubiquity of Microsoft products.  Microsoft commissioned Tahoma, Georgia, Verdana, and Calibri. Microsoft is also responsible for the victory of Arial, due to its default inclusion in Microsoft products. The same is true of Times New Roman, which was commissioned in 1931 for the Times newspaper, but has lived on because Microsoft has bundled it in with their products for years.
  • Gill Sans is named for Eric Gill, who designed it and was, incidentally, a sexual pervert.  He apparently regularly molested his daughters and experimented sexually with the family dog.
  • The Nazis outlawed Gothic script in 1941, believing it to be too associated with the Jews.
  • The testing word that type designers favor when they test their fonts is “handgloves,” because of the way the different letters interact and its unqiue kerning properties.
  • There is software just for designing fonts.  For example “Fontographer,” by Fontlab.
  • There is debate as to the origin of the word “font.”  Some think it derives from “fund,” as in a “fund of letters,” on which the printer would draw.  Others think it comes from the French word “fonte” which means “cast,” because the letters were originally cast in lead.
  • In 1977, a British newspaper created  a pretty funny April Fools Day hoax, using font terminology to create a fictional island which supposedly was marking 10 years of independence.
  • Gotham is a font well-known for being used on the iconic Obama 2008 campaign posters.
  • Johnston Sans is legendary for being used on signage in the London Underground for decades.
  • It’s not possible to copyright a font.  You’d have to copyright each individual letter and symbol, which is prohibitive. Thus, derivation in the font world is common, and some of the great type designers have died penniless after being unable to support themselves.

The entire book is full of these stories.  It’s well-written and frequently funny.  It does occasionally get into touchy-feely emotional talk about the design characteristics of fonts, which I didn’t quite get, but designers will no-doubt love it.  Absolutely worth the read, and so much better than the other book I read about fonts last year: Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works (here’s my Goodreads review of that book, which I really disliked).