Not My Type

Just My Type

This is the second time I have tried to write a review of Just My Type. It is a frustrating book—warm and friendly on the surface but obnoxious underneath. The first time, I methodically tore it to pieces in my blue-pencil style, pointing out its deficiencies in niggling detail. When I was done, I felt satisfied but also uncomfortable. Did Simon Garfield really deserve such a bashing? After all, the book is full of fascinating stories and odd trivia about type, and the author has a charming, breezy style that makes each bit of typographic arcana easy to swallow. Is it really that bad?

Yes, it is. But articulating what it is exactly that enrages me about JMT is difficult. This is a book that the uninitiated will find enthralling and entertaining. But those who actually know something about type design and typography—two related subjects that Garfield frequently mixes up—will find it maddening. The factual mistakes are grounds for complaint, but on their own they are not enough to get upset about. Instead, it’s Garfield’s style that is the problem.

Garfield flits about from one topic to the next like a nervous hummingbird, without settling long enough to give any a proper telling. Instead, he regales us with witticisms (“And then there are tattoos: nothing says Menace quite like a word written in Old English”), snotty put-downs (“And calligraphy is virtually gone, a craft Prince Charles is said to be keen on, hanging on grimly behind glass on the qualification certificates of quantity surveyors and chiropractors”), and imperious (if dubious) pronouncements (“Cooper Black looks best from afar”). Even when these are utter nonsense, they are still enjoyable—so much so that they blind us to the fact that the stories frequently come up short.

Some are simply inaccurate. Garfield analyzes the use of Cooper Black on the cover of Pet Sounds, the 1966 Beach Boys album, to explain one difference between legibility and readability: the impact of size. His point is correct, but his example is not. Although the title of Pet Sounds is set in Cooper Black, the song titles—his example of how Cooper Black is “unreadable” at small sizes—are not. They are set in Clarendon. Elsewhere there is an account of the type designer Cyrus Highsmith’s attempt to get through an entire day in New York City without seeing Helvetica. It’s one of the best stories in JMT. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Highsmith has never lived in New York City, and his day without Helvetica was strictly a thought experiment. “I think if someone did it totally for real,” he told me, “it would end up with them naked, being chased by the police.”

Other anecdotes omit a crucial detail. The battle between Transport and MOT Serif for the right to be the official typeface of Britain’s motorways is framed as a referendum on legibility, yet Garfield does not make it clear which of several factors was decisive in the outcome: serif vs. sans serif, all capitals vs. upper- and lowercase, different theories of letterspacing, or the presence of symbols and pictograms. Although he calls them “beautifully wrought,” he never tells us the details of David Kindersley’s theories on the optical spacing of letters. Garfield says of MOT Serif “that it didn’t look as if it would withstand the increasingly scientific rigors of the road research labs.” Yet it won the duel—and lost the war. MOT Serif was determined to be more legible, but Transport was chosen over it on aesthetic grounds. Rather than parse the ramifications of this decision, Garfield rushes off to discuss subsequent type designs by Margaret Calvert, one of the creators of Transport. He never bothers to describe MOT Serif and how much it deviated from the traditional letters that Kindersley carved on gravestones.

(In detailing Garfield’s missteps in his account of the competition, I almost made a similar mistake of missing the bigger picture: that the competition wasn’t between two typefaces but between two signage systems. It was MOT Serif set in all caps and letterspaced according to Kindersley’s optical theories versus Kinneir and Calvert’s Transport set in upper- and lowercase letters, letterspaced their way and laid out with differing arrows and pictograms. What probably won the competition for Transport was not its aesthetic superiority—even though I agree that MOT Serif is damn ugly—but the overall design that Kinneir and Calvert presented. This story was more about typography than about type design.)

In “Road Akzidenz”

In “Road Akzidenz,” the chapter about the competition between MOT Serif (above) and Transport (below), Garfield misleadingly calls Transport a “lower-case sans serif” in the caption. The role the differing layouts played in the testing is not noted. (Photograph from the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop.)

Still other set pieces seem to miss the point entirely. Take, for instance, the chapter entitled “Pirates and Clones,” which is devoted to a subject that has long stirred passions among type designers. But Garfield leaves out important information from several of his vignettes. For instance, in profiling Hermann Zapf, one of the most vocal critics of pirated typefaces, he never mentions the two designs (Palatino and Optima) at the heart of Zapf’s complaints. In a different vein, he tells us how Segoe UI “caused widespread disquiet in design circles” because of its “close relationship to Frutiger” but does not say what, if anything, happened as a result of this outrage. He shows us a (small) sample of Segoe UI, but without a comparable one of Frutiger, so we cannot easily form our own conclusions as to the relationship between the two fonts.

Nor does Garfield provide a framework for us to make such a judgment. He never gives a definition for a pirated or a cloned typeface. And he does not adequately describe the legal status of typefaces and how they fit into the worlds of copyright and moral rights. “The alphabet as a free-for-all is an appealing concept, not least for lawmakers who fear the restriction of free speech,” he says, before concluding the sentence with “(and the complex possibilities of distinguishing one lower-case ‘g’ from another).” Here in a nutshell is the problem with Garfield’s writing. The first part of the sentence makes an important point, but one which needs some explanation. Instead of giving us that explanation, we get a witty parenthetical comment about how hard it is to tell letters apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it was not the primary one behind the opposition in the United States Congress to granting copyright status to typefaces. The arguments both for and against are missing from Garfield’s chapter.

Third, Garfield fails to provide an adequate summary of the history of type piracy (which can be traced back to the 1470s), the various ways in which technological advances over the centuries have made such piracy easier and easier, and the attempts, often doomed, to protect typefaces from copying. Instead we get a flawed mention of electrotyping, scattered references to type foundries and type designers in the past who have been upset by others copying their typefaces, and snippets of two speeches Zapf gave in the 1970s on type piracy.

In the end, the point of the chapter—that typefaces deserve protection—is lost amidst a welter of individual stories told in a confusing and haphazard sequence. (I still don’t understand the point of Matthew Carter’s Elvin Jones/Buddy Rich story vis à vis pirated typefaces.) It is a point worth making. Those outside the insular world of type design—and that includes many in the design professions as well as everyday users of fonts—need to understand why typefaces should be protected and why, with a few exceptions, they have not been. Using stories of individual typefaces to tell this bigger story is fine, but these case studies need to be presented clearly, properly, and in the right sequence. A discussion of Segoe UI needs to explain how it differs from Myriad and TheSans, two other fonts that have been accused of being copies of Frutiger. And the discussion should be linked, more directly than Garfield has done, to the debate over Arial. And all of this needs a broader context that takes into account the formation of the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), the failed push for an international copyright law applied to typefaces, the United States Copyright Act of 1976, the debate over whether software is copyrightable, and the 1998 court case involving Adobe, Emigre and Southern Software. This may seem like a long, complex story, but in the right hands, it can be told clearly and succinctly. Certainly it can be told in the same amount of space that Garfield devotes to horror stories of abused typefaces and outraged designers. Garfield opted to entertain his readers. I wish he had chosen to inform them instead.

Garfield not only often misses the significance of his stories; he also fails to coherently gather the larger themes, including the relative popularity of particular typefaces, the appropriate uses of typefaces, legibility versus readability, the creative rights of type designers, typefaces and national identity, the role of type in society, and the tension between tradition and experimentation in type design and typography. For instance, the popularity/unpopularity issue shows up variously in “We Don’t Serve Your Type”, “Can a Font Make Me Popular?,” “Futura vs Verdana,” “What Is It About the Swiss?,” “Gotham Is Go,” and “The Worst Fonts in the World.” Legibility versus readability is present not only in the chapter of that name but in “Baskerville Is Dead (Long Live Baskerville),” “Road Akzidenz,” “Tunnel Visions,” “Frutiger,” “Can a Font Be German, or Jewish?,” and “Breaking the Rules”.

Garfield could have been more accurate in his facts, more cognizant of what really matters in a story, and more aware of the overarching themes that tie his stories together and still have produced a fun read. It would have been work, and he might have had to tone down his flamboyant writing, but it could have been done. Just My Type should have been a wonderful book. Instead it is a maddening disappointment.


41 thoughts on “Not My Type

  1. Dave Sawchuk

    Thanks for the review and all of the comments. I read Just My Type last winter, and it was my introduction to typography. As a newcomer, I would not have known about any factual errors in anecdotes or crediting of designers, but I was somewhat bothered by the layout and flow. In addition to the intra-sentence type specimens that Glenn Fleishman mentions, there seemed to be a lot of random transition between types, and I was rarely clear if the typeface that I was reading was the one he was talking about at any given moment. It was not until late in the book when he mentions that Sabon was what the bulk of it was set in. I did enjoy looking over the Periodic Table of Typefaces, but wish some better selections would have been made for the cover!!
    Still, I’m glad to have read it, and many months on, I mostly remember getting introduced to the beauty of letters, and having it help me clarify some of my favorites. Since then I’ve just been doing a lot poking around on typography websites to indulge my typeface fix, but at some point I’ll pick up one or more of the suggested books above.

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  5. Glenn Fleishman

    Just discovered this review via Erik Spiekermann (via Fritz Swanson) this morning, coincidentally after having finished Just My Type last night. I’m in fairly strong agreement. It’s fun writing, and he introduces a lot of history and practice to a lay reader without pain and with a lot of joy. That’s great. But as someone who in my earlier life spent many years as a typesetter and graphic designer, and who as a reporter has spoken to many type designers, typographers, and designers, I found a lot of history to be incorrect and analysis to be wrong.
    The book was also maddening in its terrible use of intra-sentence type specimens. That was simply ridiculous. If you wan to show type, setting its name in the middle of body copy is a gimmick. And it was used absolutely inconsistently.
    If the publisher (and author) had worked with a designer with any creativity (or allowed the designer to have input, perhaps), then specimens would have been used extensively throughout the book in a legible and contextual way.

  6. Paul Shaw

    Ric, I agree with you that the Kindersley sign leaves little room for the symbol. And perhaps it was the overall impression of the Kinneir-Calvert sign that made it the winner, even if the commission did not articulate it that way.

  7. Ric

    I think to some degree Kindersley may have suffered over the years from the perception that he was the traditionalist in relation to the modernists at Kinneir-Calvert. However what gets a bit overlooked with the Kinneir-Calvert signage is that the typography is playing a supporting role to the symbols in the way the lettering is positioned (such as the roundabout examples shown above) so that the roundabout exits graphic becomes the focal point, whereas in Kindersley’s approach the orderly positioning of the MOT Serif lettering is the primary element and the symbol gets squeezed into the remaining space.

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  10. Philip Nel

    Thanks to James Montalbano and Paul Shaw for the recommendations! And apologies for my tardy acknowledgment of your kind response. I don’t have a particular project (right now) that requires me to know typography, but — as a scholar of picture books & biographer of Crockett Johnson* — I’ve an interest in the subject.  Indeed, if I had time to get another BA (or MA), I’d enroll in graphic design….
    * As you may know, Johnson wrote the first (and, as far as I know, only) comic strip that for which the dialogue was always typeset. In his classic Barnaby (1942-1952, 1960-1962), he used Futura italic.

  11. Gunnar Swanson

    /* Style Definitions */
    {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
    mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
    font-family:”Times New Roman”;
    mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;

    I couldn’t force myself to finish the book (maybe when I’m less busy) but might have been able to ignore absurd proclamations–the Beatles logotype inspired by Goudy Oldstyle? Really?–and factual errors but the “clones” section leveled serious charges against people, often for no discernable reason. Charging people with ethical lapses without even investigating or thinking about what one is saying is repugnant.

  12. Paul Shaw

    Philip, if you want to learn about typography (the practice of type) I would recommend The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, A Type Primer by John Kane, the book by Erik Spiekermann, The Complete Manual of Typography by James Felici and books by Jost Hochuli and Willi Kunz. For the history of typefaces look for An Introduction to the History of Printing Types by Geoffrey Dowding (unfortunately out of print but available in libraries and used). Twentieth Century Type by Lewis Blackwell picks up where Dowding leaves off. Its information is a bit deficient in spots, but it has excellent images. If these books whet your appetite for type there are plenty more to recommend.

  13. Philip Nel

    Is there a book you’d recommend instead of Just My Type?  I love Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type, and found Helvetica (the film) fascinating.  But I’m neither a typographer nor a designer — merely someone who would be interested in learning more about typography.  I had been thinking about reading Just My Type.  Now… I’m not so certain.  Perhaps Erik Spiegermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep would be a better book to choose?  I’m open to suggestions.

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  16. Aimee Armour-Avant

    Thank you for this review. Critical reviews are essential, and politeness can get in the way of saying anything effective. I support the call to action that everyone, popular entertainment writers included, should draw conclusions not just make statements.

  17. Paul Shaw

    Zoe, don’t beat yourself up. The first chapter of Just My Type is engrossing as is much of the book. I was pleased when reading it to see that Garfield tracked down both the couple behind the anti-Comic Sans movement and Vincent Connare, the designer of Comic Sans, to get views from both sides. My disappointment came when he ended the chapter with a lame joke instead of any true insights into why this typeface is so reviled. 
    I personally think the anti-Comic Sans movement is a waste of time, a small joke that has gotten out of hand. I was glad to see that Connare find the whole thing a bit amusing.

  18. Zoe

    I was so distracted by this article that I can’t even remember how I can accross it. I’m a recent graduate(2010) in graphic design. I’ve always had an interest in typography (other than the fact it’s essential in design). Reading articles like this and after briefly reading through the comments, I feel like a bit of an fool (but I’m hoping to blame it on my lack of years in design). I like(d?) to call myself a type geek – and it’s easy to make people believe it when they know nothing: guess a couple fonts and rant about comic sans and you’re suddenly the all knowing guru of type. But then every now and then reality kicks in.I’ve read the first chapter of ‘Just My Type’ (or is it “Just My Type”?!?), and I found it very amusing, and indeed an easy way to know some more detail about type, fonts, etc, until now. I was easily sucked into what was being said and now feel like a bit of a ‘fake’ after reading this article..It’s like believing everything you hear on the news, but you know you shouldn’t. I never thought about it in much depth I guess, not taking it seriously enough perhaps? I’m not quite sure what my point is here other than I’m publicly saying I feel like a chump. But I’m going to blame it on having only graduated a year ago and being 26.
    Has any good come of this? Yes – I’m going to buy Erik Spiekermann’s ‘Stop Stealing Sheep’ (or is it “Stop Stealing Sheep”?!?) with this month’s paycheque. I actually know he is! And hopefully be a little wiser afterwards.Thanks for the read Paul. 

  19. steve

    For someone to write such a harsh review I would expect a little more respect for the typographic details we are sadly losing in the digital age—proper punctuation (“” ‘’).
    It drives me bonkers to see a foot mark used incorrectly in national AD campaigns, but to find them in a serious discussion forum about typography…

  20. Wayne Thompson

    I think Paul’s review is a little harsh. I’m a professional type designer and I learned a thing or two from Mr. Garfield’s book. Yes, the book did irritate me at times (and I was surprised when James Montalbano’s name was not mentioned in the Clearview discussion), but I reasoned that I was not a member of the target audience. My close friend, who is not a designer but merely an intelligent, avid reader who is interested in most things, enjoyed the book immensely. She was a member of Mr. Garfield’s target market. Factual inaccuracies (which can be corrected in future printings) aside, I tried to suppress my natural pedantry and read Mr. Garfield’s book for what it is: an entertaining read rather than an encyclopaedia.

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  23. Martin Rayala

    James Montalbano’s last comment gestures at the hidden motivation behind the negative reaction to Garfield’s book – “a book no professional would be interested in”. There is something galling to professionals when someone outside the profession deigns to try to interest the general public in their field. It is so infuriating that non-designers are using desktop computers to “design” their organizations newsletters and websites. If they want to design something they should take the time and effort to become a professional in the field – or at least hire a professional.
    I think designers need to be more open and accepting of these people “not getting it right”. I think it is a tremendous step that they are getting it at all. I think there may be some value in heads of Corporate 500 companies and staffers for presidential campaigns to think more about how design influences the outcomes of their work. 
    I work in the area of K-12 design education and, in education, we are used to textbooks that talk about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree, Newton getting hit on the head by an apple, Van Gogh cutting off his ear, and Intelligent Design being just as good a theory as evolution. The people teaching foreign languages who are not native speakers and may have only a college degree in the language.
    We are having a hard time getting design education included in the regular curriculum of the schools. Students don’t learn about typefaces, CMYK, kerning or prototyping. If and when we do get design included it will be taught by people who are teachers and not necessarily professional designers. Perhaps the negative reviews of Garfield’s book will discourage the regular public from thinking about design but I hope not. I hope to see more books like this, written for non-designers, and wouldn’t it be great if one became a best seller and wasn’t written just for professionals.

  24. James Montalbano

    What would happen if no one went to Garfield’s presentation at the TDC?
    An author, a book no professional would be interested in, and no audience.
    We can all have a drink at the hotel bar next door to the TDC instead.

  25. Paul Shaw

    It should be pointed out that James Montalbano is the designer of Clearview. Neither he nor Don Meeker, the designer who instigated the project and oversaw Montalbano’s work, is mentioned by Garfield in his discussion of the typeface. Yet, Garfield does mention the current Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. This is another instance of Garfield getting the story only partially right—and not even the right part.

  26. Steve heller

    Type as narrative should be more part of toe education. I was indeed taken by Garfield’s storytelling. But Paul makes a good point in his comment to me. Thanks for that further explication..

  27. Paul Shaw

    Steve, should it be read? That is a difficult question to answer unequivocally. Obviously, anyone who already knows much about type can read Just My Type and learn something while, presumably, sidestepping its potholes. But there is always a problem with a book like this. And that is that the breezy tone and correct facts make it easy, even for the knowledgeable, to not recognize the bits that are wrong. For instance, I would not have questioned the Day without Helvetica story if I hadn’t been curious about when Cyrus lived in New York. The story seemed entirely believable, though one I had someone missed. It wasn’t until I asked Cyrus about his time in New York that I learned the whole thing was a thought experiment. And once you lose trust in an author it is hard to gain it back. I began to question more and more of Garfield’s stories and facts. I took the Pet Sounds critique to be true at first. But when I pulled out my wife’s copy of the album to see if the Cooper Black song titles really were that unreadable, I discovered they weren’t in Cooper Black at all. Burned again. Later, Garfield merrily describes Frederic W. Goudy as a ladies man. That was a new one to me. It sent me scouring my books to see if I had somehow forgotten this tasty bit of information about the famed designer. I found nothing. Getting things wrong is more than a matter of gotcha. It is a matter of trust. And this is true not only in politics and marriage but in what we read. Sure, encourage people to read Just My Type. Just do it with a few grains of salt. 

  28. Steven Heller

    While I bow to Mr. Shaw’s intense passion and distinct expertise on all things type, and am reluctantly pursuaded by his air-tight critique of Garfield’s book. I nonetheless enjoyed the read and wrote a more positive review for the Financial Times here:
    The question whether we in the field should embrace a lay-persons book that “opted to entertain his readers” rather than “inform them instead” is the crux of Paul’s argument – and a good one. I’ve heard from non-designers who have enjoyed Garfield’s book in the same way they’ve enjoyed the film “Helvetica.” Should it have been more factual. YES. Should it be critiqued in this way. YES. Should it be read in any case. I think so. The annecdotal substance is, at least, a stepping stone in popularizing our lingua franca.

  29. Paul Shaw

    El Don, I am glad that Just My Type has helped open up the world of type to you. One of the points I tried to make with my review is my belief that a popular book on type—one for someone like you—needn’t be dull or seemingly bogged down in details. Such a book can be fun, or at least, easy and pleasant to read. Garfield’s book is as full of details as the proper book that you describe. Much of my complaint stems from a disagreement over which details belong in such a book and which ones are emphasized. I welcome a journalistic book on type, even one with some jokiness, if it presents the subject fairly and accurately. As someone new to type I suggest you read Stop Stealing Sheep by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger. It is a book about typography (how to use type) that is full of jokes yet is deadly serious and very useful. It is proof that it is possible to write about the geeky world of type in a manner accessible to the uninitiated.

  30. el don

    yes, i am the uninitiated, and/but obviously follow articles, commentary and other matters to do with type, fontography, and whatever other language the technically savvy need to use in order to be very precise about their discipline. 
    so while i agree with the detractors regarding the style and the lightness of the book, and that it is obvious it would not satisfy afficionados at all, the audience for the book has also obviously been well-targetted. these are people who are not in the business of design and typography perhaps, but are nevertheless visually aware.
    and, for someone like me it opened up a whole world of history and famous names i was previously unaware of. the light writing style comes from a journalistic background, and it helps. i mean, anyone wanting to read a ‘proper’ history of font and typography design issues would need another style of book, but others not wanting this amount of depth would soon get bogged down in just the detail the review mentions. so, i found it amusing despite myself, and gained an extra layer of appreciation for ‘font’ in much greater nuance than before. 

  31. Jana Stone

    Spot on review. I just finished Just My Type and I, too, grew increasing frustrated as I read more and more. Unfortunately, Garfield’s chatty, breezy writing style wasn’t sufficient to mask the lack of substance. Disappointing.

  32. Jacques Maches

    Thank you for the review. It manages to balance the marketing non-sense created around the book, which presents it as an informative/entertaining reading. All other reviews I read of this book were either uninformed, or way too polite, and here I appreciate the honesty.