A Review of The Field Guide to Typography

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I have been conducting lettering tours since the mid-1990s, first of Rome and Florence for Legacy of Letters, and since 2005 of New York and other American cities for the Type Directors Club, TypeCon and various schools and organizations. In conjunction with these walks, I have collected many books about signs, graffiti and lettering in the urban environment. The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Environment is the latest addition to my stash—but not an altogether happy one.

The Field Guide to Typography by Peter Dawson

The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape Peter Dawson London: Thames & Hudson, 2013

The Field Guide book starts out with a lot of promise. The foreword by Stephen Coles, my former partner in the Stereotype column for Print, appropriately likens type geeks to birders and typeface identification to the identification of birds. But The Field Guide loses steam soon thereafter. In his introduction, Peter Dawson says that he hopes to “help the ‘spotter’ identify the familiar—and not so familiar—typefaces that we see around us in our day-to-day lives. The book will also explain the thinking behind their design, the stories of their development, and the impact they have had on people, organizations, communities and even countries.” This sounds like just another catchall book on type.


Sure enough, in the opening section on “How to Use This Book,” Dawson spills the beans. The Field Guide to Typography, “lightly based on traditional field guides” is “a collection of over 125 typefaces—classic and contemporary, common and unusual—found in our modern urban environment and on the day-to-day objects we come into contact with.” The book is a bit of bait-and-switch. It is a look at typefaces in use; mainly in the urban environment, but also in posters, book jackets, album covers, sports tickets, Kindles, the Declaration of Independence and type specimens!

Example of Rockwell spotted.

Example of Rockwell spotted.

Example of Trajan spotted.

Alleged example of Trajan spotted. This inscription is not an instance of Adobe Trajan nor is it from Ancient Rome. It is from the base of one of the statues that line the Via dei Fori Imperiali built 1924–1932 by the Fascist regime.

Example of Granjon spotted.

Example of Granjon spotted.

Dawson’s light apparatus of a field guide consists of the following information: typeface name, designer, manufacturer and year of release; category, classification and country of origin; distinguishing marks, further sightings and a “not to be confused with” warning. “Category” refers to five broad groups—Serif, Sans Serif, Display, Script and Symbols & Dingbats—Dawson uses to sort his typefaces, while “Classification” refers to subgroups (e.g. Inscribed within Serif and Handwriting within Script). He does not follow any of the familiar classification schemes such as Vox/ATypI, DIN or Dixon/Baines, but mixes terms from several of them (e.g. Transitional and Didone) while making up a few others (e.g. Amorphous). He adopts Didone (though as part of a redundant Modern/Didone classification) from Vox/ATypI but not Garalde, its companion neologism. He comes up with the simultaneously complicated and specific Ornamented/Novelty (Art Nouveau as a classification within the Display group while ignoring Art Deco. It is a bit of a mishmash. Type classification is a contentious subject and no single existing scheme is perfect, but there are several that are better than the one Dawson has cobbled together. Any project of identification is only as good as its classification structure. Dawson’s is like a fine mesh sieve with holes in it.

Sample page showing the field guide apparatus.

Sample page showing the field guide apparatus.

The country of origin label for each typeface serves no purpose. Worse, it sometimes makes no sense. For instance, Albertus is listed as being German. Berthold Wolpe, its designer, was born in Germany and the inspiration for the typeface came from bronze inscriptional work he did while there, but it was designed after he emigrated to England and issued by Monotype Corporation, an English company. The country of origin for Avenir by Adrian Frutiger, who is Swiss, is listed as Germany because it was made for Linotype AG. On the other hand, Granjon, a typeface based—despite its name—on the work of the French punchcutter Claude Garamont and designed by the British typographer George W. Jones for English Linotype is considered to be American.

More important than country of origin as a feature of each typeface are its “distinguishing marks”. Here Dawson is fairly good, except that he lumps together descriptions of specific distinctive letters with overall features. Unfortunately, examples of these individual letters are not provided in the sidebar and they often fail to appear in the accompanying photographs (e.g. FF Fago’s g; Foundry Sterling’s b and g; or Goudy Oldstyle’s E and L). In fact, one serious defect of The Field Guide is the absence of basic character sets for the typefaces. Without those—or at least a showing of key letters—there is no way for a reader to identify some of these typefaces “in the wild”. For instance, the photograph for Rockwell only shows capital letters and Dawson does not describe any lowercase letters. How can Rockwell be distinguished from other geometric slab serifs like Stymie or Memphis (neither included in the book) on a shop fascia?

Dawson’s “not to be confused with” entry is an excellent and indispensable element of the book, but it is imperfectly applied. The text for one typeface simply refers the user to other relevant typefaces in the book, without providing any visual comparison.

Scattered throughout The Field Guide are several detailed comparisons of two typefaces—but never more than that, even though Dawson warns the reader that as many as four can be mistaken for each other. These are sometimes very helpful (e.g. Helvetica vs. Arial) and sometimes minimally so (e.g. Baskerville vs. Times Roman). The problem is that the book needs many more of these detailed comparisons, especia
lly between truly similar typefaces (such as Gill Sans and Bliss or Frutiger and Myriad, rather than Frutiger and Bliss). These comparisons are frustratingly hard to find since they are not listed in the table of contents.

Part of comparison of Bliss and Frutiger.

Part of comparison of Bliss and Frutiger.

Dawson’s final “spotter’s” element is a list of “further sightings,” a reference to instances of the typeface under consideration in use beyond what is shown. The lists are problematic. For one thing, items are likely to change since they tend to be commercial and thus subject to the whims of fashion (e.g. Minion used by the Red Lobster restaurant chain or Avenir used by Costco). The Field Guide may be out of date within a few years. Then again, many of the items that Dawson includes are already out of date: The Yellow Submarine as an example of “Kabel”—he does not adequately distinguish between Kabel and ITC Kabel—or M*A*S*H (the television series) as an instance of Stencil. Some items are obscure (The Killers album sleeves for ITC Bauhaus or Dorset Cereals for ITC American Typewriter) and a few are wrong (Yale University for Galliard). Despite warning readers not to confuse Helvetica with Akzidenz Grotesk, Arial or Univers, he says that it is “easily spotted in most environments”. Worst of all, for a surprising number of typefaces Dawson punts and says things such as “Ideal for use where a classical, European sensitivity is required” (Cochin) or “Commonly seen in publishing and editorial design globally but also widely used in logos” (“Garamond”). (Dawson notes that there are many “Garamonds” available, but fails to list the most salient ones, let alone provide any discussion of their differences. This is a major abdication of responsibility in any book purporting, even if lightly, to help readers spot typefaces.)

The trappings of The Field Guide to Typography seem to be a gimmick. Dawson spends more time on the background of a typeface than on its salient features. His texts tend to be redundant as well as full of the same blandly generic descriptions and claims that pepper most typeface promotions. Thus, Foundry Sterling is “a functional and eloquent typeface family”; Archer “was commissioned to meet the extensive demands of modern editorial and publishing requirements”; and Aachen was designed “to be employed in large sizes on display and headline work”. When Dawson does provide a nugget of truly useful information, such as that FF Fago was designed in three different widths intended to be mixable, there is no visual supporting evidence.

Like most typography books Dawson’s anatomy charts use only a single typeface (in this case Bembo) to explain terminology which makes it impossible to include many essential features of typefaces such as fraktur’s forked ascenders or italic swashes. But even his limited showing is limited. He uses “k” rather than “R” for leg; and ignores terms such as vertex and hairline; and has no showing of the basic variety of serifs and terminals. Dawson’s glossary entries are sometimes laughable: “English round hand: Calligraphic, connecting script. Often elaborate and having a degree of refinement over other Script typefaces.” And some are flat-out wrong: “Grotesque: From the German grotesk…;” “Litho(graphic) printing: Printing onto paper from etched metal plates.” Among the missing terms are: baseline, bracket, counter, dipthong, gothic, hairline, lobe terminal, medieval, swash, texture and tuscan.

Dawson’s selection of 125 typefaces is idiosyncratic. Although he says that they are all “commonly used and seen today” he also admits that many are uncommon, chosen to “reflect the diversity of our rich typographic world.” He assumes they will become more widespread as decades pass. Thus, The Field Guide has such unexpected faces as Bath City, Fenland, A2 Beckett, Bottleneck, Foundry Flek/Plek, Kakaw, Mahou, Bruno and Owned. Dawson is especially biased toward British typefaces with many from Jeremy Tankard, The Foundry, Fontsmith and A2-Type. In contrast, there are no fonts from OurType, Dutch Type Library, The Enschedé Font Foundry, Underware, Optimo, Storm Type Foundry, Feliciano Type Foundry or Sudtipos. Among the typefaces missing from The Field Guide, but commonly seen in the American urban environment, are Arrus, Centaur, Copperplate Gothic, Electra, Hobo, Lithos, Lydian, Metro, Mistral, News Gothic, Palatino, Papyrus, Poetica, Scala, Souvenir, Spring, Tekton, Template Gothic, Thesans and Zapfino.

Ultimately, The Field Guide to Typography is a muddle. It is emphatically not a guide to typefaces in the urban environment, despite the plethora of photographs of signs. Nor is it a very good guide to the general identification of typefaces. (For that, look to a book such as The Anatomy of Type by Stephen Coles.) This is a shame since the idea of a field guide as an aid to identifying letterforms—not just typefaces—that populate our urban landscapes is an excellent one, especially now that more and more people have become attuned to their typographic surroundings. Such a book, done right, would have been invaluable.

Additional Resource

  1. The Ultimate Typography Collection combine books and online learning courses to help you along your type journey.

  2. Looking for books on type? Check out these titles, ranging from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louis Fili, to Mastering Type by Denise Bosler.