• Steven Heller

Can More Be Said About Type? Yes!

Paul McNeil is the author of a must-have new book, The Visual History of Type (Laurence King), a hefty 662-page tome that covers over 500 years of the material that is the lifeblood of graphic design—and indeed, visual communications itself. What distinguishes this volume from other typeface histories is the extraordinary inclusion of original printing and type specimen artifacts generously reproduced large and beautifully printed as though these objects are jumping off the page. This hugely ambitious volume is an essential tool for the educator and student of design and typography—and for the fan of type in all its styles and periods, from hot metal to digital. I queried McNeil, a senior lecturer in typography at the London College of Communication and partner in MuirMcNeil, about the process of creating this book.

What inspired you to take such a unique approach to design/type history? From the outset, I wanted to produce a definitive, comprehensive document that showed original artifacts as authentically as possible, in a format that allowed them to speak for themselves, rather than parceling them in extensive discourse. In that regard my task was as much curatorial as it was editorial. Initially, I planned to organize the book using traditional classifications such as old style, grotesque and so on, but I became increasingly aware of the faultiness, inconsistency and bias inherent in such schemes.

Instead, simply locating good examples of applied type on a timeline allowed the evolution of letterforms to reveal itself in a natural way. I was also very keen to avoid what might be called a conventionally rhetorical approach to the design. In many publications, the typography, image layout and overall structure draw attention to themselves as if to compensate for deficiencies in content or to highlight the intervention of the designer. The design of The Visual History of Type, by contrast, is deliberately plain. All 320+ typefaces are displayed on spreads that are arranged systematically throughout, supported by short summaries of the development, appearance and application of each design, and tables locating firmly it within its context.

Your entries follow the historical record with a few twists and turns. What are your criteria? I’ve been involved with type and typography throughout my career as a designer and, more recently, as a teacher, and I have studied them continuously at the same time, accumulating a large collection of books and specimens in the process. As a result I had a pretty clear idea of the typefaces I wanted to include from the outset, seven years ago, but I made many fantastic discoveries on the way, like Blackfriars Roman, from around 1890, or Curwen Sans from 1928. Many of the typefaces represented in the book are canonical, “classics” that have proven time and again to be effortlessly legible, versatile and unobtrusive, like Baskerville and Caslon, for example. But one of the objectives of The Visual History of Type was to present a picture of the contemporary milieu in every era since the 1450s, so we have also selected examples that only lasted a short while due to changes in fashion or technology, or that were purely experimental. It’s inevitable that many of these choices might be contentious but they have all been chosen with care for their relevance to this narrative instead of those that some might deem more worthy. A consistent theme running through the book is the mutual influences of technology and ideology, from the medieval through to the modern and to today, wherever we are now. The evolution of type seems to represent these cultural shifts remarkably well in visual form.

The most distinctive and alluring aspect of this book is the generous use of illustrative material. Are you, like me, simply a fetishist for seeing original artifacts in print? The way we’ve used images in The Visual History of Type is partly the result of the intention to avoid a rhetorical, over-designed and excessively discursive approach. In my view, a designed artifact is best understood in its clearest reproduction, as outlined above, and that’s what we’ve aimed for throughout, quite rigorously. At the same time, yes, I could be called a fetishist about my delight in fine reproductions of graphic objects. The recently published [facsimile of the Depero] “Bolted Book,” for example, is exceptional not only for its original material but for the diligence and skill taken in making such a close facsimile. Fetishist isn’t really the right word though. As David Hockney once said, the motivation is in the pleasure of looking, so I don’t feel that I, or anyone, should have a secret shame about being a lover of type or of design.

How and where did you find these artifacts? I spent over two years tracking the specimens down in libraries, archives and collections, and I own a fair number of them, particularly the more recent ones. I’ve also discovered that buying books on non-typographic topics, just for the type, can result in some amazing finds for next-to-nothing. Booksellers rarely pay any heed to details of typography and design, so it’s remarkable how much is available if you know where to look. For the contemporary section of the book, the project would not have been possible without the contribution of several type designers who were generous in providing materials and information. One particular resource was central to the book and vital to the periods between 1650 and 1950: London’s St. Bride Library, a place where I spent some of my happiest hours ever, pouring over their extraordinary collection of historical specimens with the expert guidance of the Librarian Bob Richardson. The St. Bride is an international resource of unsurpassed quality—long may it continue.

Where there items on your wish list that could not be located? Actually, no. Those items that were beyond my capabilities were tackled by Giovanni Forti, a picture researcher highly proficient in dealing with both the most irascible, demanding authors and the most intransigent libraries. Most of Giovanni’s contributions are in the early sections from 1450–1650, including his unexpected discovery of a 1508 Pliny using the Aldine Italic in the library at the London College of Communication, where I work. It seems somewhat Borgesian that an object I regard as a turning point of Western culture resides only a few yards from where I’m sitting.

How do you think your history is different from other comprehensive histories of type? What’s different about it is just that. It is comprehensive in its extent and its depth, following the tradition of seminal publications like the 1953 Encyclopaedia of Typefaces by Pincus, Jaspert, Turner, Berry and Johnson or An Atlas of Typeforms, produced in 1968 by Alan Bartram and James Sutton. These remain wonderful reference works but both are limited by the economies of their times. We wanted to extend, update and amplify their approaches for a contemporary readership.

There is always something called author’s remorse. What, if anything, would you have done differently? I would have written like Charles Dickens, but in one swift draft. More seriously, the use of images of original source material was probably the most time consuming and expensive way to approach this publication. That could not have been achieved without Laurence King’s massive investment in it, for which I remain hugely grateful. If I ever started another book about type, I would consider using line and vector work only—flexible, scalable and virtually free of charge—but it wouldn’t be as good.

Just out of curiosity, how much of what you collected and researched for the book was left on the cutting room floor? The book took over seven years to originate, so we couldn’t afford any excess. Only a few items—about 10—didn’t make the final edit, but most of those were cut from the spreadsheet before any time had been spent or expense expended.

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  2. The top 25 American type masters

  3. Twelve overlooked typefaces you should be using

  4. Inside Monotype and MIT’s research lab

  5. Tattoo artist as typographer?

  6. Debbie Millman pens a love letter to Louise Fili

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