My fourpennyworth (Arty)


Wednesday 7 June 2006

Type A Personality

Years ago I used to take an immense interest in type. I bought book after book on types and type designers, did a diploma in typography in the mid-90s, and whenever I had a bit of money would pick up hard-to-find digital fonts, finally getting an amazing bargain in the form of a Bitstream CD for a couple of hundred pounds: this supplied me with thousands of fonts (ie hundreds of typefaces), including many versions of useful old standards (Bembo, Plantin, Janson, Gill, Frutiger, plus half a dozen Garamonds) which if necessary I could amend (eg creating small capitals or non-lining numerals) with Fontographer. I even considered writing a ‘popular science’ book on type – along the lines of the bestselling Longitude and Cod – called Character.* Then I got a real publishing job and, of course, had to put all that interest to one side: it turned out that, if anything, too much knowledge was a dangerous thing. Now I’m freelance again, I can indulge this interest. And it does seem to be a good time to be interested.

The world of forums and blogs seems to have united type enthusiasts around the world in a much more direct way than it has designers or cinephiles, perhaps because of the constrained nature of the subject. I’ve been able to jump from link to link, admiring the work of immensely productive and shockingly accomplished designers like Jean-François Porchez ( and Jeremy Tankard (, reading round-ups of the year’s ‘Best Designs’ at Typographica ( – which, unlike almost every other list produced these days, do seem to reflect genuine quality rather than amnesia and faddishness – and, through the Typophile forums (, discovering the depth and breadth of enthusiasm for the subject. One practical instance of this has been the search for a decent digital Baskerville, which exists in a couple of rather peculiar established forms (one poorly digitised, with unpleasantly over-heavy capitals, from the classic Monotype hot metal version, plus the – to say the least – idiosyncratic ITC New Baskerville) and very large numbers of newer versions. At work we use Berthold Baskerville, whose advantages (eg smoothness) are also its disadvantages (eg impersonality). If I had gone along with ordinary designers, I probably would have plumped for Emigré’s Mrs Eaves, but the accolades from those who use it for display purposes are matched by those whose interests are more practical and text-based, who berate it for its odd letterspacing and occasionally not-very-Baskervillian letterforms and instead recommend John Baskerville (by the Storm Type Foundry). It would be nice to see a book set in this type – the specimen pdfs, though undoubtedly informative and elegantly designed, can’t really tell you the whole story – but this seems to be the one other digital Baskervilles have to beat.

Even now I’m putting together a ‘wish list’ of types I’d like to own – there’s one new text face called Maiola ( which, making use of the slightly divergent tradition of letter formation in Eastern Europe, seems particularly satisfying (and coincidentally was designed by an alumnus/a of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading, where I did my diploma), but there are plenty of others – though I wonder when I am ever going to get the money to buy them or the opportunity to use them. I have a couple of friends – amongst the smartest people I know, too – who don’t understand why you need to bother with anything except Times. (Oh, and Gill Sans of course.)

* Actually, since the genre has never gone away – and has more recently received a (somewhat tenuous) fillip through the success of ‘fact anthologies’ like Schott’s Almanac(k) and ‘Do it better!’ books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves – I might have another go. (It’ll have to take its place in a very long queue of ‘to-dos’, though.)

(Category: Arty)

4.23 pm

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