This book wants to be just your type, whether you know little about the history of typefaces and want an entertaining introduction, or whether you're deeply involved in graphic design and want an opinionated, occasionally snarky, insider's view of the contemporary typography scene. But in his attempt to avoid the sleep-inducing qualities of many of the classic studies of this field, the author of "Just My Type: A Book About Fonts" seems to have written a book for the ADD generation.
Simon Garfield is certainly wired into the contemporary type community, and when he writes about corporate identity campaigns and attention-getting street signs, he speaks with authority. But because he doesn't seem as interested in the quiet subtleties of book design, or the history of type design, he often abruptly transitions back to his real love: 20th-century sans serif fonts like Gill Sans, Futura, Universe and the ubiquitous Helvetica. Without a clearly established chronological timeline, typography newcomers and obsessed typophiles alike will become quickly confused when the book jumps back and forth willy-nilly through the past five centuries of metal and electronic type.
Actually, at times, the historical information almost sounds like a set-up for a wisecrack. And now and then Garfield misses key information. In his chapter on Comic Sans, a minor typeface from the 1970s that became a fad for a while, the author briefly segues into the 1930s story about Stanley Morison sending a letter to the London Times, scolding them for their atrocious typography. The Times agreed with Morison, and commissioned him to design a new typeface for them. That is almost the story of the origin of Times New Roman, one of the most widely used typefaces in the world today.
Except we aren't told that Morison, a brilliant typography historian, designed type the way a kibitzer plays chess. Morison stood over the shoulder of Victor Lardent -- who actually drew the letters -- and told him what he wanted. It wasn't the first time the person who actually did the work failed to get the credit -- nor the only historical detail that was missed in this book.
Garfield does know contemporary commercial typography inside out. When chatting about the font used on Rolling Stone's iconic masthead, Amy Winehouse CD covers, or subway signage in London, Paris, and New York, he is charming and informative. Even when he gets admittedly silly writing about a typeface that looks like a paper jam in a fax machine, he's definitely on his game from the 1970s on. Had he stuck to that period, and aimed at a narrower audience of graphic designers, he might have hit that target. Instead, he mixed his authoritative pieces on the latest trends in the world of type geeks with an attempt to write a clever historical review, hoping to reach a broad general audience -- and wound up missing the entire barn.
Allan Kornblum is founder and senior editor of Coffee House Press in Minneapolis.