A selection of books about type

I’m no expert on typography, just a fan, so in the course of researching and writing Death of a Typographer I educated myself by reading many books about type. I spent months in the Redmond Barry Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria, sitting in the typography section, browsing through a great selection of works on the history and practice of typography. I also ended up buying quite a few books for my own collection. If you’re interested in delving further into fonts, glyphs, adnate serifs, swashes and ligatures; if you pine to know more about typographers from Aldus Manutius to Zapf, then here are a few books you will enjoy.

Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed Through Typography by Stephen Banham

Type is not just what appears in books: the term can embrace all kinds of letterforms. In this copiously illustrated book, accompanied by witty and informative text, Stephen Banham takes us on a tour of Melbourne’s public typography. He discusses the stories behind well-known icons such as the neon ‘Skipping Girl’ sign and Pellegrini’s cafe, as well as lesser known delights such as the historical logos of Melbourne’s fire services, old painted adverts, and parking and traffic signage. Whether in Melbourne or elsewhere, Characters is guaranteed to open your eyes to the typographical delights of the city.

Type: the Secret History of Letters by Simon Loxley

Simon Loxley tells the story of type, focussing on how it developed through the printed word. On the way we encounter some of the great names of type, beginning with Johann Gutenberg, credited with inventing moveable type in the west, along with critical figures such as William Caslon, Frederic Goudy, Jan Tschichold (creator of the New Typography, later a refugee from Nazism and the designer of Penguin Books) and Edward Johnston, who designed the font used on the London Underground. There are fascinating anecdotes along the way, including the story of why obsessive publisher Thomas Cobden-Sanderson threw all his type into the river Thames. To inform yourself on the history of type, this is the book.

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

Bringhurst is both a poet and a typographer, and this classic work is essential reading on the aesthetics of type. He explains the differences between font families such as Renaissance, Neoclassical, Baroque, and Modernist; provides sound principles for font choices (“Choose faces that suit the task as well as the subject”); and emphasises the value of tradition while not rejecting innovation. I particularly appreciated his lengthy glossary of terms, including such gems as ‘adnate serif’ and ‘lachrymal terminal’ (it looks like a teardrop). A work for type professionals and design students as well as general enthusiasts.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

This jokey, accessible book about type by the prolific Simon Garfield was a bestseller a few years ago. He goes into the stories of several well known fonts – including the much mocked Comic Sans, Gotham (which is said to have helped Obama win the presidency), Futura (the font sent into space) and Brush Script. Having grown up in the UK, I particularly enjoyed his chapter on how British motorway signage evolved as it did. Will make you think about the psychological and emotional effects of certain fonts.

Amsterdam in Letters by Maarten Helle

This book is simply marvellous – a collection of photographs of gorgeous public type that can be seen on buildings in Amsterdam. Focussing on letterforms as part of architecture, photographer Martin Helle shows us letters of every conceivable size, shape and material: carved in stone, cast in metal, shaped out of bricks and mosaics … There is little in the way of commentary, you are simply invited to let your eyes wander over these fabulous letterforms, which reveal Amsterdam to be one of the world’s most type-rich cities. This book was a source of inspiration for the Amsterdam chapter of Death of a Typographer.

Typographic Universe by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson

This book takes typography out of the printing office and into the world at large, where letterforms can be seen, found and made out of literally anything: clouds, fruit and vegetables, utensils, Doritos, bones, vapour trails, shadows, random sights in the urban environment … Once you have looked at these photographs, you will start to see letterfoms everywhere. Inspired by this book, I had my hero Floogstraten create a font based on an aerial view of the canals of Amsterdam.

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