Reverting to type

ANNO D[OMINI] 1701 is the year this façade was built, now part of Bristol Galleries shopping mall
Peter Dawson The Field Guide to Typography:
typefaces in the urban landscape

Thames & Hudson 2013

Nowadays our familiarity with typefaces derives from the choices we have when writing electronic documents, such as Arial, Book Antiqua, Comic Sans, Courier New, Lucida Console, Palatino Linotype, Times New Roman, Verdana and so on. But did you know that there are well over 150,000 typefaces available, a number that grows with every day? And that many of these typefaces have been around in one form or another since at least the middle of the 15th century, when the printing press was introduced into Europe, and some a lot earlier? Appropriately, this book’s Foreword by Stephen Cole points to ornithology as an analogy, with typography enthusiasts as preoccupied as any birder with identification, classification, distinguishing features and documentation. Even more aptly this guide includes a photo of a pile of books on birdwatching, with an explanatory key to the various typefaces used on the individual spines.

Peter Dawson’s Field Guide is just a little different from those birding books. It lists and describes “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” and provides budding ‘font spotters’ with profiles of each of those typefaces. They’re grouped into five categories (Serif, Sans Serif, Display, Script and Symbols and Dingbats), with each typeface accorded a minimum double-page spread, text on one page, photos on the other. As with bird-spotting guides each also includes a ‘Not to be confused with’ feature. In amongst the entries are double-page comparisons between pairs of key typefaces as well as seven revealing profiles of typeface designers. Along with a visual guide to type anatomy (glyph width, x-height or bracket, for example) are an essential glossary and a typeface classification, plus the usual further reading lists, index and other paraphernalia.

This is such a rich treasury of designs, despite being limited to just 125 typefaces — less than 0.1% of available designs. The main division is between Serif (familiar to us from, say, Times New Roman) and Sans Serif (typically, Arial). Other Serif typefaces include PMN Caecilia (my Kindle has this), the elegant Perpetua (designed by Eric Gill in the 1920s), ITC American Typewriter (dating from the 1970s its chunky look, a bit like the earlier Courier, seems rather clunky now) and Galliard (very corporate, very impersonal to my eyes). Designs based on historic forms are not neglected either: classy Bodoni, Baskerville and the related Mrs Eaves with their 18th-century origins, and Shàngó Gothic plus the upper case Trajan, both modelled on classical inscriptions.

Unlike the case of Serif designs where much variety can be created by more obvious visual changes, distinguishing Sans Serif typefaces can require more skill: subtle changes are effected by stroke contrast, shapes of bowls, size of eyes or alignment of terminals. Having said which, distinctive forms have been created as a result of commercial commissions such as Channel 4’s bespoke typeface, Bath City’s custom signage design or Neutraface for architect Richard Neutra’s buildings; and innovative solutions have resulted in such idiosyncratic designs as Jeremy Tankard’s Fenland design and Chalet with its distinctive circular lower case forms.

Display typefaces differ from those designed for large bodies of text. Standouts for me are the ‘futuristic’ Amelia expressing the 60s zeitgeist; the Art Nouveau spirit of the historic Arnold Böcklin and the 1970s ITC Benquiat; the jazz age typeface of Broadway; the much maligned Headline 2012 designed for the London Olympics; and FF Trixie with its distressed typewriter look popularised by TV series The X-Files. Script typefaces include Bickley Script originally designed for Letraset transfers so that lower case glyphs could look joined up; Fette Fraktur and Old English based on Black letter Gothic scripts; Macmillan Headline created for advertising a British cancer charity; and Owned, looking like graffiti lettering with a variety of ligatures and character variants. Finally, the short Symbols and Dingbats category features for example Carta (with its map-specific glyphs) and pictograms designed in conjunction with the Latin American typeface Kakaw 2013.

I can only scratch the surface but Dawson’s fascnating text is full of interesting titbits and ‘Field Facts’. He is fair in pointing out criticisms of designs, such as Helvetica, but also indicates the virtues of the otherwise despised Comic Sans for dyslexia sufferers. Anybody who has eyes to see can’t help viewing the urban landscape in a different way, but I would only warn you: at 384 pages this hardback is not a field guide you can easily slip into your pocket. It’s a visually attractive book, however, and one you might hope would be given to you — as it was to me — as a present.

11 thoughts on “Reverting to type

  1. I used to have the standard typography guide (plus colours), the name of which I can’t even remember. I was in such a rush to leave my last job I left it behind.

    You or he, may have a typo, or rather, the wrong word. Macmillan is a British cancer charity, and as they have their own typeface, I suspect that is what is meant.


    1. Well, this is an area new to me so I’m pleased to have it. As it’s published by Thames & Hudson the emphasis seems to be on the artistic aspect, which may not be the focus of a standard guide. Shame you had to leave your copy behind, though!

      Yes, you’re right about the Macmillan reference! In my mind I may have muddled the nursing care I think they also provide with their primary function of cancer research. I’ll change that today.


      1. Shame! This is what Dawson says about Helvetica:

        Helvetica is possibly the most widely used (and certainly the most famous) typeface in the world, adored and loathed in equal measures by designers and typographers everywhere. The neutral appearance, distinctive clean lines and clear legibility make it an easy spot to even the most relaxed font-spotter…

        The urban photo examples he uses seem to be in Bold, rendering the messages a bit ‘in your face’. Personally, I dislike the square dot over the letter ‘i’.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear, another book/type of book I need to get! Yeah, this is an area that I know too little about, and graphic designers talking about the various features of fonts tend to lose me pretty quickly. Your photo somehow reminded me of reading about the incredible number and variety of typefaces used in the hand-crafted signs used on the New York subway when it first opened. Great post!


    1. Thanks, Rob! I couldn’t hand on heart say my attention didn’t drift occasionally (and there were large chunks I just skimmed over) but I have a better understanding of bracketed serifs and their ilk now! It’s also much more than a coffee table book, with inbuilt narratives to show how typefaces evolved over time. Worth a look, certainly!


      1. I have often glanced at Just My Type by Simon Garfield. It may be a gentler introduction. It;s a subject I reckon I could get away with knowing little more than the basics – enough so I don’t completely show myself up when I talk to my graphic designer friends.

        Liked by 1 person

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