Book of the Week: Just My Type by Simon Garfield
Bowie's Hunky Dory: "The swell of the type (Zipper, I now know) promises an expanding consciousness
even before the needle hits the groove..." - picture by Badgreeb Records
What makes a typomaniac?
That is to say, what makes a perfectly sensible middle-aged man go to the cinema and find himself unable to enjoy the movie just because he can't identify the name of the typeface in the opening credits?
And what would make him drive past a sign above a shop and be bugged for the entire morning if he couldn't determine whether it was written in Baskerville or Garamond? That would be a rather thankless obsession, would it not?
Welcome, gentle reader, to my world.
I'm grateful I'm not alone. There's a whole load of us out there, and not all of us are in graphic design or therapy. We convince ourselves that typefaces are beautiful things (they are, or at least most of them), and that they are capable of expressing all shades of human emotion. Typefaces - or fonts, as they are most commonly called on our pull-down menus - are like clothes for words, and we should choose them according to moods, trends and decorum. Many have fascinating histories, which is why I've written a book about them (and which ones to avoid at all costs).
Where did my own passion-cum-obsession begin?
Probably the same way Steve Jobs's did, with handwriting. When Jobs dropped out of college in the 70s, he began attending lectures from volition rather than obligation, and one of these was in calligraphy. He discovered the quiet elegance of a well-created alphabet, and although at the time he thought he'd never find a practical application for his new love, history surprised him: a decade later he designed the first Macintosh and gave the world its first choice of fonts. Before that, we were mostly reliant on Letraset and the golfball typewriter.
My early type interest was also calligraphic, although it yielded less of a universally beneficial outcome. My handwriting was pretty illegible (GPs used to struggle with it), so when the chance came not only of word processing but word processing with a choice of fonts - sober, comic, alluring, subtle - it made me instantly more productive and expressive.
In 1971, when I was eleven, the Hunky Dory and Electric Warrior albums entered my home, and I became entranced. One spent a lot of time staring at record sleeves in those days, and one couldn't help but become visually literate, or at least gently manipulated by the design team at the record companies. I liked the way the gold outline capitals (T.REX) mirrored the halo around Marc Bolan and his amp; I saw how the swell of the Bowie type (Zipper, I now know) promises an expanding consciousness even before the needle hits the groove.
Zipper was a classic bit of buzzy sci-fi text that suggested something spacey and robotic (the songs were actually spacey and vulnerable).
It soon became clear that type was strong stuff, able to confer a nuance and association well beyond the words themselves. With Bowie the fascination continued through his golden years, culminating for me on the Diamond Dogs album, on which the lightning flash that first appeared on his face on Aladdin Sane found an echo in the B of his surname on the Diamond Dogs sleeve a year later.
Those albums taught me a surreptitious lesson we would all do well to heed: type is not chosen at random, and it should be used with consideration. It is the cheapest, simplest and most powerful form of influential communication we have, and the font menus on our computers provide just a glimpse of what's possible. So next time you're tempted to use the default choice, perhaps think again and choose something with more individuality. Not that I'm advocating the perils of typomania to anyone...
Some links you might like: