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Book of the Week: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Monday 5 December 2011, 11:59

Simon Garfield Simon Garfield

Ed's note: Just my Type is on Monday to Friday this week at 9.45am on Radio 4. You can catch up with any missed episodes on the website - PM

Hunky Dory

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.

Before, that I lay all responsibility for my type love at the feet of David Bowie and Marc Bolan.

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...

Simon Garfield composed his blog in Georgia, but it's displayed (Ed's note: "almost certainly") here in Arial

Some links you might like:


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    Comment number 1.

    Great BoTW - but disappointing to hear the adapter putting her own 'spin' on Simon Garfield's words relating to the 2010 election. It would have been better, more interesting and not politically different from the author's word had page 215 been quoted directly, albeit possibly abridged.

    The adapter had reduced other parts of this story, to clarify and reduce time elsewhere, and this could have been done on the UK election fonts. But no, her own words were added, particularly in changes on Simon's comments on the fonts on the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and this was and is not appropriate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    A disturbing number of people use Arial. This is probably because it is near the top of the list on Windows fonts lits and is supposed to be a substitute to Helvetica, or Swiss as was. More disturbing is the way it is pronouced. In my limited experience this is AIR-REAL as if it's function was to pick up radio broadcasts.

    I pronounce it AR-REAL. Naturally I assume I am right as their is no modifier between the A and R and to me that says ARRRR. But listening to Julian R-T read from your book he went for the Aerial pronounciaton. Being a modest sort of chap I must assume that I may be wrong (persih the thought).

    How do you pronounce it?


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