When it comes to finding a single reference book for the whole realm of digital type, what I reach for first is the FontBook.
The tall yellow volume, more than two inches thick, is bound as a durable hardcover book. The materials are well chosen; it feels good to hold and to open. As you might expect from FontShop’s past performance and Erik Spiekermann’s obsessions, the FontBook is an example of attractive, comfortable, practical information design.
Like every type-specimen book, the FontBook is fascinating to browse through. The generous use of space and position to organize the information makes browsing fairly easy, and the system for displaying typeface names and alphabet samples makes it pretty quick to tell at a glance what you’re looking at. In a compact form, a large amount of information is given for each typeface, including historical information about the designer (and the original designer if the face is a revival) and useful cross-references to other versions or related typefaces. All the important variant versions of typefaces with the same name are shown separately, so you can see how each manufacturer has implemented, say, Times. Although not every typeface in the world is in the book, what you’re looking for is probably here.
There are compromises, of course; there have to be, in any specimen book that tries to be comprehensive. Ideally, we would wish for a full-page showing of each style of every typeface, in various sizes and arrangements. A single manufacturer with a small type library might be able to afford this, but for a general specimen book like this, which has to show the typefaces of dozens of type manufacturers, it would be prohibitive. So the quality of the compromise is what we judge the book by.
In only four short lines, the text samples give a surprisingly good sense of how the typeface works in body copy, but for each type family or package, only one weight or style is shown large. Where typefaces have an “alternate” version with only a few alternate characters, the identical text showings don’t always make it clear which characters are different.
You could argue with the choices of “related” typefaces in the cross-references, but they’re intelligently chosen. The information about designers and dates is the most thorough I’ve seen in a comprehensive specimen book, though it’s neither complete nor perfect.
One thing that doesn’t work right: the list of font manufacturers is hard to find. Every font in the book is identified by a number and an abbreviation that stands for the manufacturer’s name — but the one- or two-letter code isn’t always obvious. FontBook provides a list of the codes and the manufacturers’ names that they stand for, but it’s hidden in the front matter (sort of like the way area-code maps are hidden in the front matter of American telephone books). It ought to be right at the front of the book — probably on the inside front cover. (For the record, it’s on page 17.)
This edition of the FontBook, unlike earlier editions, is divided into sections based on the styles of different typefaces. Once you decide to lump type into categories, you’ve opened the door to arguments about what the categories should be, and how the typefaces should be allotted to them. Categorization makes it harder to look up an individual type, because you have to decide first which category you should look for it in. The categories do, however, make it easier to compare similar typefaces, since they’ll be found together. The FontBook editors’ choices of category are sensible, although not always intuitive: Sans, Serif, Slabserif, Script, Graphic/Display, Blackletter, PI & Symbols, and Non-Latin and Accented Fonts. Interestingly, the Blackletter category includes lots of pre-Gutenberg handwriting fonts that could hardly be called “blackletter” by any normal classification. The Slabserif category is quite useful, but you have to remember that it’s there; otherwise you may find yourself (as I did) looking for the serif style of FontShop’s own Thesis (“TheSerif”) in the Serif section and not finding it there.
The previous edition was an update volume, which showed only the typefaces that were new since the last complete FontBook; the two volumes had to be used in tandem, which was awkward. My hand sometimes strayed to other compendiums of type when I was looking for a type specimen. Now that we have a new, complete FontBook in one volume, I find myself reaching for the yellow book again.
For information about FontBook, contact FontShop San Francisco at 1 (888) 333-6687 (toll free) or 1 (415) 512-2093.