This well-intentioned effort to define just what is a classic typeface ends up a disappointment. Although it makes a few good contributions, it fails to answer its thesis question as well as it might, and, regrettably, passes on information that is just plain wrong.
The book begins with statements from prominent type designers, and others, giving definitions of what makes a classic typeface. In addition to the usual “stands the test of time” criterion, the interesting notion of letters as fixed forms successfully transcending their original context is explored–in other words, letterforms, though fixed in shape, are so well “put together” as holistic units that they can be used adaptively, in a changing context.
The introduction, contributed by the editors, is a generally good, quick, review of printing from moveable type in Europe, covering technological changes, the role of marketing, phototype and the early days of digital type. Included are rare explanations of the effects of mechanically enlarging and reducing letterforms, of optical compensation in the sizes of types (both metal and digital), and of ink squeeze.
These fine contributions are marred by several errors in dates and spellings of names, as well as some misleading statements. For instance, in a discussion of hot metal machine composition’s limitations, the reader is left with the idea that kerning was not possible with Monotype cast type, when in fact it was, from 1911 until the end of the technology. The description of punchcutting is poor, and the accompanying illustrations unhelpful. One wishes that Dan Carr (Golgonooza Letter Foundry), Stan Nelson (Smithsonian Institution), or Matthew Carter, the type designer, had been engaged to provide this information with more clarity, as they are among the few knowing how to do it.
The book is comprised of twenty chapters (written by 18 different authors) discussing particular types (Bembo, Centaur, Franklin Gothic, Cheltenham, Garamond, among others), or groups of type forms, such as “Geometric Sans Serifs” and “Ancient Inscriptions.” The majority of these types are considered to be book (text) faces, though almost all the contemporary examples of the typefaces in use are of advertising, poster or promotional materials. More examples of book work would have been welcome.
The chapters are presented in alphabetical order by typeface name, rather than grouped by historical or stylistic criteria. Perhaps the editors wished to avoid the arguments that type classification systems seem to inspire, but such a system would have provided a historical context and a sense of stylistic transition and flow, as well as a common vocabulary with which to discuss letter features. As a result, there are confusing and shifting terms of comparison throughout the chapters.
The choice of typefaces and their chapter organization is a missed opportunity in other ways. For example, Centaur is treated separately from Jenson (Adobe Jenson, as it turns out). They both come out of the same Jensonian model, yet the author of each chapter ignores the existence of the other font. It would have been more effective, for instance, to present the Jensonian model as the classic form, and then test Centaur, Adobe Jenson, and several others against it. Similarly, Helvetica and Univers are treated separately, one chapter hardly acknowledging the other, but surely one of the first typographic problems for a design student is to learn the difference between the two, and this book is of little help.
The page layout continues the current trend of overlaid text, much color and graphics. The result is uneven–some page spreads look tasteful, while others seem unbalanced and overly busy. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography or list of suggested reading to learn more.
Two errors are worth correcting here. The author of the chapter on Bembo asserts that Monotype PostScript fonts are not hinted. In fact, Monotype PostScript fonts have been hinted since 1989. In addition, while stating that the Adobe version of Bembo is not very different from the Monotype version, it is noted that the Adobe version is more rounded and refined. In fact, the outline data is precisely the same, licensed by Monotype to Adobe in the 1980s.
Despite some contributions, its factual errors and the limits imposed by its organizational structure reduce this book’s usefulness as a design reference.
Other Books of Interest
– Fonts & Logos, Doyald Young, Delphi Press, 2000, delphipress.com.
– Printing Types: an Introduction, Alexander Lawson, Beacon Press, 1971.
– Anatomy of a Typeface, Alexander Lawson, D.R. Godine, 1990.
– Fine Print on Type, Bigelow, Duensing, Gentry, eds., Bedford Arts, 1989.
– The Art of Written Forms, Donald Anderson, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.
– American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, Mac McGrew, 2nd edition, Oak Knoll Press, 1993.
– An Atlas of Typeforms, Sutton & Bartram, Hastings House, 1968.
– A Tally of Types, Stanley Morison, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973.