Book Review: Just My Type

Posted by Robert Rutledge on February 24, 2022

As I write this latest addition to my blog, I am at somewhat of a career crossroads. Last October, I picked up my first client doing desktop publishing work. I have really been enjoying it and am currently working my way toward Adobe InDesign certification. The book I review here pertains to type and typography, two fascinating topics that I’ve been trying to learn more about as I dive deeper into the world of desktop publishing.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield is a clear, concise, fun (although at times slightly annoying) guide to the history of type and typography. In addition, it offers an eye-opening overview as to the importance of font choice for influencing people, with real-world examples. Garfield constantly stresses throughout the book that the “perfect” font is one that lies at a crossroads between legibility and beauty. That is, one that simultaneously achieves maximum aesthetics and practicality. However, he also makes it clear that there is no such font (not yet, anyway).

Garfield’s clever use of fonts within makes for an enjoyable and enticing read. The book even features “fontbreaks” between each chapter: a short spotlight feature on the history of a specific font. While this is by no means a very scholarly book, Garfield has clearly done his homework. I feel I have walked away with a much broader understanding of how many of the different fonts we use today came to be. Not to mention the incredible strides we’ve made in the past five-hundred years since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Garfield explains things in a “no nonsense” style of writing, making it easy to understand.

Here’s what I don’t like about this book. First off, and perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but it’s over ten years old at this point (originally published in 2010). It’s due for an update. Garfield is stuck in the past talking about Windows 7 and Blackberries (the latter of which I’m pretty sure had already lost popularity by that time). 

Second (and this is more of a personal preference), Garfield’s use of UK English at times goes over the American English reader’s head. I’m lost for specific examples, but there are times when it feels like Garfield just assumes his reader is British, due to either word choice or pop culture references. While I appreciate his casual tone, he could have tried to avoid Britishisms, given the proliferation of English in the world beyond the borders of the UK. 

Lastly, while the book usually moves along at an appropriate pace, sometimes Garfield will go off on a tangent. For example, he dedicates half of a chapter to his rather unexciting endeavor to find out what font the lowercase g is on the cover of The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces. He is not very good at explaining certain concepts either. Particularly confusing is his very brief, over-simplified explanations of the (incredibly complex) Monotype and Linotype machines invented in the late 19th century.

Over the course of reading this book, I grew to have a love/hate relationship with it. At times Garfield tells fascinating stories regarding a specific font or type designer, and at other times he tells some rather dull personal anecdotes. He is very opinionated, which can get tiresome. However, the clever uses of fonts and real-world pictures displaying the fonts in question give this book a multimodal appeal, making it a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable read. I suppose this is a book you don’t need to read straight through, although I did (for the most part, anyway). 

In conclusion, while this is overall a very informative book, it’s due for an update, or perhaps even a whole new installment. Despite being over 300 pages (which includes pictures) it is a very quick read. Many very relevant or common fonts aren’t covered or are only briefly touched upon. I could easily see this becoming a 500-page book, but that might make it not very marketable or less accessible to a mainstream readership. I’d recommend this book to anyone wanting to find out more about desktop publishing or the roles type and typography play in our everyday lives. Just be warned of Garfield’s Briticisms and somewhat peculiar writing style.