Just My Type

For Christmas, I received a copy of Just My Type. Since I’m already on record as being a bit of a book junkie and printing nerd who scrutinizes the way type is displayed, Simon Garfield’s book about fonts is aptly-named. It’s not for beginners but for people who are already sensitive to type. It’s also not an educational book about type but rather a collection of essays regarding the use of type as it has changed over the decades.

Which means that it’s really about both the democratization and obsolescence of a craft. Stop me if this sounds familiar?

The history of photography is a sped-up version of the history of type.* Technology and technological changes have consistently expanded the reach of words to more and more people and in doing so, have rendered countless professions obsolete. Typesetting and fonts are a particularly interesting area to look at due to their revolutionary impact on the written word and their continued evolution as other technology changes.

*Any conclusions from the facts that I work in printing and practice photography as a hobby are left as an exercise for the reader. 

The other wonderful thing about type evolution is that the end product is all that’s needed to really see the changes. We can observe the changes in the letterforms and understand the technology changes that created the printed type just by looking at printed material. We may lose fonts and the ability to use them anymore, but we can still observe the craft and inspiration which created them.

Since typesetting is thought of as a craft* it doesn’t get as hung up on the “is it art or not” question and has been more open to new technologies. The biggest problem with computers and the digital revolution has been the loss of quality.** It’s not a philosophical issue like it is in photography.

*Occasionally it becomes design. And thus relevant to art museums.

**This is different than the amateurization of professional photography gear. In photography, what used to be amateur formats have become professional. With type, it’s more like signal gradation in the transfer between technologies and generations.

That more and more people are aware of and have access to fonts and typesetting tools is a good thing. While people love to misuse fonts, those of us who care tend to use those instances as teachable moments. And we have some fun with it. There are no wars, really, about font superiority or which typesetting process is most pure. As long as it’s considered and appropriate for the usage,* everything is fine.

*This was the problem with the IKEA switch from Futura to Verdana. It smacked of a corporate all-look-same mandate rather than something which considered the fact that the print catalog and online web presence were different mediums and served different purposes.

Which is a lesson that we need to learn as photographers. Don’t forget the function. When we lose track of what art is for, it becomes harder to appreciate and we give in to the temptation to judge everything based on arbitrary distinctions of process and method.

Typesetting doesn’t care about gear. What matters is where the words are expected to be displayed and what message they’re supposed to convey.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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