Spring 2006

Incomplete and oversimplified

The Encyclopaedia of Fonts

By Gwyn Headley
Cassell Illustrated, £17.99, USD 24.95

A single book that provides visual reference to many of the fonts currently commercially available is something students always seem to be looking for. And here it is: an overview of the digital market in an alternative format to one of the ubiquitous online font guides. At this very basic level the book delivers, and cheaply, although it could be more useful. The real problems with this publication lie in its claim to offer far more than font browsing.

It comprises a short introduction to fonts generally, the main font reference material, (which absorbs the bulk of the 496 pages) and a final index section. The light-hearted tone of the introduction counters any expectations of the stuffy discussions typography is reputed for, but also reflects the lightness in content. We find out far more about the opinions of the author than fonts. Some of the advice offered is practical, though much genuinely useful information, on copyright for example, is overlooked. Interesting issues are touched upon. The question of how to taxonomically tackle the font ‘suite’ – a basic set of formal ideas explored across a range of styles (sans, serif, slab, etc.) – is a valid one, though far from rigorously explored. Historical and technology references are oversimplified to the point of inaccuracy. The transition from metal typefaces to digital fonts – a core theme – is far more complex than suggested. (Early photosetting systems of the 1950s still used a physical photographic master. It was not until Dr Ing. Rudolf Hell’s Digiset in 1965 that type ceased to exist physically and became digital data.)

Emphasis in the arrangement of the fonts in the main reference section is, in theory, visual. In practice, font showings are too small to facilitate detailed comparison, with some samples barely visible. Organisation is by way of category. Given the formal scope and scale of current practice such a strategy is brave, but as with any such categorisation, success should be measured against the intended outcomes of use. Here listings are intended to inform about the chronological and stylistic evolution of type design.

The history of type design cannot, though, be visually represented by digital font samples alone. Modern versions of older typefaces are only interpretations, not exact replications. The annotation is misleading in not making more explicit exactly what is being shown. No chronological context is even attempted for the categories themselves, reinforcing a linear model for their evolution, which would be more accurately represented as a multi-layered story with styles concurrent and interconnected. Category terms are not explained, so there is no way of understanding why material is grouped as it is. The basis upon which even familiar terms are being used needs to be set out, certainly for anyone to grasp the difference between scripts that are formal, calligraphic and handwritten.

This book boldly claims succession to Jaspert, Berry & Johnson’s Encyclopaedia of Typefaces (see the fourth edition of 1970, not the earlier edition discussed) but it will not replace their guiding notes on my desk just yet.

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