Spring 2009

A visual map from A to Z

Shapes for Sounds

By Timothy Donaldson<br>Mark Batty Publisher, &pound;20.95<br>

This book is the clearest introduction I’ve read to the story of how the alphabet we use has come into being. Though narrow-seeming in focus it is a book that sets out to broaden understanding of the idea of an alphabet, relating this visual form of language to its spoken origins and other graphic outcomes. The book is divided into two sections: ‘Sound’ addresses the basic principles of how we communicate orally and how we describe the sounds we make, and serves as an introduction to the ‘Shape’ section, which sets out the bulk of the content, initially as text followed by an extensive series of charts.

The textual themes tell the story of the evolution of the Latin alphabet historically, qualified by a contextual overview of other related alphabetic systems, allowing for some comparison. The significance of pre-fabrication methods on letters as forms is then considered, before the description of a typology of typing-related alphabetic systems.

The 26 charts, each of which represents the story of an alphabetic character, form a set of visual maps to the themes covered, while allowing Timothy Donaldson to layer still further levels of references. Diagrammatic representation is then not a short cut to simplification but a strategy for managing greater levels of information complexity. And the annotation essential to accessibility is duly well considered. An extensive and visually inspiring set of appendices and an appropriate bibliography complete the multifaceted approach to the content structure.

The scope of the themes raised could easily have become overwhelming but Donaldson’s approach to history is pithy. He also has a real gift for explaining, albeit in his own very individual way. This book is a love letter to the alphabet from a man who is both calligrapher and typographic thinker. I read it and learned a lot.

Catherine Dixon, teacher, designer, London

First published in Eye no. 71 vol. 18 2009

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.