Book Review: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Pity Comic Sans, the font that people love to hate. Developed by Vincent Connare in the mid-1990s, Comic Sans is what author Simon Garfield describes as “type that has gone wrong” in his book Just My Type, an engaging history of type (which, these days, the average person refers to as a ‘font,’ but more on that later).

Connare designed Comic Sans as a reaction against the perceived formality of Times New Roman. Specifically, as a new typeface for Microsoft Bob, a user-friendly software program designed for people who didn’t use – or were frightened of – computers. Connare believed that Times New Roman didn’t mesh well with other elements of the software, such as its “accessible language and […] appealing illustrations.” Ultimately, Connare’s new type couldn’t be worked into the package. Guess what? Microsoft Bob failed. Not long afterward, Connare’s Comic Sans was released in another software package that indeed became popular.

Then, after being included in Windows 95, Comic Sans was everywhere. So much so that people got sick of it. Like, really sick of it. Garfield tells us of Holly and David Combs, a couple who made an anti-Comic Sans website and sold “Ban Comic Sans” merchandise. It’s not necessarily that the Combs thought Comic Sans had no place in the world, but that it needed to be put back in its place. This seemingly ubiquitous hatred of Comic Sans is not unlike how people love to hate Merlot–they know little about its complexities, nuances, and when it is, in fact, a smart, or dare I say the right, choice.

Not only does Garfield give us the history of type/fonts, but, in some cases, the histories of their creators. One such case is the grisly history (that I definitely won’t mention here) of Eric Gill, whose typeface Gill Sans appeared in 1928 as “one of the twentieth century’s earliest and classic sans serif fonts” and is still widely used today.

Speaking of Sans Serif fonts, what’s the difference between that and Serif? I’ll tell you, but Garfield will tell you better with one of the fantastic visuals that accompany the text throughout his book. Serif fonts have feet and tips, which are the serifs. Remove those and voila! You have Sans Serif.

So what about this whole typeface and type/font thing? While typeface is a certain style of lettering, fonts refer to variations of a typeface, including size, weight, and so on. Garfield writes: “Fonts were once known as founts. Fonts and founts weren’t the same as typefaces, and typefaces weren’t the same as type.” He highlights this and many other more technical aspects of typography that, admittedly, readers without a keen interest in type may not find interesting. For example, typographers once had typescales (depth scales) for measuring not only the type, but the space between it, both of which are referred to as the point size, or, for typographers (and printers, as in printing presses) these measurements are grouped into picas.

“DIY” is one of my favorite chapters because it introduced me to the John Bull Printing Outfit, a DIY typographic kit released in the 1930s. It was both creative and educational and, to me, looks and sounds like loads of fun (Hello, eBay!). Garfield goes on to discuss other methods of personal printing, from Letrasets to typewriters to floppy disks, ending the chapter saying that “well-printed” materials are “fast becoming heritage,” yet “typefaces – both their preponderance and ingenuity – have not suffered a similar decline in fortunes.” He writes further that perhaps we have too many.

I particularly appreciate how easy-reading this book is. Although I didn’t learn this till 250 pages in, the book is set in Sabon, which is known for its readability. Perhaps my sharing this with you is somewhat of a spoiler, but I have good reason for doing so. That I thought the book was easy-reading before knowing a particular font was chosen to achieve just that illustrates how much of a connection we have between text – not just what it says, but how it looks – and the way we process information and, more generally, the world.

Literally every printed word was someone’s decision to use a particular typeface or font. The newspaper (or screen, if that’s your style) that you’re holding in your hand to read this review is but one example. Whether we realize it or not – or like it or not – the way that things look impact the way that we interact with them and fonts are no exception. Have you ever been put off by some fonts and not others? Made choices as a consumer based on fonts and labels? Sure you have, as have I.

Garfield reminds us that, like anything else, fonts have rules. Though he’s not necessarily opposed, he wonders “to what extent do rules stifle individuality and creativity?” (Good question.) I’ll leave you with a few so-called rules mentioned by Garfield, though he attributes them to Paul Felton: “Thou shalt not apply more than three typefaces in a document;” “Remember that a typeface that is not legible is not truly a typeface;” and “Thou shalt not use only capitals when setting vast body copy.”

As always, happy reading.


What are you wearing? Plaid (tartan)? Paisley? How about stripes or polka dots? Perhaps a fleur-de-lis pin graces your lapel? Regardless, these motifs and patterns and more have fascinating associations and histories as told by Jude Stewart in his book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, and Other Graphic Patterns.

In addition to content, the book itself is somewhat unconventional by design, both physically and stylistically. Titles found in the adult nonfiction collection tend to be large and heavy, whereas Patternalia is small and lightweight. Stylistically, Patternalia defies the typical beginning, middle, end formula for telling such stories. The text is dotted with cross-references so readers may develop an alternate storyline. It’s also embellished with quotes and bold graphics throughout.

Stewart starts us on our journey with a crash course in patterns and pattern lingo as well as an explanation of how our brains perceive “symmetry, orderliness, and simplicity”–basically, a pattern–and how we define and process this into what we see. He discusses ‘pareidolia,’ “the process of seeing imaginary forms, especially faces, in random stimuli,” such as outlets, and ‘apophenia,’ which is the perception of pattern where there is none, which may be either visual or conceptual. A conceptual example of apophenia is that of “gambler’s fallacy.”

Before we delve into particular patterns proper, we learn a bit about the history of patterns and the textile industry. The gist is that as production became increasingly industrialized, patterned textiles became cheaper, easily portable, and shareable across cultures. As patterns and patterned textiles crossed national borders, their meanings could change or evolve, such as with popular “African print” textiles. (Why? Read the book!)

As pattern and textile technology continued to advance, patterns were able to be printed directly onto textiles, which led to disposable fashions. Think Paper Caper dresses and such. Imagine wearing your clothes a few times and throwing them into the trash can rather than the laundry basket. These sorts of disposable fashions didn’t fall out of fashion until the rise of environmental consciousness. (Thank goodness for environmental consciousness!)  

But what about the patterns? I dare say we take them for granted, no doubt due to their ubiquitousness–they’re everywhere! Patterns hold histories and connotations, whether we realize it or not. Take polka dots, for example. According to Stewart, dots and spots–polka dots–gained popularity “from an extended craze for polka music” that overtook Europe in the mid-1800s. But in Medieval Europe, polka dots were reminiscent of disease and death. Specifically, syphilis, bubonic plague, measles, and more. Yet we enjoy polka dot patterns on an array of items, from notebooks to scrapbooking paper, t-shirts to bathing suits, bedding to curtains, and so on, without considering their history. Not to mention the parallel Stewart draws between dot art and activism–bravo!

Overall, Stewart’s Patternalia is as charming as it is interesting. My only criticism is that it ends rather abruptly, not unlike this review. As for the other patterns–plaid, paisley, stripes, fleur-de-lis, checkered, houndstooth, etc.–you’ll have to check it out for yourself. I leave you with this anonymous quote: “Even a small dot can stop a big sentence, but a few more dots can give a continuity…”

As always, happy reading.