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Typography. When, Who, How
Review by Phan Nguyen


First off, the book is huge. It's almost as big as my copy of Webster's Third New International Dictionary. That and the formatting of the book attests to its intention as a typographical reference book. It's printed in three languages--German, French, and English--the German occupying the top of the pages, the English occupying the bottom, and the French occupying the right and left sides of the recto and verso, respectively. In the center of each page spread is a collection of full-color images. The text is set in Rotis, which would not be anywhere in my list of types for reference texts. Even if I was a fan of Rotis I could not condone using the type at such small sizes, and for a reference book of all things.

(There seems to be a disturbing trend these days of setting digital types in smaller-than-intended sizes. As far as I know general dictionaries have not yet succumbed to this, and they are still using more appropriate types for setting cramped text in conservative sizes.)

The book is split into three sections:

When--a brief history of the development of type and its progress in graphic design

Who--the movers and shakers in and around the type world. This is the longest section and comprises the majority of the book.

How--an overview of type reproduction and implementation techniques

The When section is practically useless (sorry, Wilhelm). If you already know the general history of typography and graphic design, there's no need to refer to this section. If you don't know the history of typography, you're not going to absorb much from reading this. This book is obviously not intended to be read from cover to cover. And the tiny type setting doesn't facilitate extended reading. The reverse chronology, reviewing the present and then going into the past, seems awkward and makes little sense. Maybe such a concept is meant to provide an alternate perspective of typographic history; to me at least, it does not succeed.

For history one would do better to refer to Meggs's History of Graphic Design, Richard Hollis's Graphic Design: A Concise History, Blackwell's 20th Century Type, Anderson's The Art of Written Forms, etc, as well as more specialized books concerning typographic and writing history.

The Who section lists typographers, type designers, graphic designers, and type entities in alphabetical order. A typical entry includes the name, date of birth and death, country of origin, educational history with dates, achievements, and typefaces designed. And I think it includes pictorial samples for every single entry!

Thus we get a relay of objective facts. What we don't get is a subjective idea of what a listed person's contributions to history are. For example, what differentiates Alvin Lustig from any other 'graphic designer, teacher' listed?

In the listing for Beatrice Warde, it notes that she contributed to 'The Fleuron,' but makes no mention of her Garamond article. It notes that she published the book 'The Crystal Goblet' but makes no mention of the essay of the same name. Who was Beatrice Warde, then, and what was her historical contribution?

Thus to some extent one should already be aware of the backgrounds of the people listed prior to referring to their entries in this book. Perhaps it should go hand-in-hand with Rookledge's International Handbook of Type Designers, which however brief and incomplete itself, provides a better overview of individual type designers. (The Rookledge book is out of print though still commonly available and quite inexpensive.)

As the Who section is not limited to type designers and typographers but also extends to include general graphic designers and graphic design commentators (mostly within the confines of the Roman alphabet, but with a few Japanese), one can imagine what a formidable task such a compilation would be. Amazingly the listing is quite comprehensive.

Still we are bound to find some neglected members of typographic scenes. Some conspicuous absences include:

Rudolph Ruzicka
Father Edward Catich
Charles Malin
Michael Harvey
Robert Slimbach
Fred Smeijers
Donald Knuth

Other notable persons who perhaps deserve a slot include:

Vojtech Preissig
Alex Steinweiss
Robert Bringhurst
Ben Shahn
Lester Beall
Tadanori Yokoo (although there is a Tadanori Yokoo sample in the 'When' section.)

It is interesting that the When and Who sections are heavily illustrated, while the How section has no illustrations at all. What does a Linotype look like, or a matrix? You would expect that in a book about visual communication, you would find visual aids to describe techniques. That is where the How section fails.

This book is not necessary for beginning typophiles. But as one becomes more acquainted with typographic and graphic design history, the Who section may serve as a valuable reference and as an impetus for research into concentrated periods, movements, and concepts. The book is also handy for associating certain posters, books, and types with certain designers, although the sample illustrations aren't always so definitive.

Owning a copy is not a requirement, but for such a huge and heavy volume the price is right and it does come in handy.

Now if it would only fit on my bookshelf.