brain picking a few essential books on typography

I’VE NOT DONE THIS BEFORE, but what the hey! To have additional information tied in with my other posts on typography, I have copied and pasted an entire article from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings website. I have edited it so that you can read just the reviews here and move on certain books, or you can do the smart thing and click on over to Maria’s site and read the whole thing as she intended it.

The original article has more than thirty illustrations that I have not included here, plus several links to lengthier reviews and even more illustrations, plus her site is much more attractive than mine. So, from below the horizontal line on, all text in black print is from the Brain Pickings article “10 Essential Books On Typography” while the captions in bold rusty brown print beneath each book cover is mine.


WHETHER you’re a professional designer, recreational type-nerd, or casual lover of the fine letterform, typography is one of design’s most delightful frontiers, an odd medley of timeless traditions and timely evolution in the face of technological progress. Today, we turn to ten essential books on typography, ranging from the practical to the philosophical to the plain pretty.

In 1967, iconic typography pioneer Emil Ruder penned Typographie: A Manual of Designa bold deviation from the conventions of his discipline and a visionary guide to the rules of his new typography. From texture to weight to color to legibility spacing and leading, the 19 chapters gloriously illustrated in black-and-white with some in red, yellow and blue explore insights from the author’s studies and experiments. More than half a century later, the book, now in its sixth edition, remains a timeless bastion of typographic innovation across generations and era.


If I had to recommend two books from this list, based on my admittedly limited experience, it would be this Ruder book and Bringhurst’s (entry 3 below). The Ruder book is long out of print and sought after: used hardcover and paperback copies in NM condition will cost around $50. If you find one for under $40, don’t think twice—it’s alright to just go ahead and buy it!


In an age when we frequently encounter the Middle East in the course of our daily media diets, our true knowledge of the region remains impoverished amidst these often limited, one-note and reductionist portrayals. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. Cultural Connectives tries to remedy this with a cross-cultural bridge by way of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture.

Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.



This book would hold little interest to most Internet users—unless you are inspired by the beauty and grace of the graphical aspects of Arabic forms. Used hardcover copies of this book are readily found in NM condition for around $10. (Website)


In 1992, Canadian typographer, poet and translator Robert Bringhurst set out to create “the Typographer’s Bible.” And he did — two decades later, his The Elements of Typographic Style prevails as the most ambitious history of and guide to typography. TypeFoundry‘s Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones have called it “the finest book ever written about typography.”

Covering everything from rhythm and proportion to harmony and counterpoint to analphabetic symbols, the tome remains a brilliant convergence of the practical, theoretical and historical. Sprinkled across the pragmatic guides are compelling, almost philosophical insights about the role of typography in communication, visual culture and society, making the volume as much a handbook as it is a meditation.


If I had to recommend two books from this list, based on my admittedly limited experience, it would be this Bringhurst book and Ruder’s (entry 1 above). This is the one that you need to read first, period. Then read it again. There are four editions of this book; each will get the job done. Clean used copies of the latest edition (the 20th anniversary edition numbered 4.0 like software) will cost $15-20.


The use of typography in visual communication is evolving rapidly, and often radically, as we shift from print culture to screen culture, and at the same time certain foundations of typographic creativity and visual eloquence remain fundamental. That’s exactly what Ellen Lupton explores in the 2010 revised and expanded edition of the now-classic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, originally published in 2007 by Princeton Architectural Press.

From the latest style sheets for print and the web to the essentials on mixing typefaces and hand lettering, the book is a visually-driven blueprint to typographic style and originality by way of knowing the rules in order to break them creatively.


This would be my #3 recommendation for reading, after Bringhurst and Ruder. The current revised and expanded second paperback edition of this book can be had in like new condition for $10-15. Thinking With Type has an excellent website. Wait! Maybe this should be my #1 recommendation!


Marian Bantjes is no ordinary creator. Trained as a graphic designer, with a decade-long career as a typesetter under her belt and a penchant for the intricate beauty of letterform illustrations, she calls herself a “graphic artist” and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. 

Stefan Sagmeister has called her “one of the most innovative typographers working today,” with no exaggeration. I Wonder capture Bantjes’ exceptional talent for visual delight and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty and quirk in a breathtaking yet organic way.


This book is as much a work of art as it is a book on typography and its use—and the inspiration that it can be. Check out the I Wonder website for a better understanding. Used hardcover copies of this book in NM condition sell for around $20. Unlike the other books here, this one you can give as a gift to people with no interest in either typography or what you website looks like—which is just about everybody you know . . .


Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield, published in the UK in 2010 and dropping the U.S. on September 1 this year, is a genre-bender of a typography book — part history textbook, part design manual, part subtle stand-up comedy routine. From the font that helped pave Obama’s way into the White House to the “T” of the Beatles logo, Garfield dances across 560 years of typographic history, sprinkled with fascinating anecdotes and vignettes, to infect you with his own inability to walk past a sign without identifying the typeface and some curious factoid about it.

Funny and fascinating, irreverent and playful yet endlessly illuminating, the book is an absolute treat for the type-nerd, design history geek and general lover of intelligent writing with humor.


This is probably the lost ‘readable’ book here—a combination history of typography, personal journal, and learning book. In fact, I gave a copy of this edition to my Father for his 91st birthday—he was a linotype operator for The Sunday Independent of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for more years than Wholly Grommett allowed dinosaurs to walk this planet. Used hardcover copies and used paperback copies of the current and previous editions can be had in very good condition for less than $10.



When Eric Gill wrote An Essay on Typography in 1931, he probably didn’t anticipate it would live on to become not only the most influential manifesto on typography’s cultural place ever written, but also a timeless reflection of art and man in industrial society. He later described his chief objective to “describe two worlds that of industrialism and that of the human workman & to define their limits.”

Gill himself was a Renaissance man—a sculptor, engraver, illustrator, and essayist—known for his successful Gills Sans and Perpetua typefaces, and he designed the typeface Joanna to hand-set the book. He was also a creature of dichotomies—a deeply religious man who produced a number of erotic engravings.

While the book has been out of print and fairly hard to find for a number of years, you can get your hands on a used copy with some sifting around the web or your local (design-savvy) bookstore.


From the Publisher. “An Essay on Typography represents Gill at his best: opinionated, fustian, and consistently humane. This manifesto, however, is not only about letters—their form, fit, and function—but also about man’s role in an industrial society.” Top that as a blurb for a book on setting type! Used hardcover copies in good condition can be had in the $20-30 range; used paperback copies for just a few dollars. 

From iconic design writer Steven Heller and a fascinating look at the design and branding of dictatorships and acclaimed designer Louise Fili comes Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age, a treasure chest of typographic gems culled from advertising, street signage, type-specimen books, wedding invitations, restaurant menus and personal letters from the 19th to the mid-20th century.

Ranging from the classic to the quirky, the 350 stunning images are unified by a common thread: All the typefaces featured are derived from handwriting or symbolic of the handwritten form, and the letters in each touch each other. And in a day and age when pundits are lamenting the death of handwriting as a much deeper cultural death, there’s a special kind of magic about the celebration of beautiful scripts.


Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age is a “veritable festival of rare and unknown scripts. This hefty volume includes over three hundred elegant and eccentric specimens.” Used hardcover copies are hard to find: copies in less than near mint condition start at around $75, but used paperback copies in ‘new’ condition can be found for under $20. (Website

The book Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles, Vol. 1, from lavish-book-purveyor Taschen, explores the most beautiful and remarkable examples of font catalogs from the history of publishing, with a sharp focus on the golden age of color catalogs, the period from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Culled from a Dutch collection, the book’s magnificent and vibrant type specimens—roman, italic, bold, semi-bold, narrow, and broad—are complemented with a thoughtful look at ornaments, borders and other type-adornments.

Victorian fonts, with all their richness and complexity, are a central fixation. The book comes with exclusive access to Taschen’s online image library, featuring over 1000 high-resolution scans of type specimens downloadable for unrestricted use.


“The book is edited by Cees W. de Jong, and it features examples of metal type specimens from the collection of the late Jan Tholenaar. Both these authors have written essays to provide a little context, but it is very little, compared to the 250 pages of print specimens, handsomely laid out in a big format on rich paper, between covers of canvas with the title and design stamped into it. This is a handsome object throughout.” (Rob HardyUsed hardcover copies are hard to come by: copies in ‘acceptable’ to merely ‘good’ condition go for $50-60. There is no paperback edition. (Website)

From London-based design studio FL@33comes The 3D Type Book, dubbed “the most comprehensive showcase of three-dimensional letterforms ever written.” With more than 1,300 images by over 160 emerging artists and iconic designersalike, it spans an incredible spectrum of eras, styles and mediums. 

From icons like Milton Glaser and Alvin Lustig to contemporary Brain Pickings favorites like Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Ji Lee, Stefan G. Bucher and Marion Bataille, it’s a treasure trove of typographic treasures.

From toothpaste typography to sperm alphabet to typonoodles, the book’s typographic specimens both make us see with new eyes the seemingly mundane building blocks of language and reconsider ordinary objects, materials and media as extraordinary conduits of self-expression.


From the publisher: “The third book conceived, compiled, written, and designed by Agathe Jacquillat and Tomi Vollauschek at London-based design studio FL@33. This book is the most comprehensive showcase of three-dimensional letterforms ever written, featuring over 1,300 images of more than 300 projects by more than 160 emerging talents and established individuals and studios.” (Website)


That’s it for brain picking a few essential books on typography. I have nothing left here—not even any footnotes!—so I will leave you with the opening words of Eric Gill’s essay on typography:

“The theme of this book is typography, and typography as it is affected by the conditions of the year 1931. The conflict between industrialism & the ancient methods of handicraftsmen which resulted in the muddle of the 19th century is now coming to its term.

But tho’ industrialism has now won an almost complete victory, the handicrafts are not killed, & they cannot be quite killed because they meet an inherent, indestructible, permanent need in human nature. (Even if a man’s whole day be spent as a servant of an industrial concern, in his spare time he will make something, if only a window box flower garden.)

The two worlds can see one another distinctly and without recrimination, both recognising what is good in the other—the power of industrialism, the humanity of craftsmanship. No longer is there any excuse for confusion of aim, inconsistency of methods or hybridism in production; each world can leave the other free in its own sphere.

Whether or no industrialism has ‘come to stay’ is not our affair, but certainly craftsmanship will be always with us—like the poor. And the two worlds are now absolutely distinct. The imitation ‘period work’ and the imitation handicrafts merchants alone are certainly doomed.

Handicrafts standards are as absurd for mechanised industry as machine standards are absurd for the craftsman. The application of these principles to the making of letters and the making of books is the special business of this book.” 


FEATURED IMAGE: The typeface used in Subway in the photo above is Helvetica, or Neue Haas Grotesk. It is a sans-serif face developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger with assistance from Eduard Hoffmann. Medidinger designed it for clarity, boldness, and readability. It became ubiquitous throughout the Western world, a favorite of governments large and small. There is even a documentary movie about it: Helvetica, released in 2007 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the typeface’s introduction. The film is very watchable, even for non-typefacists.