brain picking a few essential books on typography

Es­ti­mated reading time is 11 minutes.

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 book re­views here and move on to cer­tain books.

Or you can do the smart thing and click 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.





Typographie: A Manual of Design

by Emil Ruder 

In 1967, iconic ty­pog­raphy pi­o­neer Emil Ruder penned Ty­pogra­phie: A Manual of De­sign, a 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 nine­teen 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 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!





Cultural Connectives

by Rana Abou Rjeily

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.





The Elements of Typographic Style

by Robert Bringhurst 

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.





Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students

by Ellen Lupton

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! 





I Wonder

by Marian Bantjes

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 au­thor’s 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 your web­site looks like—which is just about every­body you know.





Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

by Simon Garfield

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.





An Essay on Typography

by Eric Gill

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. 





Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age

by Steven Heller amd Louise Fili 

From iconic de­sign writer Steven Heller 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. (Louise Fill)





Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles, Vol. 1

by the ed­i­tors of Taschen

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 Hardy)

Used hard­cover copies are hard to come by: copies in ‘ac­cept­able’ to merely ‘good’ con­di­tion go for $50-60. There is no pa­per­back edi­tion. (Taschen)





The 3D Type Book

by FL@33comes Studio

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.” (3-D Type)


Helvetica Subway photo 800 crop 

Eric Gill’s essay on typography

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 middle 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.” 


Helvetica Subway photo 1500

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.


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