Book Review: The Visual History of Type
A sweeping illustrated work capturing nearly six centuries of typeface design that every font lover should read.
Paul McNeil’s The Visual History of Type (Laurence King, Sept. 2017) is big. Seriously big. In every dimension. The book is 11⅞ by 9⅞ inches (30cm by 25cm) and weighs 8.2 pounds (3.7 kg). It’s 672 pages long. And its retail price is a whopping but worthy $85, although it’s readily available new at 25% to 40% off.
Both the depth and dimensions are necessary to reproduce the full historical sweep of typefaces from Gutenberg’s Bastarda (1454) to Sandrine Nugue’s Infini (2015). The book comprises 320 two-page spreads, most of which cover a single influential typeface, plus some prefatory material and time-period introductions.
Most of each spread luxuriates by including a richly photographed example. Early in the chronologically ordered book the image or images are from a seminal text in which the face is used. As the book moves on, the author relies increasingly on specimen sheets, as those demonstrate the way in which typefaces were marketed, and show broad ranges of styles and uses. He also turns to pages from books designed specifically to promote a typeface. A handful of the most recent designers and type foundries produced examples specifically for the book, and the march of time means that many of the last reproductions come directly from PDFs — no photographic intermediation whatsoever.
In a few cases, the spread covers a rarely used face or one that was conceptual in nature, but had an impact, like Paul Elliman’s Found Font (1989, pp. 474–475); in a few others, McNeil devotes two pages to show an example that covers a cohesive sweep of history, such as for Photo-Lettering Types (1960, pp. 356–367) by Photo-Lettering Inc, painting a picture of the revolution of setting type with light. But, for the most part, he pulls out carefully selected examples that mark significant changes in the direction of type design, like a shift from faces that imitate one kind of pen motion to another, or introductions of entirely new approaches.
McNeil has a multi-decade career in design, but clearly has been squirreling away notes for much of it, as writing 320 short essays is no mean feat for starters. He demonstrates a deep knowledge for each typeface or subject starting with the biography of the punchcutter or printer or type designer or firm responsible. Many artists have representation across different typefaces and projects, and McNeil threads parts of their history across those entries.
But he also delves deeply and quickly into where the subject of his essay fits as part of the progression of type design and in its milieu. He can present several somewhat similar faces released across a few years, and provide differentiation and competitive insight, and explain what comes after.
For the entry for Jannon’s Roman and Italic (1621, pp. 62–63), for instance, McNeil notes first, historically:
In 1615, with the type, punches, and matrices at the Calvinist Academy printing office becoming worn out from repeated use, Jannon began cutting his own letters so that he would not need to purchase new type from Paris, at a time when religious and political divisions would have made it difficult to do so.
A paragraph later, he shifts into type critique:
Sharply cut, even and light in colour, they are most immediately recognizable by the shape of the lower case a, which has a long upper arch extending above a bowl that is smaller and more steeply inclined than Garamond’s. Other notable differences include the cupped triangular serifs on the stems of such characters as i, m, n, and r, which are also steep.
The ever-accelerated ease of typeface production since the late 1800s means that the book does skew increasingly heavily as it progresses through time to show a greater number of modern examples, but that’s no detriment to its purpose.
Because McNeil makes so many connections, I kept learning as I went about intersections I had no idea about. From the book, I learned that Johnston Sans, the London Transport “railway type” was only made in larger sizes, especially in wood, and that decades after it was in use for signage, a different face called Granby was often employed for text sizes. (I wrote an essay explaining the use of these two faces and two others — Gill Sans and Curwen Sans — which also wound up being substituted at times for Johnston.)
By providing extremely fine photography at large format, you’re not limited to squinting at letters or looking at enlargements, but can see work often at 100 percent of its original scale, sometimes including entire pages from a book. This is a great training guide for those attempting to learn the most significant faces across the history of type design, and understand when and why shifts took place.
Previous to this book, I can’t think of any way you would have been able to amass so many examples of the original uses of type, either. The book becomes a sort of mass-produced historical document by itself.
McNeil provides a detail taxonomy on each page, too, in a kind of box score that summarizes and categorizes details. Beyond basic details, such as the punchcutter or designer, the general type of face, and country of origin, each spread has a Characteristics, Connections, and Availability section.
Characteristics analyzes unique or interesting details of letters, which helps teach font identification, useful given the extreme similarity of some typefaces. Connections links to other types that were influenced by or influenced the face. And Availability is a useful coda for those who want to find a digital rendition today. A surprising number of types included in the book lack a digital version.
There’s also a Specimen note about where the example depicted comes from, and it’s useful to turn to the back to see the image credits. A massive source is the St Bride Library in London, where I recently had an in-depth visit, and about which I wrote part of my new book, London Kerning. Library Manager Bob Richardson showed off Visual History in the public part of the library, and noted that his thumbs were photoshopped out of many specimen sheets that he held down for the book’s photography. (If you look carefully, you can see some faint edited thumb traces of possible Bob’s thumbs, but you have to look very closely indeed.)
Some specimen books have been digitized, but a relatively small portion of what’s extant, as they live in collections like St Bride and typically haven’t been prioritized. Many remain technically in copyright, even though the institutions that created them are gone and have no real successor, but that often deters digitization for fear of a copyright infringement suit.
I’ve been studying type history and type design for over three decades, and thought I had a reasonably deep well of knowledge. But I learned new details even about faces I knew the best, as well as understanding whole sweeps of typographic change.
It’s hard to know how to deconstruct a book this large into nuggets that make sense without getting your hands on it, but it’s a very easy thing to say that anyone with an interest in type, book, and printing history should save their pennies and get a copy. It’s an invaluable resource to read through, and will be a great guide for future review and study.
Glenn Fleishman writes about technology, printing, design, and science for a variety of publications, including the Economist, Increment, Air & Space, and Fast Company. In 2017, he was the designer in residence at the School of Visual Concepts, and printed a book on a letterpress. His latest book is London Kerning. You can read more articles by him and find out his work at glog.glennf.com.