December 2016 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Fifty Fonts

If you're like me, you have a go-to font when you open your word processor. You scroll through the options, but unless you're designing something special like an invitation or a flyer, you click on your old standard, selected for readability and aesthetic gratification. (For me, the choice is Cambria.) Of course there are dozens of alternatives, perhaps even hundreds if you've purchased extras, most unused and unappreciated. Until now.   

Type Is.jpgType is Beautiful: The Story of Fifty Remarkable Fonts, recently published by the Bodleian Library and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press, offers an excellent introduction to type design. Author Simon Loxley lists fifty fonts not as a "best of" but to showcase those with intriguing histories, cultural significance, or uncommon beauty, and he employs a historical approach, beginning with Gutenberg's Bible Type, c. 1454, and ending with Zulia, a script face developed in 2013 by Jose Luis Joluvian. The usual suspects, like Bodoni, Helvetica, and Doves Type are here, but so are Comic Sans, London Underground, and Data 70. Each short chapter is usefully illustrated with a clear example of the typeface.


Some fun facts learned:


  • The first commercially available sans-serif typeface was called Two Lines English Egyptian, which appeared in the Caslon foundry's 1816 type specimen;
  • The typeface most commonly associated with the 'Wild West'--e.g. Wanted! posters--was originally called French Antique, developed in the foundry of Englishman Robert Besley c. 1854;
  • A novelty typeface called Bloody Hell was created in Britain in the mid-1970s. Its letters "appear to be melting, or dripping with blood."

Loxley's take on type through the centuries is exceptionally engaging, and one that might even entice readers to try a new font or two.

Image Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.