by Tony Seddon. Yale University Press, August 2016. 192 p. ill. ISBN 9780300222371 (cl.), $25.00.
Reviewed January 2017
Essential Type: An Illustrated Guide to Understanding and Using Fonts serves as an entertaining resource concerning the history of fonts, typefaces, and graphic design. The book is comprised primarily of illustrations with accompanying text, exuding an appropriately minimalist style. The book’s five chapters are aptly titled and constructed, beginning with an introduction to type anatomy and glyphs, followed by type terms, type classifications, and finally, the typefaces. The book’s appearance as a no-frills guide makes the witty nature of Tony Seddon’s text a welcome surprise. Each chapter accomplishes the difficult task of providing in-depth information without becoming tedious.
The first chapter focuses solely on the anatomy of type, explaining the basics. Seddon stresses the importance of x-height and baseline, while pointing out the differences between the crossbar and the waist. Illustrations are intelligently paired with terms to further engage the reader. Elements shared by every font and typeface are introduced. Seddon then moves on to describe glyphs. The significant differences between fonts and typefaces are highlighted first, followed by glyphs such as the dingbat and the interrobang, whose usage in popular culture is once again on the rise. The detailed descriptions of punctuation marks and flourishes in the second chapter lead smartly into chapters concerning language and grammar usage.
Chapters three and four deal with type terms and type classification. The reader learns type terms consist of subtle distinctions and subsets of technical terms within the categories of fonts and typefaces. Type classification gives the reader a chronology of type dating from the “pre-typeface” group, also called Ancient/Pre-Venetian, and belonging to the same family of type used by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century.
Chapter five is devoted to the typefaces, and surpasses the previous chapters in both content and aesthetic appeal. Seddon recounts a detailed history of nearly 100 different typefaces. Garamond for example, was first used in 1532, and is currently used for “adding an air of significance and knowingness to text.” In this chapter, each typeface is given its own page and at least four illustrations of examples in a variety of font sizes.
Overall, the book’s contents make for an easy, but thorough read. This title would be a valuable resource for any library with an arts collection. The hardcover volume consists of high quality pages, similar in texture to cardstock. It measures only twenty-three centimeters in height, with color illustrations throughout. The book contains a bibliography, an index, a timeline of type, and useful shortcuts. This title is designed to be accessible to every reader with an interest in its subject.