The ABC Of Typography: The History Of Fonts Laid Bare…

by Richard Bruton

ABC of Typography is a book that could have been a dry treatise, walking us through 3,500 years of type in Western culture. But, thanks to the writing of David Rault and the contributions of 11 Euro artists, one for each chapter, we get something that reveals the history and origins of the world’s most common fonts in fascinating, informative, and wonderfully readable form.

By going through the ages, Rault’s first graphic history of Latin type, where each chapter is covered by one of a group of talented Euro artists, the subject comes alive and the end result is something that’s totally involving and excellently done.

And by covering the subject in this way, it shines a light onto something that we all tend to take for granted, as typography is something so ubiquitous that it’s become a thing we barely even notice. In fact, it’s become one of the signs of a great letterer in comics that you simply don’t notice the work, it’s simply there, serving the purpose, invisible yet totally functional.

Yet, as ABC of Typography clearly and emphatically sets out, typography can perhaps be seen as something of an art in and of itself, such is the impact upon the world. It’s hugely important, never more so than today, with the Internet being, as Rault points out in his introduction, 95% typography. Text and type is our primary method of communication, is hugely important to the functioning of our lives, and ABC of Typography does a really good job of covering the history and impact of type on the development of civilisation itself.

In terms of the scale of the book, just a glance at the chapter headings gives you an idea of what to expect, starting with ‘The Birth of Writing’, and progressing, at pace, through the Romans, the Middle Ages, ‘The Gutenberg Bible’, the industrial revolution with ‘Newspapers and Machines’, through to the modern-day, with ‘Letraset and Phototypesetting’ and ‘Typography Today and Tomorrow’.

(The Romans and their writing – art by Sigeon)

Just taking as an example the second chapter on ‘Romans and their writing’, you can see the sort of depth things are covered in, despite each chapter only being 6 pages long. In those 6 pages, we go from Greek writing being appropriated by the Etruscans around 7th to 1st centuries BCE to the birth of Capitalis Monumentalis (Roman Square Capitals) around 113 CE, and the Trajan font it inspired in 1989 by Carol Twombly, which you can still find on many Hollywood blockbuster posters. I loved the fine details included at every turn, such as the fact that the Romans designed their characters to be readable even from afar, with those characters higher up monuments and buildings being more deeply engraved, all to intensify shadows and increase legibility.

But there’s far more here than a history of type, as Rault spends time to intertwine the development of type with social development, such as the spread of Roman type across conquered lands, just part of their cultural imperialism, replacing native cultures wherever they conquered.

So, whether it’s the Sumerians carving into stone tablets 3,500 years past and effectively inventing a system of writing, or the developments of the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, Charlemagne, or Guttenberg, it’s all covered in swift yet effective detail here.

As I say, each section might only be six pages long, but most of the artists involved are drawing pages that are heavy in informational sections – such as this piece below from Bourhis. All of which means the signal to noise ratio here is impressively high, with a real density of storytelling and information contained in each of these short chapters. And for such a dense work, credit to all involved to keep it so wonderfully readable.

(From Bauhaus to Gill Sans – Herve Bourhis)

Yes, there are some problems with things just racing too fast, but this isn’t meant to be a massive treatise on the development of type, more the sort of introduction to tantalise and encourage us both to think about type more carefully and perhaps to investigate further.

Similarly, the structure of the book is a bit of an issue for me, with a little bit too much padding done between chapters. I can understand the need for a chapter break, but in my digital copy, there are four pages of interstitials where one or two would have sufficed.

(Letraset and phototypesetting – Jake Raynal)

ABC of Typography‘s purpose is to enlighten and entertain, and it definitely does that, casting a light on this most overlooked art, something we could all do with knowing more about given that it’s one of the key elements of this medium we love.

In tracing the development of writing, printing and publishing, David Rault and the various artists involved offer us a really engaging and readable history lesson.

(Typography today and tomorrow – Francois Ayroles)

ABC of Typography is written by David Rault, art by Seyhan Arguin, Aseyn, Francois Ayroles, Herve Bourhis, Alexandre Clerisse, Olivier Delove, Libon, Delphine Panique, Jake Raynal, Anne Simon, Singeon. Translated by Edward Gauvin. Published by SelfMadeHero on 12th September

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