ABC Of Typography: The Story Behind The Fonts You Use Everyday

by Rachel Bellwoar

Thanks to word processing programs like Microsoft Word there’s probably been a few occasions where you’ve had to decide what typeface to use. What font will make my resume stand out? How can I play with this spacing so that it looks like I wrote more than I wrote? Recently I ordered some business cards that looked fine on the computer, but in-person were too hard to read because the weight of the letters was too thin.

Those are just the occasions when you’re making something for yourself. Typography acts on people all the time but where did these typefaces come from? When did they pick up certain connotations, like danger or formal, and what makes each one unique? All of this and more can be found in David Rault’s graphic novel ABC of Typography, which starts with a discussion of the first systems of writing and ends with the advent of computers and how they changed the game (including, as with most industries, consumers not wanting to pay for something they can get for free).
Typefaces are visual by design, but an immediate challenge that comes to mind, when considering how one goes about making a graphic history of typography, is how do you avoid making the art more text? One means by which Rault safeguards against this problem right away is by having a different artist work on each chapter. That way, no matter what, you’re going to have different approaches to the material, with some taking it more literally and others going for a more playful interpretation, like Singeon portraying appropriation as soldiers roping letters, like cowboys, and letting the letters talk and become characters. Libon’s characters in chapter three (which covers barbarians and Charlemagne standardizing the alphabet) feel like they’re improvising scenes inspired by Rault’s text, while Anne Simon’s compete with each other (the subject of chapter nine being Maximilian Vox’s classification system in which he devised different categories for organizing typefaces).
Typefaces don’t come with title pages or closing credits, so you have a lot of typographers being named and recognized for their work. Some of the explanations Rault is able to expose for why lower-case letters became a thing or why some letters got flipped around, or italics were invented, make for fascinating trivia.
The glossary is also worth a mention, with many of the words being for things you didn’t even know had a name, like crossbar, “the horizontal stroke in a letterform,” like, “the (usually) horizontal stroke across the middle of uppercase ‘A’ and ‘H…,’” but which, “…differs from an arm and a cross stroke because each end connects to a stem or stroke and doesn’t (usually) intersect/cross over the stem or stroke, as it might in a lower-case ‘t’ or ‘f.’”
The material is still rather dense and factual, which might seem like a ‘what did you expect’ situation, but while it’s one thing to understand the timeline for how today’s modern alphabet developed, you’re still left wondering “but why ‘A’?” For those kinds of questions, a narrative story might be better but Rault’s format works best for the breadth of history he covers, and probably the information that’s available.
The ABC of Typography is available now from SelfMadeHero and is a well-researched primer on the basics of typography.

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