Can you recommend any good books on typography?

Every designer’s library should have a good collection of books about typography: historical overviews, monographs offering different philosophical perspectives, and a few well-illustrated anthologies. Here are some of our favorites.

Using type, thinking about typography

Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is the finest book ever written about typography. Bringhurst is a thoughtful writer with an acutely organized mind, who examines the complete range of typographic perspectives (from letterforms to pages) with warmth and sensitivity. The book is simultaneously an excellent primer for newcomers and an invaluable desk reference for practicing designers, covering topics both philosophical and practical (how italic letterforms evolved in the seventeenth century; when to correctly use parentheses, brackets, or braces.) The book’s first six chapters are as relevant to writing Cascading Style Sheets as they are to designing magazines; its seventh chapter, which offers a novel but demonstrably superior system for classifying typefaces (just one of many passages that brings real illumination to one of typography’s murkier corners) is useful to anyone organizing a font library. Everyone who works with type has something to learn from Bringhurst.

Why typefaces look the way they do

Seventy years after its original publication, Daniel Berkeley Updike’s two-volume Printing Types: Their History, Forms and Use remains a standard desk reference on typographic history. Updike chronicles the development of typefaces from incunabula through the early Industrial Revolution, though his scholarship is somewhat marred by personal prejudices. What the books lack in objectivity is at least made up for by the volume of their illustrations, which provide an excellent survey of the history of typography.

For a better perspective on type history that is both lively and engaging, we like Harry Carter’s A View of Early Typography Up To About 1600, recently reissued by Hyphen Press. Carter uses a study of the first 150 years of typefounding as an opportunity to explore the relationship between type and technology, the diversity of typographic styles, and the interplay between type and language. All of these observations offer useful concepts for thinking about typography in general.

Two books that we grew up with are Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit and Alexander Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typeface. Tracy is one of the few authors to discuss typeface design from the perspective of the drawing office, and his observations hold many practical lessons for both graphic designers and type designers. Lawson offers thirty profiles of famous typefaces (which read like first-hand interviews with the fonts themselves), collectively forming a solid foundation for understanding twentieth century type design.

Letterletter is a collection of essays by Gerrit Noordzij, one of the few practicing typographers who has taken the time to articulate his philosophy. Noordzij’s ideas, which are informed by a nice mixture of praxis, theory, and observation, have found an audience among both radicals and traditionalists. One of Noordzij’s countrymen is Fred Smeijers, whose Counterpunch: Making Type in the 16th Century, Designing Typefaces Now offers similarly provocative ideas about type design both past and present. Like Carter, Smeijers uses historical type-making as a springboard to discuss typography in more abstract terms, and like Tracy, he offers insights that could only come from an accomplished type designer.

Atlases and overviews

For its sheer magnitude, Jaspert, Berry & Johnson’s Encyclopedia of Typefaces is an essential field guide to typefaces both obscure and familiar. Inside, designers will find a look at nearly two thousand typefaces, many of them extremely rare for having been produced by defunct type foundries that had no successors in business. Amazingly, even some of the most obscure designs are illustrated by full character sets.

For a well-illustrated (if subjective) survey of historical letterforms, we often turn to Jan Tschichold’s Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering. Tschichold integrates typographic artifacts with examples of calligraphic and inscriptional lettering, which collectively present a broader picture of the development of the alphabet. Also in this vein, but sadly out of print, is Nicolete Gray’s A History of Lettering, one of many fine books by Mrs. Gray that are sorely overdue for reissue.

Historical topics

Those looking for a more focussed study of specific historical periods will find no shortage of resources, though most of the best titles are out of print. The following books are recommended for being both well-researched and profusely illustrated: if your school library doesn’t have these, ask the librarian if they’re available through interlibrary loan.

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