Who was Garamond, anyway?

The author of a new dictionary of typefaces explains the origins of some of the best-known type–and their lesser-known namesakes.

Typefaces create pictures of words. Like images, each typeface communicates an idea, emotion, and point of view. Helvetica might speak to neutrality and information; Garamond can read as literary and classic; Bodoni feels sophisticated, urbane, and crisp. The choice of typeface communicates a subtle message to the viewer. The typeface choice, like a moving and powerful photograph, is the difference between a good idea expressed adequately and a good idea expressed persuasively.

There are as many approaches to typeface choice as there are design processes. Some designers, such as Massimo Vignelli, work with a small handful of typefaces for their entire career. Other designers may be more promiscuous with type, switching typefaces on every project. Neither of these is wrong. Vignelli adhered to strict modernist principles of simplicity and reduction. Herb Lubalin designed his own typefaces, preferring variety, flourish, and drama. These examples are extremes; many designers operate closer to the center of the spectrum.

My new book, The Designer’s Dictionary of Type, is not a comprehensive analysis and history of every typeface. Such an undertaking would require several volumes, each one thousands of pages thick. Instead, it aims to illustrate the multiple ways in which a designer might apply a typeface, as well as the many variations of each one. With experience, a designer will be able to look at a version of Caslon and determine whether it is well-crafted and refined, or a cheap knock-off from a free download.

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