Shamed But Seeking Redemption

I’ve been shamed by Greg Storey. Oh, I don’t know Greg personally. And he doesn’t know me. But last month, I was reading a post of his and was confronted by my own delinquency. I had known what I should do, and I had even known when. Heck, I had even tried to do it, but I lost sight of my goals and let things slide. It took a stranger’s account of that glorious moment, that laying bare of the state of things, to remind me that I forgot to order my copy of FontBook.

I’m happy to say that I once was lost, but now I’m found.

FontBook, seen from a worm's eye view, towering over a laptop behind it.

FontBook, in all its glory. Not shown here is the small shantytown on the other side that formed in its protective shadow.

I’d heard of FontBook but never seemed to come across it, the previous three editions apparently having been snapped up and hoarded by earlier generations. And having one well-designed and near-comprehensive resource for digital type is very valuable. Graphic designers, such as myself, can end up spending a great deal of time searching for the perfect typeface(s) to suit a project. Often, by combing a combination of printed type specimens (the result of carefully and steadily collecting by mail and at events) and website perusing (the result of carefully and steadily collecting by bookmarking and searching), a designer can get a pretty comprehensive look at what’s out there. But collecting and comparing these options can get pretty tough. That’s where FontBook comes in.

Back in 2006, I’d heard rumblings about this delectable tome, some of them from Stephen Coles, who whiles away the hours pushing glyphs for FontShop International at their offices on the Left Coast, and who played a role in producing this fourth edition of FontBook. I knew I’d need to get my hands on this meaty type resource. It would become the core of my type specimen collection, ensuring that the bulk of digital type would always be on hand.

The credits for the work on the FontBook, listed as: Edited by Mai-Linh Thi Truong, Jürgen Siebert, Erik Spiekermann; Programming, Andi Pieper, Ulf Wrede; Cross-references, Stephen Coles, Yves Peters.

Eventually, a website was launched and emails were sent, promising the definitive type specimen book. I made a call to FontShop, and they informed me that the book would be available soon for $99. This might sting a little for some, after all, it’s just a book, right? Well, FontBook is 6.5 lbs of 32,000 type samples from 90 “international libraries” providing digital type. It has three bookmark ribbons built in. This is no mere brochure, or even lustrous limited-edition specimen book; this is old-school reference material for us new-schoolers and our fancy-pants computers. But then my schedule filled up, projects both at home and at work, piled up, and I filed FontBook in the mental to-do bin.

Back in March, as I read Greg’s latest post on Airbag about receiving an unusually heavy package from a slightly exasperated mail carrier, I was gripped by the rushing sensation of suddenly remembering a big un-done bullet-item on one’s to-do list. With hunched shoulders and a quiet shame that I’d forgotten about my opportunity to get my hands on one of the best printed type references published, I ordered my copy and nervously wrung my hands. Did someone know? Would my name be struck from the list of Typophiles? Would the room hush at my entry at this year’s TypeCon? A single open-quote of sweat rolled down the side of my face…or did it? All I could do was wait.

At last! The package arrived. Unlike Greg, I knew exactly what it was when I saw it, and hefted it onto the table and unsheathed it from its cardboard packaging. The book is well-designed, and not just visually. The binding allows the book to lay open on its own, even at the first spread. Like any workhorse reference book, the page design is compact and clear. Unlike some smaller promotional specimens that act as visual guidebooks, FontBook is akin to a visual dictionary.

An open spread, at the divider page for chapter 4, script.

Each type family is given its own header, underneath which are samples of the type, as appropriate to its use (text faces get text blocks, whereas display faces do not). The year, designer, and foreign language references are given as well (with the additional fonts displayed in “Latin Plus” and “Non-Latin” chapters). But the little feature that really caught my attention is marked by a small eye icon followed by a list of similar fonts. This is a great addition, which not only allows for easier comparison of similar designs, but also encourages exploration and diversity in choices. In spite of all the options out there, many designers stick to a few standbys, simply because it can be so difficult to winnow out the options. I applaud this decision, and tip my hat to Stephen and Yves Peters for what must have been an imposing task, but one they’re both well-qualified to take on.

A close-up, angled shot of an open spread, showing New Clarendon and New Journal.

Some example specimens from the Serif chapter. I’m a big Clarendon fan, myself.

A close-up of the Armenian character key.

This is a good example of how comprehensive, and how internationally-oriented this book is. The book includes a very wide variety of non-Latin character sets.

So far, I’ve flipped through the book at random, and have flipped page-by-page through most of the sans serif section. Of course, it would be nearly impossible and too unwieldy to try and catalogue every digital typeface that exists. There are so many spin-offs, variations, questionable designs, and other odd-and-ends that a comprehensive list would actually decline in value as it filled up with clutter and expanded beyond realistic use. The type found in FontBook is the result of an editorial process, winnowing down staggering lists with an eye towards creating a more enduring document. While in some ways this keeps the book more vanilla than some might want, 30,000 specimens leaves room for a great deal of variety and quality. I have a feeling I’ll be looking through this reference tool for years and years, so I appreciate the informed editorial intervention. The web (or some equivalent) will always be there for tracking down the weirder and less common digital typefaces, if need be.

And perhaps that’s what I appreciate most about a work like this one. In an age of hyper-segmented, streamlined search strings, and database-driven, algorithmically-optimized selections, FontBook is an enormous pleasure (literally). When I can carry all of my music, addresses, professional work, and more in my backpack, it’s such a warmly human pleasure to leisurely flip through this massive archive, casually and accidentally coming across gems and odd little characters by-the-by. Perhaps FontBook’s most valuable offering isn’t its pragmatic systematizing of the type-oriented design process, but its very physical reminder that life isn’t just about doing things quickly; it’s about doing them fully.

FontBook, laying in front of an Apple titanium PowerBook on a wooden table.

My three now-primary type reference tools: FontBook, Linotype FontExplorerX, and my laptop. That’s Underware’s Bello Pro on the screen there. Is Bello in FontBook? Of course.

3 replies on “Shamed But Seeking Redemption”

  1. Great story, and an even better book, I’m enviouse, but as I have money sufficient to pay my bills and hold down the fort for me and my family, their isn’t really 100 dollars to spare at this point for a book. So I will have to live my dreams of owning the book vicariously through yours and others wonderful tales and pictures.

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