Type Specimens: A Visual History of Typesetting and Printing | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Type Specimens: A Visual History of Typesetting and Printing

Type Specimens: A Visual History of Typesetting and Printing
by Dori Griffin

Bloomsbury, London, 2022
256 pp., illus. 200 col. Trade, $90.00; paper, $31.45
ISBN: 9781350116597.

Reviewed by: 
Michael Punt
April 2022

Typographic specimens, according to Dori Griffin ‘… display the design of typefaces, what everyday users call fonts.’ The design, production and use of moveable type technology is a perfect example of how, over four centuries, engineers, scientists, and the designers have, in collaboration with the cognitive affordances of the readers, worked hand in hand to reconcile legibility with production advantages. One aspect of this enterprise is evident in the work of typographic designer who art is to  take the reader into the text balancing the rhetorical potential of the typeface with the physical and cognitive processes of reading. The ratio between these two imperatives is adjusted by the graphic designer to suit the task in hand. An advertising poster and an instruction manual probably representing either end of this spectrum in which the invisibility of the voice of the designer is a measure of their skill. Typographic specimens are possibly unique in this context in that they are intended to foreground the nature of the voice as the message. What makes them unusually attractive is the content of these specimen books and sheets are quite independent of the meaning of the words that are printed on the page. As such, typographic specimens have the attractive incompleteness of a fossil and offer the feeling of an immediate access to a lost aesthetic and an historical context.

Dori Griffin begins Type Specimens with an account of the origins and intentions of the book. According to her, the idea sprang from a conversation at a conference which drew attention to the images of type specimens available on-line and the value added of the ‘real thing’. She goes on to share the aspiration to ‘…enable students, teachers, practicing designers and design-curious readers to access resources otherwise unavailable because of constraints in time, money or geographical location.’ Sadly, these sentiments are not reflected in the design of the book, and much of the painstaking scholarship that Griffin has put together is, in the print version, difficult (if not impossible) to access. The academic research is undermined by faint fonts, low contrast, and small point size, which is compounded by some strange choices of colour ground so that the endnotes ( a really valuable resource for students and researchers in this instance) require high degrees of motivation to begin to engage with. The extensive picture research also suffers from images similar excesses, and many are too small to be valuable.

Griffin has put together a valuable if not essential text that would be useful for exactly the constituency that she describes, and there is a certain irony in that the design of the book undermines its value as an alternative to online resources for those who want to engage with the materiality of typography.