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Designing Type

by Karen Cheng
New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2006
224 pp., illus. 70 b/w, 100 col. Paper, $29.95
ISBN: 0-300-11150-9.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


One of the greatest challenges in graphic design is that of trying to invent a new typeface. One reason for this difficulty is that there already exist a huge number of typefaces (10 years ago, according to this book, there were about 50,000) so it requires considerable ingenuity just to come up with a type style that isn’t already in use. (As quoted here, a type designer named Kent Lew, originates typefaces by using what-if scenarios, e.g., "What if [the typeface] Joanna had been designed by W.A. Dwiggins, instead of by Eric Gill? What if Mozart had been a punch cutter–rather than a composer?").

The bottom line is that designing a typeface is a complex and often gargantuan task. Every typeface, as the author of this book explains, "is a system of forms balanced between unity and variety." In other words, each character in its alphabet must be at once distinguishable from all other characters, so that no two are confused, and yet they also have to rhyme, in order to function effectively as a coherent type style. That might not be such an ominous task if a designer were only expected to make the upper and lower case characters of the alphabet and, of course, the numbers. But one also has to design the punctuation, accent marks and symbols, with the result that the number of basic characters for any typeface is around 200. And that does not take into account such other essential variants as italic, boldface, small caps, ligatures, dingbats and so on. In addition, there is the formidable task of making certain that all characters, in whatever combination, will work together perfectly when arranged in sequence (the standard test that’s used for this is the nonsense word hamburgefonsiv). From this, you can begin to see why comparatively few designers devote their lives (literally) to typeface design, but also why we admire the few who do so, and especially those who do it well.

The author of this book is an expert in typography (she teaches type design at the University of Washington in Seattle), and, while there are a number of excellent print and web sources on this subject (the best of which she shares with us), this book is especially good. Of particular interest are her students’ impressive attempts to design their own typefaces. Even if one is not a diehard type enthusiast, this is such a strikingly beautiful book that the journey from cover to cover will be well worth the effort.

Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review from Vol 21 No 3 (Spring 2006).




Updated 1st July 2006

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