Letterform Collected: A Typographic Compendium

Caroline Roberts, Editor

I kind of have a good thing for the letter “R.” It has all the parts I like to play with: a curving bowl, a vertical, and a diagonal. It’s the biggest kit of letter parts – cats in a bag – that can either fight or get along. And if I had to pick just one “R,” which is ridiculous on the face of it, I might pick Will Bradley’s intensely idiosyncratic “R” from his Magazine Initials set.

Letterform Collected: A Typographic Compendium is a body of reprinted columns that appeared in Grafik magazine between 2005 and 2009. It is a very pointed look not just at typefaces, but at individual characters. Each writer was invited to choose and speak on behalf of a specific character from a specific typeface. Each contribution gets a spread: their thoughts in green on light pink on the left and a big light pink letterform on a green background on the right.

The 49 entries are ordered alphabetically by letterform, so we have David Quay, Michael Bojowski, Gilmar Wendt, Nadine Chahine, and Ole Schaefer all representing the charms of various letters “A” and “a”. Some letters didn’t get any love: we are missing encomia on the letters B, D, F, H, J, L, M, N, P, T, Y, and Z. But we get multiple tributes to most other letters, plus ampersands and miscellaneous other glyphs.

It is rather delightful that the letterform selection is haphazard: it makes the book feel even more personal. We get lessons in all sorts of unexpected areas: how the distinctive characters came to be adopted throughout the Amsterdam bridge and canal system; Johann Steingruber’s Architectural Alphabet, letters that could make lovely homes if only they would get built; what makes something a Canadian typeface (besides the geographic provenance of its designers); and Giotto’s gift for drawing in the sand. Tattoos come up from time to time: a letter is really beloved if it is considered tattoo worthy – or has actually already been tattooed.

Here are a few opening sentences to give a sense of the range of approaches used: “I recall an article from Design Observer by Rick Poynor declaring American Typewriter was experiencing an ‘unnecessary revival’.” “A mysterious shape, the question mark is a perpetual interrogation.” “It must be difficult being the manager of the England football team.” “Could there be a character more fraught with irony?” “I have a wooden letter at home that my wife found outside a shop.”

This book reminds me more than a little of a favorite: Type Best Remembered/Type Best Forgotten, edited by Robert Norton (Kirkland, Wash.: Parsimony Press, 1993). This was a book that had two fronts: one was an entry to the “good” types and the other was the entry to the “bad” types, both evaluated by invited writers. There was, naturally, an occasional overlap, and the fun was in learning why a face could be both loathed and loved.

If you have affection for letterforms and an interest in understanding why we love them, Letterform Collected is an amusing, thought-provoking addition to your library. I suggest beginning with the entry of a typeface you can’t stand and see if your dislike stands up to the persuasive argument in its favor.

Alex W. White is the author of five books including Advertising Design and Typography (2007), Thinking in Type (2005), and The Elements of Graphic Design (2002), as well as numerous articles on typography and visual communication. His consultancy works with ad agencies and their clients to improve the visual power of their messages. White is an award-winning designer and has spoken professionally and taught for twenty-five years, currently at Parsons and City College of New York. He is a past president and chairman of the TDC.