The Visual History of Type

The Visual History of Type

by Paul McNeil

As a lover of books and type, its a treat when something that combines both lands on my desk – especially with a thud! The Visual History of Type by Paul McNeil (of MuirMcNeil), published by Laurence King, is one such treat its my pleasure to share with you. Rather than simply rehash the press release this is a book of such magnitude (Hardback, 350 illustrations, 672 pages etc.) we had to speak to Paul to understand the process of its birth, ahead of its release next month.

Can you give us a bit of background about yourself please…

I worked for over three decades as a graphic design consultant before returning to university in 2001 to undertake a Masters Degree in Typographic studies at the London College of Printing. My design background was in branding and corporate identity largely for businesses in the technology and communications sectors and for NGOs. In recent years I have reduced my commercial practice and worked largely in education, teaching postgraduate design at the London College of Communication, where I was Course Leader of the MA Typographic Studies from 2010-2016. In 2010, I also co-founded MuirMcNeil with Hamish Muir to undertake a mix of commissioned of work and independent design projects. Everything we do focusses on exploring systems-based approaches to solving to visual communication problems.


Why this book, why now, why this format?

I’ve always been fascinated by type and typography as the central pillars of communication, rather than merely as part of a design toolkit, and have been studying them throughout my career, accumulating a large collection of books and specimens in the process. A few years ago, I became aware of the absence of any definitive histories of type other than Jaspert, Berry and Johnson’s seminal Encyclopedia of Typefaces, which has been continuously in print since 1953, and Sutton And Bartram’s unsurpassed Atlas of Typeforms from 1968 — two books I hold in the highest regard. Working with students on a daily basis, I was also increasingly aware of their comparative lack of knowledge of the history of type. I wanted to fill that gap, not solely because of its usefulness in helping designers understand how and why type works but also because of the exceptional richness of its historical connections to technologies, to the aesthetic milieu of different eras and to social and ideological evolution. Type is a microcosmic representation of culture.

It would have been obvious to structure the book around type classification, splitting it into sections under headings such as “Old Style”, “Neo Grotesque”, “Display” or hideous neologisms like “Didone” and so on, but as the early stages of the book’s research developed, I realised that categorising types in this way would give a completely false impression. Traditional type classifications lack any consistency, identifying typefaces on the basis of a ragbag of historical, geographical or other arbitrary associations. They also give the illusion of mapping everything possible within the scope of the design of letters and in doing so, exclude any typefaces which don’t fall comfortably under a single classification, which amalgamate different characteristics, which the classifier dislikes, or which transcend classification altogether, as has been the case increasingly since the advent of digital type design.

Having originated a considerable amount of printed material during my career, I was also very keen to avoid what might be called a conventionally rhetorical approach to the design. In many books, the layout and the typography draw attention to themselves as if to compensate for deficiencies in content, in order to ‘make a stupid thing look pretty’ (here I’m paraphrasing the words of the design educator Ian Noble). The approach to the design of The Visual History of Type is the opposite of this. Its intention is to provide a definitive visual survey of the major typefaces produced since the advent of printing in the 1450s until the present day, with an emphasis on the faithful representation of key historical typefaces presented in their original specimens or, where more suitable, set in contemporary documents. The book is thick because it is full of content and large because the images shown are at actual size or as close as possible to it. All 320+ typefaces are displayed on spreads that are arranged systematically throughout, supported by succinct summaries of the development, appearance and application of each design, and tables locating firmly it within its context.


What does it take to put a book like this together – can you give us a glimpse into the scale of task, the hours spent, the folk involved, the decisions to be made etc.?

In total, this project has had a seven and a half year span for me, undertaken as a side project to teaching and other work. Including downtime — extended periods where the ball was not in my court — the schedule roughly breaks down into one year of initial proposals and negotiations with Laurence King, three years of subject and image research, two years of writing and a one year cycle of origination: designing, art working, retouching, corrections etc. I found researching this book to be an utter delight, designing it an anticipated chore and writing it, really, really tough. As both author and designer, much of the process was a solitary, arduous and rather lonely task. I would have much preferred to have worked as part of a collaborative team that I might have managed but I was ably supported by several people, particularly Giovanni Forti, the project’s picture researcher, who procured every image beyond my remit with patient persistence, everything from Gutenberg’s Textura to Cassandre’s Bifur; Ida Riveros, ace photographer, who shot all of the original images; and Philip Contos who stepped into the role of editor in the closing stages of its production and pulled it all together with exceptional diligence, acuity and good humour.

A project of this scale would not have been possible without the cooperation of many contributors who were generous in sharing their knowledge and providing materials, but one particular resource was vital to the book: London’s St Bride Library, a place where I spent some of my happiest hours, pouring over their extraordinary collection of historical specimens in the company of Librarian Bob Richardson, whose knowledge and commitment was very helpful in the book’s development. The St Bride is an absolutely peerless resource — long may it continue.


What role do you think physical books like this (size + price etc) play in a world where many folk, especially students, get their stimulus (and even now design history/education) digitally?

Although digital media is prevalent, I don’t think it has displaced print as dramatically as this question seems to imply, in education or elsewhere. We often tend to see things that are different as oppositional – for example the idea that print is completely dead because we now access most information through screens. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that both old and new media can co-exist and will probably continue to do so. It’s been a long time since print and publishing were the sole vehicles of mass communication, although in certain ways printed matter remains more interactive, more immediate and more personal than its digital counterparts and, unlike them, it will always have the merit of holding a value that is proportionate to what is invested in it, as much in terms of provenance and verification as cost. But this is only a soft-edged matter of media and mediation, a shade of grey. A published book is undoubtedly the primary medium for The Visual History of Type because it provides a close fit between form and content: much of its subject matter relates directly to printing. It could not exist without Laurence King’s massive investment in it for which I am extremely grateful. There is currently no digital equivalent for such a commitment. Where are Kindles now, or iBooks (if that’s what they were called)? I’m not trying to champion old media though – it would be great  to see the Visual History of Type developed as a website with a continuously expanding database, providing that editing and curation are to meticulously high standards.


How do you go about deciding what type makes the cut – and any favourite bits you had to leave out?

Because I’ve been marinating in typography for a quite a while, I had a clear idea of the typefaces I wanted to include from the outset but I made many fantastic discoveries on the way, like the 1922 Bremer Presse Antiqua and Sandrine Nugue’s spectacular Infini from 2015. Everything was itemised on a spreadsheet, rather than a flat plan, that was in a constant state of flux as I visited libraries and archives while also receiving selections of images from the picture researchers at Laurence King. Of the 320+ typefaces represented in the book, many had to be included because they are widely upheld as ‘classics’ having proven time after time to be readable, versatile and unobtrusive; designs such as Garamond and Baskerville, for example. Because generations of readers have found these familiar forms effortlessly legible, generations of printers and publishers have depended on them and they have become accepted as benchmarks of typographic excellence, efficiency and beauty. But the objective of The Visual History of Type is to present an accurate picture of every stage of its development and the book therefore includes several typefaces that may have only survived briefly. The book also includes a number of groundbreaking experimental designs that may have failed commercially or never have been published at all but that opened up new directions in the development of the field. Although many of these choices might be disputed as irrelevant, incorrect, localized, outdated or just plain ugly, they have all been chosen with care for their relevance to this narrative instead of those that some might deem more wholesome.

It is no exaggeration to say that I find type utterly enthralling, a product of human ingenuity that has had an influence on civilization greater than any other, and which continues . I take delight in every single item that I’ve included in the book (even Comic Sans and Arial) and it is my sincere hope that others will appreciate them too, or most of them. On an almost daily basis I see a new typeface that I wish I could have included (Bely, Nordvest, Brutal) but I’m very pleased not to have to worry about things I can’t change.


Any more books – type or otherwise – in the works?

I’m currently starting to research material for a book on the deeper connections between language and its many possible visible forms — everything from stenography to pictography — but at such an early stage, I will probably get completely sidetracked. I do hope so.


Thanks to Paul for taking the time to talk to us, and to LK for the review copy. I can unbiasedly say this is one of the finest books on type I’ve ever seen, and is well worth the cover price. Its the sort of book I’ll be referring to for years to come, will be loved by students and professionals alike, and it deserves to be printed and produced as it has been. Add it to your wish-list!

Luke Tonge

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