7 Fun Facts about the History of Typography

It may sound contradictory, but even though I have a great interest in lettering, I was never hugely interested in the history of typography. I love how type and illustration come together in lettering, and basic type theory is interesting, but I never would have sat down in the library to really dive into the history of type in itself.

Until I stumbled over “Just my Type” by Simon Garfield. This book makes the history of typography immensely accessible and interesting. It’s broken up into 22 chapters broken up by 11 “Fontbreaks”, detailing a whole heap of stories from how Comic Sans came about to the involvement between Mr Baskerville and Mrs Eaves to a list of “The Worst Fonts in the World” (Comic Sans isn’t one of them!) and more.

I’ve pulled out my favourite 7 pieces of fun facts, and a few more online references for you to enjoy (because they’re better enjoyed online than in a book where you have to look them up afterwards).

#1 The Comic Sans Story

This one needs to get out there, because everyone seems to hate Comic Sans nowadays without even knowing why. The typeface was created by Vincent Connare in 1994 and was solving a specific problem – namely that the standard Times New Roman didn’t go too well with a dog called “Rover” in Microsoft Bob. Vincent Connare defends himself saying that “there was no intention to include the font in other applications other than those designed for children”. And that is in fact why Comic Sans is one of the most hated fonts today – it has been overused in inappropriate ways.

#2 The Origin of a few select special characters

The Ampersand

Who would’ve known that the ampersand actually combines two letters? It stems from the Latin word “et”, which turned into a single & when written fast and translates to “and”. Once you know this, you see it!

The Interrobang

“What in the world is an Interrobang?”, you may ask. Well, it’s a single character combining an exclamation and question mark, ‽. It was created in the 1960s by Martin Spekter, in an attempt to make the clumsy combination of “?!” look more appealing. Unfortunately it failed to make its mark, but the story is interesting nonetheless.

The @

Garfield only touches on this one, but it sparked my curiosity to find out more. It actually is not a product of the digital age, but rather is about as old as the ampersand! There is a theory about it coming along very similarly, by combining two characters, i.e. the Latin word for “toward”—ad—written quickly to combine the  “a” with the back part of the “d” as a tail. I found a more in-depth article here.

#3 The phenomenon of public outrage when big corporations change their typeface

When IKEA changed its typeface in 2009 from Futura to Verdana, there was a similar uproar to when Google changed their logo earlier this year. Garfield diagnoses that suddenly “a lot of people found they cared about something they had never cared about before”, and refers to Online Forum discussions and newspaper articles, as well as a dedicated Wikipedia page titled “Verdanagate”.

#4 The story of Mrs Eaves’ Love Affair with Mr Baskerville

The book reads

Mrs Baskerville had been married before, and it was not a happy tale. At the age of sixteen she wed one Richard Eaves, with whom she bore five children, before he deserted her. She was then working as John Baskerville’s live-in housekeeper – and later became his lover. But she was unable to marry Baskerville until Eaves’s death in 1764 and it may be that some of the society disapproval of Baskerville’s work was fired by their unorthodox relationship.

I found a cute illustration that goes into a bit more detail on http://www.baskerville.helinavora.com – have a look! In conjunction with this story Garfield references our very own Aussie artist Gemma O’Brien, who called herself “Mrs Eaves” and broke into the industry drawing letters all over her body.

#5 There isn’t a lot of money in designing typefaces

Chapter sixteen is called “Pirated and Clones”, where Garfield details how the swiss typographer who created ‘the world’s most familiar font’ Helvetica, Max Miedinger, actually didn’t receive any royalties and ‘died virtually penniless’ in 1980. Font foundry Stempel didn’t make a lot of money from it either though, “for the simple reason that if your font is any good, it gets copied.” Garfield describes Arial as “the biggest transgressor in terms of global impact”, and references the “Font Fight” as well as the “Font Conference” videos from College Humor.

The point of the chapter being that type designers still have little means to protect their creations under a patent or copyright, and references a few court cases to support this, i.e. how Adobe won a case against Southern Software Inc, or how French government agency HADOPI used a pirated font in its logo.

#6 The origin of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”

This sentence is used universally to preview typefaces, because it contains every single letter of the alphabet. There is a video this sentence is said to originate from.

#7 The worst Fonts in the World

I’m not going to pull out the whole list here because someone else already did that. I just want to share some references for your amusement. How about “Trajan is the movie font”? Alternatively, check out http://www.fontifier.com where you can design your own fonts to go onto the list, or have a look at collections of wrong font use like http://www.iheartpapyrus.com or http://mickeyavenue.com.

Wrapping up

“Just My Type” offers so much more, like stories about early discussions in Germany about the clarity of typefaces, why Barack Obama chose Gotham for his “Yes You Can” campaign and a dive into the music scene (think iconic logos like “The Beatles” and “Rolling Stone” magazine) – you really need to read it for yourself. I can promise that after reading this book, you will never look at type the same way – I can only highly recommend it!


I’m giving away a copy of this book – just share this post on social media and tag @letteringhub to win!

This giveaway has now closed. Congratulations to the lucky winner Ellie McGrath! If you wish to purchase this book, go here.