I compiled this list of my favorite books about typography, from the perspective of one who teaches the subject. I first wrote it in the summer of 2009 when I was preparing to teach a Typography 2 class, updating my bibliography list, and thinking about which books are must-haves and/or classics. Now I’m updating it again after revisiting some material. I suspect I’ll continue to update it every few years… 🙂
The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst
This is a comprehensive book that should be on every designer’s shelf. An expert typographer and an eloquent writer, Bringhurst has given us a gift that Herman Zapf hopes will become the “Typographers’ Bible.” Bringhurst’s language is refreshing, intelligent, and poetic:
Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy….”
My favorite section of the book is the chapter on “Shaping the Page”, where he discusses organic, mechanical, and musical proportions in grid structures. Included is the golden section, which I found mesmerizing.
Thinking With Type, by Ellen Lupton
I like the focus of this book, which is to learn how to THINK with type. That is, how to communicate a message visually using type as an equal partner with images. It accomplishes this goal with engaging history, clear explanations of terminology, and plenty of visual examples. The study sequence of letter, word, then text is accompanied with exercises and projects that help you explore, experiment, and examine all kinds of possibilities. This gem is my current required text for beginner students of typography, replacing my former favorite Design With Type, by Carl Dair (see below).
Lessons in Typography, by Jim Krause
As an educator, I am fortunate to be able to review books as potential required or recommended texts for classes I teach. I learned of Lessons in Typography through a publisher’s email about the Creative Core series. The subtitle piqued my interest (“Must-know typographic principles presented through lessons, exercises, and examples”), so I asked for a review copy: I am so glad I did. For me, it is the perfect companion to Thinking With Type. My students love hands-on learning using the computer, and this book gave me lots of in-class exercises and several tutorials that are fun and challenging.
Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, by Erik Speikermann & E.M. Ginger
This is another great introduction to typography, with humor and informality that keep students entertained and informed.
An excerpt from Amazon.com review:
World-renowned type experts Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger explain in everyday laymen’s terms what type is and how you can use it to enhance the legibility, meaning, and aesthetic level of your work. They elegantly touch on all aspects of typography, including the history and mechanics of type, how to train your eye to recognize and choose typefaces, and how to use space and layout to improve overall communication…. “
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield
I know a lot about type history, and now I know even more after reading this book. Beginning with the early history of moveable type, Garfield takes us on a journey to the present with wit and enthusiasm. It’s written like a mystery novel, weaving stories about different fonts and their origins. Interesting facts, curiosities, and motivations about the type designers are revealed. We learn about Helvetica and Arial, and how they each became ubiquitous. We discover some unsavory aspects of Eric Gill’s personality. The selection of Gotham for the Obama presidential campaign is discussed. Garfield celebrates the typography in our contemporary lives by humanizing it and helping us understand how and why fonts elicit emotions and reactions.
Design With Type, by Carl Dair
In my Typography I classes, this used to be a required text. Sadly, it is no longer in print. If you can get your hands on it in the library or a reasonably priced used version, go for it. Its clear content is valuable as a foundation for teaching beginning students. Dair examines the basic components of type, type relationships (his explanation of the 7 dimensions of concord/contrast is excellent), space, and hierarchy. Throughout, he treats type as design material and provides ample examples of imaginative typography. The hardcover edition won several major design awards and was one of the “Fifty Books of the Year 1967” selected by the AIGA.
An excerpt from Amazon.com review:
Design with Type takes the reader through a study of typography that starts with the individual letter and proceeds through the word, the line, and the mass of text. The contrasts possible with type are treated in detail, along with their applications to the typography of books, advertising, magazines, and information data….”
Design with Type differs from all other books on typography in that it discusses type as a design material as well as a means of communication….”
Designing with Type, by James Craig
One of the best introductions to typography, I used it in my earlier Typography I classes for several years. Beginning with a brief history of the alphabet & typography, it also covers basic type measurements (point size, leading, line length, font, wordspacing, etc.), type families and samples, design considerations, and simple grids. Some of the content in my 3rd edition is outdated, but perhaps more recent editions have made appropriate revisions.
Ellen Lupton describes Craig’s book as a utilitarian classic, “a handyman’s guide to basic typography.”
Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition, by Kimberly Elam
I became enamored with this book the moment I read this sentence:
Within the context of the man-made environment and the natural world there is a documented human cognitive preference for golden section proportions throughout recorded history…”
The book has a wonderful mix of great writing and fascinating examples of the Golden Section, Divine Proportion, and the Fibonacci Sequence. Can you tell that I once aspired to be a math teacher? The underlying grid structures of designs are illustrated via vellum overlays. I found myself smiling a lot as I read this book.
The Poster Art of A. M. Cassandre, by Brown & Reinhold
I am a huge fan of Cassandre and would recommend studying his typography and posters to all graphic designers. His posters have become iconic symbols of the effective use of sans serif type, dramatic contrast in scale, geometric proportions, readability, and humor. He contributed greatly to an era when posters were a popular mode of advertising, and his work continues to inspire. You will probably be able to find this book in a library or borrow it from a colleague.
The New Typography, by Tschichold, McLean, & Kinross
Jan Tschichold was a leader in the “new” Swiss school of typography, which continued to influence designers for decades. Today, his approach may be considered rigid, yet it still informs and reminds us of the importance of white space and simple, clean layouts.
Probably the most important work on typography and graphic design in the twentieth century.” – Carl Zahn, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
If you’re interested in design and typography, you should buy this book…it’s still one of the best typographic how-to books we have.” – Adobe Magazine
Here are other great books that I think are worthy of a spot on a designer’s bookshelf.
Cool Type, by Drate, Salavetz, & Smith
Once you’ve learned the rules of typography, it’s time to explore how to break them. This book helped me do just that when I was a student, and I still enjoy looking at it for ideas and inspiration. There’s a nice range of styles and pushing the edge.
The Precision Type Font Reference Guide, by Levell, Newman, & Newman
Typewise, by Kit Hinrichs (and Pentagram)
Any list of typography books would be remiss without including Kit Hinrichs, a partner with Pentagram Design since 1986. He has received many honors, notably the AIGA Medal, and is widely recognized as one of the premier designers in the U.S. The partner list at Pentagram reads like a “Who’s Who” in innovative, creative designers. Paula Scher once came to speak at Mass. College of Art & Design (my alma mater), and I was blown away. This book is only one of their many offerings to be inspired by, so if you can’t find it for sale, go with another Pentagram-penned book.
What are your favorite books?
Now it’s your turn! There are many great books out there. Tell us what your favorites are. Thanks very much!