The Geometry of Type

The Geometry of Type: The Anatomy of 100
Essential Typefaces

Stephen Coles
Foreword by Erik Spiekermann
Thames & Hudson, 256 pages, $11.00

By Chris Dickman
Founding Editor,

What if I told you that my choice for the body font for a project we were collaborating on was a Humanist Sans, perhaps Optima or SangBleu, thanks to their calligraphic vibe, open forms and a high stroke contrast. SangBleu would be my first pick, thanks to its use of teardrop terminals and slightly splayed legs. And who can resist its strokes, which taper to a pointed terminal. Make sense? No? Then you probably need to devote some time to working your way through the new paperback edition of The Geometry of Type. Or as Eric Spiekermann observes in the Foreword, "If you know the difference between a font and a typeface, you need this book. If you don’t, you need it even more."

Typography, more than any other aspect of design, is awash in subtle distinctions. Which either is part and parcel of its charm or a source of annoyance, depending on your perspective. Author Stephen Coles has apparently spent his life willingly immersed in typographic minutiae and as such is perhaps the perfect guide for leading readers through the sinuous path of strokes, bowls, brackets, spines, spurs, arms, eyes and similar letterform distinctions. Coles' approach is to take 100 fonts and like a surgeon pick them apart to reveal their unique characteristics, as well as position them within the classic taxonomy of Grotesque Sans, Geometric Slab, Transitional Serif and so on, which seems appallingly arbitrary until you give in and embrace it.

In the beginning, mastering all this is about as much fun as doing your taxes. But stick with it and the mist will gradually lift until you reach the day when you get an email newsletter from FontShop and actually understand what it's talking about. This will translate into better communication with your collaborators. Because as Coles rightly points out, "Graphic designers who can scrutinize and describe type’s nuances are better equipped to pick the right tool for the job and discuss those choices with colleagues and clients." Recommended.