dot-font: A Small Book of Typefaces

[editor note: You can get this book directly from Jeremy Tankard. Clicking on his name below will take you to his site.]

Jeremy Tankard is one of the most talented type designers of the last ten years, and I’m always surprised that he doesn’t get more recognition. He is better known in Britain than in North America; his most popular typeface, Bliss, is used there more widely than here. Bliss clearly falls into the same style as Eric Gill’s famous Gill Sans and Edward Johnston’s London Transport lettering; it combines a clean European humanist feel with that comfortably British sans-serif style that people in the UK are used to seeing all around them.

Tankard has produced elegant specimens of his typefaces before, but what he has done now goes beyond that: He has produced a single small booklet, called TypeBookOne, which not only shows off all his commercially available type designs, but also includes useful text about two aspects of type in general. It serves as a fine example of what can be done in a compact book form to demonstrate type in use.

Samples of Jeremy Tankard’s typeface Bliss, showing different styles and multilingual capabilities.


Showing the Type
The occasion of TypeBookOne is, as Tankard says, the updating of his typeface collection: converting all of the fonts into OpenType format, and adding considerable multilingual support to the three extensive text families, Bliss, Enigma, and Shaker. The book exists, of course, like all type specimens since the beginning of type founding, for the purpose of advertising and marketing those typefaces to potential buyers.

Aspect, a monoline cursive with a plethora of swash variants.


To emphasize its place in typographic history, TypeBookOne leads off with an article by Catherine Dixon about the tradition of making type specimens. “Showing type” is more of an academic essay than you’d expect in a promotional booklet, and its tone is a bit dry, but it’s a thoughtful, brief overview of how and why type producers have made type specimens over the years. In four small illustrations, Dixon shows examples of everything from Aldus Manutius’s 1502 caps to type specimens produced in the 1990s by Emigre, FontShop, and Porchez Typofonderie.

Page spread from Catherine Dixon’s article on the history of type specimens.


Writing of the days when type-founding was a heavy-industrial process, Dixon says, “The investment a company was prepared to make in how it showed its types can serve as a reminder of the significant investment both the manufacture and purchasing of type could require. Manufacturers of the hugely expensive machine composing systems each developed extensive publicity programmes.” Since each new typeface released was a significant event for the manufacturer, each one tended to get its own separate publication, often showing various ways in which the face might be put to use.

That changed enormously when the technology of typesetting changed, especially with the introduction of digital type and personal computers. “The late 1980s witnessed huge changes in type manufacturing and a diversification within the type market,” Dixon continues. “The introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the emergence of device independent digital type formats allowed the separation of type design and its production from highly specialised type setting equipment. The increased availability and economic viability of owning font software created a new space for the independent type designer and retailer. With no significant financial overheads to constrain visual creativity, emphasis within the market place shifted from pragmatic durability towards novelty. As the buoyancy of the late 1980s then gave way to a general market depression in the 1990s the effect on type specimen production was extreme.” We can see that effect around us: the attempt to cram lots and lots of typefaces into comprehensive type catalogs, and the concomitant effort to avoid printing such big books by putting them up on the Web instead.

TypeBookOne is a counter to this amalgamating tendency, even though it does show several typefaces together. Each one is given its own space, including descriptive text as well as the usual character sets and blocks of text and display showings. There aren’t so many typefaces that crowding becomes a problem; the book comprises only six type families in total. (Tankard has designed many more, but most of them are proprietary faces designed for particular clients. These are the ones that you can actually buy.)

First spread of the section on Shaker, showing character sets.


The Form of the Book
The book itself serves as a typographic example. Tankard made a conscious effort to reproduce the feel of one of the King Penguin books from the early 1950s: a slightly larger format than regular Penguin paperbacks, still small and portable but bound in hard covers and designed to last. (He was slightly frustrated in this by the manufacture: the binding of TypeBookOne is tighter than he wanted, so the book doesn’t lie flat but tends to snap closed. This can be partly ameliorated by repeated use.)

It’s a nicely conceived and composed little book, very traditional in its base structure (justified text, centered heads, progressively larger margins from inside to top to outside to bottom of the page), and printed on good book paper; the text samples are even set in Latin (or rather, in “Lorem ipsum” fake-Latin). The quiet design doesn’t keep Tankard from getting flamboyant in divider pages and display samples.

An imaginative page spread between sections, in an otherwise restrained book.


And one of the nicest things about the book is that it shows details from a few of Tankard’s design sketches, which gives us clues to how he developed particular letterforms.

Sketches that Tankard made while developing Enigma.


The other article in the book is “Understanding OpenType,” by Tankard. It’s not meant to be a highly technical reference; it’s meant to get across an idea of the possibilities for potential clients. The text could have stood some more forceful editing (there’s a certain stiffness to the tone), but the illustrations neatly communicate his basic point: the way OpenType can incorporate advanced typographic features into each font.

Examples of some of the typographic features that may be available in an OpenType font.


Tankard’s Types
I’ve barely mentioned the typefaces themselves, apart from Bliss. Enigma is a readable old-style typeface with angularity in its curves; its roots lie in both Hendrik van den Keere and W.A. Dwiggins. Shaker began as a sans serif companion to Enigma (they have the angularity in common), but grew beyond it, with both wide and condensed versions along with the regular width. Either of these faces would make a good workhorse type for a lot of different uses; and they are obviously designed to work together (as they do in this book).

Text samples of Enigma in various sizes.


The other faces are quirkier. Aspect is the only one that could be used for text; it’s a wide, monoline upright italic, with many swash characters, alternates, and discretionary ligatures. Alchemy is a decorative, playful display face in a pseudo-medieval style, mining some of the same sources that Jonathan Barnbrook and Myles Newlyn have drawn on in their display designs for Emigre. The Shire Types are a set of six variations on a theme: blocky industrial-looking letters with no ascenders or descenders, each face adding more quirks and curves than the last; in their tight relationship to each other and their 19th-century roots, they remind me of Jonathan Hoefler’s Proteus types.

The Shire Types — variations on a bold theme.


A Keeper
I suspect the book will end up on a designers’ regular bookshelf, rather than tucked away in a special drawer with the sample sheets. Its value is partly in the typefaces — which are admirable — and partly in the book’s attempt to set them in their context, both as works created by Jeremy Tankard and as digital fonts created for use at this particular moment, in this particular world.

Posted on: April 18, 2005

3 Comments on dot-font: A Small Book of Typefaces

  1. How can I purchase the lovely little type book?

  2. About the article:
    Nicley done, a little about the book’s author, about type, about the history of type specimen books, and an overview of the book itself. Everything for the making of a fine article…(here it comes) except…where it can be purchased. From the author? A specific bookseller? Where? At what price? In what country? I (we?) sure would like to know!

  3. The book is available on Mr. Tankard’s Web site ( I believe it is sent with fonts that are order. You may want to drop him a note and ask if the book is available by itself.

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