San Francisco, California

The Book

Bound up in papyrus or transcribed onto silk, the mysterious history of our books is both delightful and complex.

This week I’ve been slowly reading The Book by Keith Houston, and since the author’s previous work, Shady Characters, is so dear to my heart I happen to feel quite guilty. I recognise that I’m doing Houston’s work an awful disservice as I pinch five minutes here and there to read it, especially because his writing is consistently light-hearted and smart.


The author wastes no time by jumping into the early calligraphic methods of Egyptian scribes, before moving swiftly onto the work of Cai Lun, Gutenburg’s printing press and Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine. Along the way, Houston explores the impact of proto-books, like etchings on walls, or illumination in manuscripts, and explains how each of these steps towards the manufacture and design of books left their mark:

Whether or not a scribe understood a word of the text he was copying, progress was slow and methodical. Each letter was constructed stroke by stroke in iron gall ink, and a conscientious scribe would pause to sharpen his quill tens of times each day to maintain an even line. The penknife with which he did that, in fact, was every bit as important as his pen: with it, he could prick holes for guidelines; scrape off a mistake before its ink soaked into the page; or hold springy parchment flat so as to write upon it more easily. At the end of all this he would have picked up the completed page, cast an expert eye over its neatly ruled lines and disciplined text, and then passed it on to a colleague practiced in the graphic arts.

The Book, Keith Houston, page 170

But! Unlike the vast majority of books on this topic, Houston doesn’t focus solely on Western characters in the tale. Publishers across China and Japan are of central importance too and so many of these stories were new to me.

Delightful flourishes illustrate the various components of The Book both inside and out; the head, subtitle, headcap, binding tape, drop caps, and hinge. Here’s an example of a page inside:


It’s rare to find a book that compliments the subject and style of the writer so well. In fact, much like Shady Characters, I would recommend The Book for those that don’t even find themselves daydreaming about design or typography. However, if you do happen to be typographically inclined, then this book about books certainly has much to offer you.

The Book is a delightful read and I recommend that you pick yourself up a copy as soon as you possibly can. Or, if you can’t wait to read something by Keith then I suggest you begin with his field trips.

The Week in Type

Yesterday I made a demo that explains how color fonts work. Make sure to check it out in the latest versions of Firefox or Edge to see how we can switch between the different OpenType variants:


I’ll write something up for CSS-Tricks that digs into what a color font is, but for now it’s pretty neat to mess around with and I can’t wait to see what new forms of display type emerge from all these experiments.

Monica Dinculescu, aka @notwaldorf, made Font style matcher:

If you’re using a web font, you’re bound to see a flash of unstyled text (or FOUC), between the initial render of your websafe font and the webfont that you’ve chosen. This usually results in a jarring shift in layout, due to sizing discrepancies between the two fonts. To minimize this discrepancy, you can try to match the fallback font and the intended webfont’s x-heights and widths. This tool helps you do exactly that.

I also missed that in October Monica made an emoji font based on the original emoji, released on the DoCoMo phone in 1999:


Laurence Penney made a fascinating variable font demo:


It’s best to check the demo out in a browser that supports variable fonts, like Webkit Nightly. Laurence also wrote more about what’s going on in a post about the demo.

Letter of the week

This week’s letter is the lowercase Y from Ludwig Type’s Godfrey:


It just sorts of dangles out there into the outer space beneath. Y’s often tend to hug and curl up beneath the previous letter and so this rigid extender looks odd to me, but in a pleasing way. Also, the lowercase f is a peculiar character, too.

Anyway, the designer of Godfrey, Ludwig Übele, also built a really cool specimen website to market the typeface where you can see everything in a more realistic scenario. It lets you see the text on books and posters in order to get a better sense of what you’re paying for:

Godfrey specimen

✌️ Until next time!

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