Finally in English: The World's Best Type Reference Guide

Joep Pohlen's Letter Fountain, a handbook that stands out in design publishing's most crowded category, has hit American shelves

More type reference books are published each year than any other books about graphic design. So, I wonder, is there anything left to be said about this most quotidian of communications? Even if you believe that all the collected knowledge about type and typography has been somehow hashed and rehashed, there will always be someone who will say it fresher or with greater insight than the last expert. And since type is such a critical subject for designers, almost everyone has something to say—even if it has been said before.

I am sure, for instance, that I already read much of the information before in Letter Fountain: The Anatomy of Type by Joep Pohlen in different volumes and venues, but honestly it doesn't matter. Every few years a new "handbook" presents a distinct practical or historical viewpoint. This is the latest and, for my money, the most comprehensive of these guides so far. Moreover, it fits well on my desk, making it a handy reference too.

I contacted Pohlen, proprietor of Polka Design in the Netherlands and author of Fresh Fonts (about fonts made in the '90s), to discuss his motivation for authoring Letter Fountain at this time, and to talk about the key differences between his and other books on type.

Letter Fountain (or Letterfontein, as the non-English versions are called) was initially self-published in 1994 in French, German, and Dutch. 15,000 copies were sold by 2000, over half of them in the Netherlands, at which time the book went out of print. Apparently, Pohlen says, teachers in the Netherlands were so dependent on the book for their type classes they told students to buy second-hand copies. With that impetus, Pohlen decided to revise and enlarge the book from 15,000 to 150,000 words. In 2009, after seven weeks of brisk sales, the first printing sold out. In 2010 the next edition was published internationally by Taschen Books and is currently available.

Yet with so many books on type and typography on the market, why this one—and where does it stand against the competition?


Classic endpapers and three ribbon bookmarks complete this handbook.


Typeforms from Trajan's Column (top left page) in Rome are the beginning of Western type design. Letter Fountain spans almost 2,000 years of type design.

"I have not made the book to compete with English handbooks," Pohlen explains. "I wanted to make our [original] handbook better. Because we always stand on the shoulders of the people who had written before about typography I already had a collection of type books in different languages, from Hermann Schmidt Verlag in Germany, Niggli in Switzerland, and of course some others like the beautiful books The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy, Designing Type by Karen Cheng, and so on." (Pohlen highlights in red some favorite books in his bibliography.)

"I don't think my book is better than the other books; it's different," he says modestly. "Its a book where readers can find a lot of information about most of the things they have to know about type, from PostScript to grids to type for the visually impaired to V-shaped letter." Letter Fountain also provides teachers with several useful tools, including scores of type specimens and the timeline "typography and art" (on pages 30 to 36), which Pohlen claims is one of the most copied parts of the book by students. "Teachers also love the comparison between three serifed types and three sans-serifs because," he adds, "they let students draw by hand the characters to let them feel the difference between for instance a Helvetica and a Univers."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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