10 Essential Books on Typography

Arabic script fused with Western letters, a classic essay on the cultural role of typography, and a book about fonts that look like handwriting are just a few of these highlights

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Whether you're a professional designer, recreational type-nerd, or casual lover of the fine letterform, typography is one of design's most delightful frontiers, an odd medley of timeless traditions and timely evolution in the face of technological progress. Today, we turn to 10 essential books on typography, ranging from the practical to the philosophical to the plain pretty.


1. TYPOGRAPHIE (1967)

In 1967, iconic typography pioneer Emil Ruder penned Typographie: A Manual of Design—a bold deviation from the conventions of his discipline and a visionary guide to the rules of his new typography. From texture to weight to color to legibility spacing and leading, the 19 chapters gloriously illustrated in black-and-white with some in red, yellow, and blue explore insights from the author's studies and experiments. More than half a century later, the book, now in its sixth edition, remains a timeless bastion of typographic innovation across generations and eras.

Images via Display


2. CULTURAL CONNECTIVES (2011)

In an age when we frequently encounter the Middle East in the course of our daily media diets, our true knowledge of the region remains impoverished amidst these often limited, one-note, and reductionist portrayals. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. Cultural Connectives tries to remedy this with a cross-cultural bridge by way of a typeface family designed by author Rana About Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture. Both minimalist and illuminating, the book's stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.

The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:

"We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words." - Gibran Khalil Gibran

My full review, with more images, here.


3. THE ELEMENTS OF TYPOGRAPHIC STYLE (1992)

In 1992, Canadian typographer, poet, and translator Robert Bringhurst set out to create "the Typographer's Bible." And he did—two decades later, his The Elements of Typographic Styleprevails as the most ambitious history of and guide to typography. TypeFoundry's Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones have called it "the finest book ever written about typography." Covering everything from rhythm and proportion to harmony and counterpoint to analphabetic symbols, the tome remains a brilliant convergence of the practical, theoretical and historical. Sprinkled across the pragmatic guides are compelling, almost philosophical insights about the role of typography in communication, visual culture and society, making the volume as much a handbook as it is a meditation.


4. THINKING WITH TYPE (2007)

The use of typography in visual communication is evolving rapidly, and often radically, as we shift from print culture to screen culture, and at the same time certain foundations of typographic creativity and visual eloquence remain fundamental. That's exactly what Ellen Lupton explores in the 2010 revised and expanded edition of the now-classic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, originally published in 2007 by Princeton Architectural Press. From the latest style sheets for print and the web to the essentials on mixing typefaces and hand lettering, the book is a visually-driven blueprint to typographic style and originality by way of knowing the rules in order to break them creatively.

The book's excellent companion site features a wealth of materials and resources for designers, students, and educators alike.


5. I WONDER (2010)

Marian Bantjes, whose magnificent map of human knowledge you might recall, is no ordinary creator. Trained as a graphic designer, with a decade-long career as a typesetter under her belt and a penchant for the intricate beauty of letterform illustrations, she calls herself a "graphic artist" and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. Stefan Sagmeister has called her "one of the most innovative typographers working today"—with no exaggeration. (So innovative, in fact, that P. Diddy recently felt compelled to shamelessly, blatantly rip her off.) I Wonder captures Bantjes's exceptional talent for visual delight and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty, and quirk in a breathtaking yet organic way.

"I exist somewhat outside of the mainstream of design thinking. Where others might look at measurable results, I tend to be interested in more ethereal qualities like does it bring joy? is there a sense of wonder? and does it invoke curiosity?"

"I'm using my own writings as a kind of testing ground for a book that has an interdependency between word and image as a kind of seductive force. I think that one of the things that religions got right was the use of visual wonder to deliver a message. I think this true marriage of art and information is woefully underused in adult literature. And I'm mystified as to why visual wealth is not more commonly used to enhance intellectual wealth."

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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