‘The Visual History of Type’ fulfills its promise
The new tome by Paul McNeil offers something new:
The type itself
If you were starting out in typography and wanted to learn about the history of type, you might look to any number of reference books. In these you would find descriptions of how type evolved—perhaps with some visual examples of each typographic category through the ages. There might even be a graph or flow chart showing the styles over time. However, if you open the beautifully printed pages of Paul McNeil's new book, The Visual History of Type, you won't find any of this.
Instead, you'll find the type itself—the raw data—reproduced with such accuracy that you can almost feel the wrinkles and smell the ink of the 320+ specimens chosen.
That isn’t to say the reader is left without a guide. The book is broken down into seven sections, beginning with 1450 and ending with 2000, each with its own primer. The telescoping sections (200 years for the first and a mere 17-and-counting for the final) reflects the acceleration of technology and progression of printing needs. The early faces all feel humanist and organic, with the earliest quite clearly trying to replicate the penmanship of scribes. In the middle, the type starts to break the mold, as an increasingly cramped advertising landscape required display faces of compensating excitement. Near the end, you can see the obvious impact of the digital era, first in the fetishization of computers through faces like Data 70, and later in the exploratory spirit of faces like Lÿno.
Paul McNeil selected each typeface for their joint ability to communicate the multi-threaded history of type. This was no small task. It took him seven and a half years to complete the book, which makes sense considering he took the time not only to photograph each typeface, but also to research and write descriptions for each one. Some of these descriptions are fairly utilitarian, pointing out anatomic similarities and differences among faces; while others provide stories . . . little peeks into the interesting world of type design.
Physically, The Visual History of Type is an impressive and daunting object. Beautifully crafted—from the embossed fabric cover to the accurate colors within the photographs—publisher Laurence King did justice to McNeil's design. (Yes, McNeil both wrote and designed the book.) The imposing grey-and-orange monolith looks right at home either on a bookshelf or coffee table. In fact, its use as a designer's resource may be rivaled only by its use as a conversation piece.
Even if you're not starting out in typography—and this is your twentieth or thirtieth year in the field—The Visual History of Type offers something unique. By presenting the typefaces themselves, largely without imposed connections, McNeil gives the reader the delightful experience of being able to draw their own conclusions about type and its history. Reading this book becomes a choose your own adventure—or, for the more active readers, a complete research project.
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