Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

“Exhaustive” is a word bandied around a fair bit when it comes to books, but in the case of The Visual History of Type, a whopping new tome from Laurence King that details every major typeface produced since the advent of printing in the mid-15th century until now, we kind of think the adjective is apt.

Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

The text (😂) is written by Paul McNeil of type design studio MuirMcNeil, who also designed the book. The cover has the gorgeously impactful feel of a classic standards manual; industrial orange and grey signal that this is a volume that is as much a tool as a pride-of-place coffee table show piece. The functionality of the thing is ameliorated by the subtle addition of textures; the cloth bound cover is embossed with smooth lettering, while the bright belly band, aligned to the bottom, possesses a smooth texture that encourages absent-minded stroking until you realize how peculiar that looks. The whole package is a delicate balance of slick aesthetics and deep technical learning.

Unsurprisingly for such a weighty volume, The Visual History of Type has been some time in the making—seven-and-a-half years to be exact. “When the publisher asked the sort of extent it should have, I foolishly said ‘around 320 items should do the job’,” says McNeil.

“There hasn’t been a publication of this sort before as far as I know. We wanted to produce a definitive history in the tradition of seminal publications like the 1953 Encyclopaedia of Typefaces by W. Pincus Jaspert, W. Turner Berry and A.F. Johnson, or The Atlas of Typeforms by Sutton and Bartram from 1968. These are wonderful reference works but both are limited by the reproduction techniques of their time. We wanted to push that forward.”

Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

It certainly does do the job; creating a chronological history of typefaces and their various uses, with each presented in as faithful a way as possible to their original purpose. We not only see the type itself, but the pages on which it was printed. The aim is that the reader, through discovering the evolution of typefaces over more than 500 years, will see how these designs operated “culturally, technologically and psychodynamically.”

McNeil says the intention of the book was to “show things as they are, rather than add a persuasive or rhetorical veneer either in terms of how it looks or what it says.” That means the image crops try to be as faithful to the source material as possible, and the layout is “deliberately as plain as a catalogue. I have a huge dislike of design that is executed in order to compensate for a paucity of content.”  

Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

While most of the book lists typefaces McNeil describes as “canonical, classics like Garamond or Caslon”, the difficulty in curating such a tome arrives as the years creep closer to the present. The volume is divided into seven temporally defined sections that explore a particular technological development in type; so 1450 marks the birth of printing; 1650 “the loosening of the roman letter from its humanistic roots during the Baroque and Enlightenment periods” that created the foundations for modern type design; 1800 the industrial revolution; and so on until the present age of digital type design’s maturation. The tricky thing with selecting today’s typefaces is not only the advent of so much new technology so frequently, but the sheer volume of new fonts being produced—and good ones at that. So how on earth do you choose?

“Inevitably I’ve used personal judgements in making the selection of typefaces used in the book. It’s a form of curation,” says McNeil. “Since we’re trying to present a picture of the contemporary milieu in every era since the 1450s, we have also featured type that only lasted a short while due to changes in fashion or technology, or were purely experimental.

“I’ve tried to reflect the most interesting developments happening today in relation to graphic design trends and as a result of the advent of new technologies such as OpenType. One of our main objectives for the book was to show ‘firsts’—best examples of innovations in the field.”

One example is Jonathan Barnbrook’s sublime Doctrine typeface, which exploited OpenType technology to create a massively expanded character set, “allowing an enormous range of design choices that can communicate very neutrally and modestly or to ironically comic effect.”

Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

Part of McNeil’s interest and determination in producing the book was having noticed a gap for such a publication in his teaching (he currently works as a senior lecturer in typography at the London College of Communication, and was previously the school’s MA Contemporary Typographic Media course leader). In a world where it’s now possible to learn many of the technical aspects of being a designer from online tutorials, he feels this sort of deeper appreciation of typographic history is even more essential.

In essence typography is design with language, or of language,

he says. “I’ve worked with many fine students who lean towards image-making and illustration, but throughout my career I’ve always found the most passionate and engaged students are those working with type and typography. Am I biased? Yes.

“I’m convinced that the history of type and its continued social impact is well worth knowing about. There are many semiotic implications in understanding how and why typefaces provide different tones of voice to visual communications and also a huge number of issues associated with technological influences and the process of reading.”

Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

Another reason the rise of digital has made it all the more important for designers and design students to grasp the history of type is to understand where and how the web fonts they use came to be; what they draw from, the historic designs they’ve cribbed from. “A lot of low-grade typefaces are available for free, and many subscription-based web fonts follow historical cues with no acknowledgement of their sources,” says McNeil. “So, although some great typefaces are being made today, there’s a huge disconnect between what people are using and their origins.

Anyone can make graphic design and use type, but what makes a graphic designer or typographer is a matter of conscious intention, interest and commitment to the activities.

With such noble and lofty intentions, you’d imagine the design of the actual book would be fraught with anxieties. The no-nonsense, classic mid-century boldness of the cover was chosen for its mix of simplicity and on-shelf visibility, and the entire book’s text and cover type uses the original, “no-frills digitisation” of Univers—a font McNeil is more than willing to wax lyrical about.

“Univers is very pure,” he says. “Some people think it’s so pure that it’s clinical and mechanistic, but that’s entirely appropriate to the project and to my tastes. It’s self effacing and unobtrusive—not one of those typefaces that suggests the book designer is trying hard to make a clever design. I rate it far above Helvetica and other neo-grotesques.”

Paul McNeil, The Visual History of Type

Yet for all his infectious ability to chat all-things-type with the passion of a true typophile, don’t go asking what his favorite is. “People like me have an absolute passion for type and typography, which is a blessing and a curse. I find choosing my favorites as hard as choosing the 320+ that we’ve published, as they are all fascinating. 

I genuinely like every typeface shown, even Comic Sans. In fact, particularly Comic Sans.