Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Thinking with Type

  • Title: Thinking with Type
  • Author: Ellen Lupton
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Typography
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/29/2015

This book wasn’t what I was expecting – but I enjoyed it anyway. The first section was about the history of typography, which was very interesting but not necessary what I wanted to know. Although to me, with no formal graphic design training, I had always assumed that Graphic Design was like Architecture, a field where the emphasis was always on “the hot new thing” with little knowledge or care for the past (other than the “opposite” effect – that is, new trends tend to rebel against the previous trend.) But as someone completely new to Graphic Design, it was nice to see everything laid out from the beginning of hand-painted and copied Illuminated Manuscripts to modern website design.

This book also has a very easy style about introducing information. It doesn’t say, “Now here are the parts of a letterform – memorise them.” Information you want to know is slowly introduced and teased out as various examples are presented. It made for an enjoyable, and quick read. There are a lot of examples in this book, I hesitate to call it a textbook, though it probably is, because it’s also a fun, enjoyable read.

A couple of frustrations – included in the examples were things called “type crimes”, sort of a “What not to do.” Sometimes the two “good” examples and the “bad” example, side-by-side, made it obvious why the “type crime” was a bad idea. But more often, I found myself wondering why the bad example was so bad. To my, admittedly, untrained eye, it didn’t look any worse (or better, usually) than the good examples. Now, part of the reason I’m reading books on graphic design in the first place is to try to train my eye, so to speak, but I can’t do that if it isn’t explained why Option A is so much better than Option B (and if it really is just personal preference or opinion the author should state so). Rules make a lot more sense – if you know why they exist. And rules can be broken if you know what they are, the reason for the rule, and the effect of breaking it – in art and design.

Another frustration was the inclusion of pieces of typography that, while they may be nice pieces of art, or pretty to look at, or really cool – were impossible to read. I’d think that for any sort of graphic design or typesetting, or typography – Rule 1 would be “Can you read it?” Now some of these frankly illegible examples (and I’m not talking about historical documents) were “Art” pieces – so maybe I missed the point, but in modern pieces – say a poster for an art gallery opening, if people can’t read the day, date, time, and location – How on Earth do you expect them to show up? It’s like those advertisements that you see, and remember for being amusing or strange or unusual or just plain weird – but you can’t remember what the product was, much less what company produces it. And, to my mind, it’s even worse – because in other sections of the book, the author does talk about the necessary utility of design – that is, the importance of it being used, and leading the reader to understand the information better. Ellen Lupton’s section on tables, charts, and graphs is especially clear on the subject of how good design can help make information clearer and easier to understand (or by implication, obscure information or even make it misleading.) There is now even a new field that combines information into graphics – Infographics, which when done well, is accurate, makes the point, and is easy to understand. But when Inforgraphics are done poorly – they are difficult to understand. And Infographics, like statistics, also has the capacity to be very misleading.

Anyway, I just wish Lupton had made the importance of making graphic design, especially when typesetting a book, legible – more clear.

Overall, it was a fun, informative, quick read that I don’t regret purchasing. Recommended to graphic design students.