“Type on Screen” Review

Earlier in the year I was offered a review copy of Ellen Lupton’s new book, “Type on Screen.” My immediate response was yes, send me a copy. Ellen’s earlier book “Thinking with Type” is one of my favorite books about typography so why wouldn’t I want more?

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio player above, Click here to listen. You can also subscribe in iTunes

My plan was to give the book a quick read and then post a review. Unfortunately, as I was writing my own book, it was hard to find the time to read another.

I also wasn’t sure what to think of the book after I finally could read it. I held some preconceived expectations based on “Thinking with Type” and after finishing “Type on Screen” a part of me was disappointed. I wanted it to be Thinking with Type for the Web, which isn’t fair to the book and probably wouldn’t have worked. It would have required a lot of repetition between the two.

Because I thought my opinion was too influenced by incorrect expectations, it didn’t seem fair to review the book. Recently though, I came across a review of “Type on Screen” by John Boardley of I Love Typography.

John described the book as “a fascinating typographic inventory of the present.” As soon as I read that description I knew John was exactly right and it helped me get at what I really thought about the book and hence this post.

A Quick Note About Reviews

Some of you may be wondering how to get review copies of books. As someone who loves to read, I’m always excited when someone wants to send me a free book. You might like to have free books sent to you as well and want to know how to make it happen.

I have no idea. I wish I could offer a series of steps, but I can’t. Somewhere along the way I reviewed a book I had read. I think it was a review of the Smashing Mobile book, but it’s possible there was one prior that I’m not remembering.

The next thing I knew I was receiving offers for review copies of other books. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once every few months. I’m guessing someone searching for reviews found mine and added my name and email address to a list of people to send review copies to in the future.

When writing a review I try to stay as objective as possible, though I do prefer to point out more good than bad. I don’t want people rushing out to buy or not buy just because of something I said. I’d rather my review be one among many that helps them decide.

If a book is truly awful, I won’t review it. It has happened a couple of times and no I won’t name the books. I know how difficult it is to finish any book good or bad.

I also don’t know what I’d say in an entirely negative review other than don’t buy the book. I suppose I could come up with something humorous, but it would likely be at the author’s expense, and being an author myself, that’s not something I want to do. In the end I’m just one person with an opinion and you should read any review in that light.

My Expectations

Before getting to the review let me share something of the expectations I held before reading. I think the context is important to the review and to understand my opinion or the book.

As I said above, “Thinking with Type” is one of my favorite books about typography. I list it right up there with Bringhurst’s “Typographic Manual of Style.” It discusses type from the inside out, starting with letters, then text, and finally grids. It’s more what I expect from a book about typography.

I was expecting a similar book with “Type on Screen,” though with a focus on the web instead of print. I thought the book might include topics like the difference in choosing typefaces for the web as opposed to print and how to use webfonts and recognize the good from the bad. Maybe there would be talk about building grids for the web and advice for pairing typefaces when used online.

I was expecting something more like “Thinking with Type” but about type for the web instead of print. It wasn’t fair of me to hold those expectations.

Just before recording the audio for this post, I looked at the back cover and preface of “Type on Screen” and see no mentions of “Thinking with Type”. Where I assumed “Type on Screen” would be a followup, nothing in the book indicates it was written with that in mind.

Both books do have the same subtitle (A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students), but it’s not something I noticed until after reading.

Also it’s type on screen and not type on the web. I wasn’t expecting talk about ebooks, but that’s more on me being a web designer and forgetting at times that the world doesn’t revolve around me and what I do. Screen doesn’t have to equal web. It just means screen.

Bear all this in mind as you read the review. I have a feeling I’m leaning a little more toward the negative than is fair and I suspect it’s to do with my preconceived ideas. Another reason why context is important I suppose.

What the Book is About

John Boardley’s description of the book is a good one. “Type on Screen” is a collection of things designers have done with type, what designer’s are currently doing with type, and where type on screen might go in the coming years.

Here’s the table of contents with a few words about what’s in each chapter.

  • 01 Fonts on Screen—is about web fonts and a little about type anatomy.
  • 02 Text on Screen—discusses type in terms of size, measure, leading, and typographic grids.
  • 03 Digital Publishing—deals with the flow of content in different mediums. For example should type in ebooks be infinite scroll or paged? It talks about other mediums like the web as well as different devices and device sizes.
  • 04 Type and Interface—discusses the use of type in labels, headings and data tables. More details on this chapter below.
  • 05 Icons and Logotypes—is about type in pictures. It looks at imagery as communication.
  • 06 Animation and Code—offers a bit about animation in general and more about type moving across different screens.

The first two chapters were more of what I was expecting before the book took an unexpected turn for me in chapter 3. Here’s a little more detail about what you can find in the chapter on Type and Interface. Below are the sections in the chapter.

  • Wireframes
  • Interaction Elements
  • Menus
  • Type as Navigation
  • Expanding the Vocabulary
  • Drop Shadows and Gradients
  • Hide and Reveal
  • Typography and Data Display
  • Designing Data Tables
  • Data Tables: Dos and Don’ts

At the end of this and all chapters are case studies and a section called in the classroom showing student work. The text is not densely packed as much as it is a few paragraphs surrounded by illustrative examples. That’s fairly typical of most design books I’ve read.

The book is an easy read (except when you’re writing a book and don’t have time). Most, perhaps all, of the book was assembled by Ellen’s students. And again there are plenty of illustrative examples for explanation and inspiration.

The text is more a compilation of bite-sized information that offers a general overview of each subtopic and the role type plays on different screens. While I wanted a deeper exploration of topics, this broader view covering a variety of topics probably makes more sense for this book. Otherwise it probably would be a too much duplication from “Thinking with Type.”

For much of the book, type seems like the context more than the subject. For example icons and logos are certainly related to type. They perform a similar function to communicate, but is it type? Does it belong in a book on type?

I suppose it depends on what you want from a book on type. I don’t see any reason logos and icons can’t be included in a book on type and it was a good addition here. It’s just not what I expect to find.

Who Should Read “Type on Screen?”

In the end I don’t think I’m the ideal audience for the book. I still think my disappointment was more me than the book, but I don’t think I was ever the right audience. That doesn’t mean the book is bad. Just that is wasn’t for me.

That raises the question who is the book for? If you’ve worked on the web for any measurable length of time, especially if you’ve spent time learning about and working with type, you likely know much of what’s inside the book already.

I’m sure there will be some new nuggets of information for you, but you’re probably familiar with a lot of it. I wouldn’t read the book to learn how to work with typography, however, it will probably bring up a few things you haven’t considered about how to work with type on different screens.

If you’re new to working with type, I think you’ll find the book provides a good overview of the issues designers face working digitally and how some of these issues are being solved. It’s a good overview of things you’ll want to learn and explore deeper.

Again if you’re old hat working with type, there will be less learning and more filling in a few gaps of information, and probably gaining some inspiration.

I’ve been thinking if I had read “Type on Screen” before “Thinking with Type” I would have liked the former more. It’s probably the better reading order in terms of the skill level of the reader. If you haven’t read either book, I would suggest reading “Type on Screen” first.

Skim through it at your local bookstore or download a sample from Amazon or iBooks. I think after looking through a few pages, you’ll have a good sense whether or not you’re in the audience for the book.

I also don’t think anyone could really go wrong picking up a copy. Ellen Lupton (and her students) probably know more about type than you and me. “Type on Screen” is likely a better book than I’ve made it out to be as well. It’s a good book that had too many of my expectations to overcome.

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