Helvetica on the NYC subway (© Gregory James Van Raalte/Shutterstock.com)

In the same tradition as birdwatching manuals, a recently published book is targeted at turning even the most oblivious of urban wanderers into typography spotters.

“The Field Guide to Typography” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

British designer Peter Dawson’s The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape, published last fall by Prestel, offers over 125 of the strange, beautiful, ugly, old, and new typefaces you might find out in the “wild.” From the Helvetica directing you on the New York City subway to the Franklin Gothic gracing the MoMA’s logo, the subtle structure of language sets the tone for our daily experiences.

Typographer and writer Stephen Coles affirms in the forward: “The ordinary stuff that surrounds us is usually considered mundane, but it is actually full of variety, and intrigue, and clues that shed light on our environment and ourselves.”

Franklin Gothic in “The Field Guide to Typography” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Arial vs. Helvetica in “The Field Guide to Typography” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Chalet in “The Field Guide to Typography” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The book is a little large to just carry around, so it’s probably best as an at-home reference book. But Dawson has a good voice for adding enough entertaining anecdotes to the technical material that you’re likely to retain some typography knowledge once out in the world. The book is divided into sections based on general categories, such as Serif and Sans Serif, with pages devoted to individual typefaces including the date they were created, their designer, their history, and common uses. Avenir finds itself both on Starbucks branding and Amsterdam’s tourism marketing, Gill Sans at the BBC and Saab. Then there’s Baskerville, favored on Kate Spade and Alexander McQueen storefronts for its elegance, which was actually hated when released by John Baskerville in 1757. His critics said the severe serifs would “hurt the eye.”

Some of the similar fonts are overlaid in comparisons, including the old Baskerville with the more modern Times New Roman, the Baskerville differentiated by the “swashy tail” of the “Q,” while Times has sharper serifs (“eye gougers!,” Baskerville’s critics might have wailed). Alongside are a few interviews with designers like Jason Castle, Freda Sack, and Henrik Kubel that go a bit more in-depth into just why we have so many options for communicating in print and signage. It’s not a complete compendium by any means of typefaces (in his introduction, Dawson cites that there are “well over 150,000” fonts available, and they are “rising by the day”), but The Field Guide to Typography gives you an insight into the design history of your everyday geography.

Avenir used on Amsterdam’s tourism branding (© Imantsu/Shutterstock.com)

Rosewood at Brighton Pier, UK (with Comic Sans on the menu) (photograph by Peter Dawson)

The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape by Peter Dawson is available from Prestel.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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