Of Type and Time?

Six hard disk drives with cases opened showing...
Hunting through hard drives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks re-typing my 1996 MA dissertation on typography. This was after an exhaustive search of every hard drive and back-up CD/DVD I own. The 30,000-word dissertation was one of the first things I ever wrote on a Mac, and that would be (ooh) 8–10 Macs ago.

So I decided to type it again, and add some updated material. Most of the updates are in the form of illustrations I wasn’t in a position to include before. Some of it expands upon or updates material that is out of date. A few examples:

  • Almost every print magazine I mention in the dissertation has either ceased publication or is creaking dangerously towards such a cessation.
  • The 90s fashion for “grunge” types has passed, more or less. Thank god.
  • Comic Sans hadn’t yet taken over the world in 1996.

Some other things I noticed.

  • I used to write really long sentences. Really long.
  • It was much longer than I’d been remembering it. In my mind, for some reason, it had shrunk to a mere 10–12,000 words. It has ended up being > 37,000 words.
  • The “distinction” grade I received was (a) deserved for the research and originality; but (b) undeserved for the intellectual rigour, clarity, and consistency of my arguments. On balance, and as usual, I got away with it a bit.
  • Electronic books are a massive step backwards in terms of typography. We’ll look back on the days when we could install whatever fonts we wanted and print them with real nostalgia.

So I’m going through it now looking for errors and sorting out the footnotes, which are the most awkward thing when it comes to ebook conversion. Actually, I’ll correct that: saving as an ebook for iBooks is unproblematic. Formatting and footnoting are retained intact, and it displays rather well on an iPad. For Kindle conversion, on the other hand, it’s a bit shit, so a lot of tidying up is needed. There are also too many variations of the Kindle and Kindle apps, which makes it much more complicated than just formatting for Apple devices. And people wonder why they’re so successful.

Now it contains so many more illustrations, there’s also a file size issue, which means I’ve had to take it from Pages into Scrivener and then I’ll re-export it for Kindle, which squashes the file a bit. Most of the illustrations replace what were simple font samples in the original print version. Because I can’t embed fonts (still! 17 years later!) in an ebook, I’ve had to include the samples as graphics. Fucking nightmare. I used Pixelmator to create the graphics, which wasn’t ideal. I also noticed that if you keep Pixelmator open, it starts to eat your free hard drive space.

Yet it’s going to be available exclusively on Kindle/Kindle app, because that’s the only market through which I can charge for it. You might argue that I should make it free like my other recent ebooks, but it represents a lot of work: I just spent two weeks typing 37,000 words or so, and I’m not done yet. Christ knows how many hours of work of reading and research I did back in 1996 (and since).

How will this compare with that popular Just My Type book that came out a couple of years ago? Although I did get away with it in terms of Critical Theory (which is what it’s supposed to be), it still has more of an academic angle than the Simon Garfield book. I’m also much more unequivocal about the dreaded Comic Sans: I maintain that it’s ugly, not even a good example of what it purports to be, and the people who use it do so out of a completely misguided ignorance about the true nature of “traditional” typefaces.

Coming up with a snappy title for my type dissertation isn’t easy. Currently, I’m working with Of Type and Time, which I hate, but at least it hints at the content of the work. The focus of the book is the age-old debate about the most legible or readable letterform, a debate which has raged for 559 years in terms of type, and even longer in terms of handwriting. It’s a debate I hear quite a lot in the staffroom, and it irks me still. There’s a simple answer, by the way, which is maybe not so startling, but it takes 37,000 words or so to get to.


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