GalleyCat carried a piece on 13 January 2011 on “What’s the best font for a book?” reporting on some research at The Font Feed — apparently the winners were 1. Minion, 2. ITC New Baskerville, 3. FF Scala, 4. FF Scala Sans, 5. Adobe Garamond. This result was based on the most frequently used typefaces in the winners of the Association of American University Presses’ Book Show from 2006 to 2008. The Font Feed article is here. I’ve added The Font Feed to my Blogroll below.
Of course typefaces are a matter of personal preference. There are (or used to be, when the world was restricted to hot metal setting) some fonts which were more appropriate for this job or that job. We used to use a font called Modern quite a lot for mathematics, no doubt because the University Press had a huge range of matrices for special sorts. Bembo was a favorite for literary studies: it sort of had that feel to it. Garamond too. You wouldn’t use them for a mathematical book: it just wouldn’t have looked serious (quite apart from the sorts problem). If the book was long you might set it in Ehrhardt, which set narrow. Baskerville was of course a favorite in Cambridge. I once did a Bible in ITC Weidemann because I figured out that at the time it was the narrowest setting font available, and getting more characters onto a line in a two-column pocket bible made quite a dramatic difference in the page count. It’s not a handsome font, but perfectly serviceable, and remains surprisingly legible at small sizes because of its short ascenders — another feature that recommends it for Bible work.
We now live in a world where the conflicting forces of standardization and the easy availability of thousands of different fonts continue to duke it out. American book design has always tended to be more flashy than British — or if you prefer the other end of the telescope, British design was always duller than American. I should confess to preferring the understated. Stanley Morrison (spearhead of the typographic revolution in early 20th century Britain, Head of Cambridge University Press’ Printing House, epicenter of the revolution, designer of Times Roman) wrote a little book in which he made a case for setting an entire book in one size of a single typeface. Extreme perhaps, but not ineffective. Modern design seems to favor the use of a display font for title page, chapter tiles and often more. I’ve worked on books imported from the UK by American publishers where they have kept the UK text setting with all its “colour” and “honour” but changed the chapter titles to some impressive (incongruous) display face. In this day of everyman his own designer we see all sorts of things which must keep Morrison spinning in his grave.
A week or two ago I tried to answer a customer query about the typeface used in a book published about 25 years ago. It was a buy-in from a British publisher, so we had no information on file. It turned out to have two text fonts used in a pattern I’ve not really figured out yet. It looks like the “other” face was used for the introductory passage in each chapter, but I have not read the book, an extremely long historical work, so am not certain what’s going on. My typeface identification methodology is simply to flip through my copy of the 1989 edition of LinoType Collection, The Mergenthaler Type Library looking for a cap W that matches. From there I’d go to the cap M, and that would generally rule the font out: on to the next. A match would mean you flip on the the next letter, maybe the lower case g, and so on. If you find it you’ll know it. Not really very elegant — a sort of sledgehammer approach. I had no success. I then looked into on-line typeface identification, which phrase I googled. Fonts.com, Identifont are a couple of sites offering this service. It worked in the same way, but it started with Cap Q, not a character that you find on every page, though there were enough queens in this book, so it wasn’t too hard to find one. If the Q is like this or that you go on to another letter and so on till the system tells you its answer. It said Dante, a Monotype font which unsurprisingly doesn’t appear in the Mergenthaler book. (Mergenthaler = Linotype, the competition in hot metal days for the Monotype Corp.) I was quite pleased as that showed I hadn’t done something wrong, but that my toolbox had just not contained the right item. I like Dante. There was a university press in America which would order the typesetting of every volume in a lengthy series through me for setting in Cambridge, which was one of the few places in the world that had a decent array of type sizes and sorts in Dante. Years later I was tangentially involved in the an enquiry about the sale of this very array of matrices to one of the last surviving commercial hot-metal book houses in America. So liking Dante, I was sure that must be the answer. Worryingly however when I repeated the process in the same site, I came up with a different answer! And as for the other text font, I could get no answer that wasn’t obviously wrong whatever the cap Q etc. might be insisting. So maybe these sites are not fool-proof. I did come upon one site which suggested you photograph a page of the book with you iPhone, and let it run a comparison. This I did not test.