Typography Book Reviews

Published on:
July 27, 2017

All of my previous posts have been about software and web development, but that’s only how I spend most of my hobby time. I’ve also spent some time the past few months studying typography and design. In that time I’ve overhauled this website, made myself a logo and wordmark, done some basic document layout, designed a couple t-shirts, and even made logos and wordmarks for real clients. Along the way I read a couple books I’m about a review, but first: a story.

What follows is personal and meandering, so if you’re here for book reviews feel free to skip the next section.

How Did I Get to This Point?


A little over a year ago, the United States House of Representatives passed a budget ammendment by voice vote that would have essentially elemenated my job. At that point, I took a serious look at what my future could look like if I were forced to make a career change. After some soul searching I decided to take spend some hobby time on the other thing I was into in high school—computer programming. That ammendment’s long gone, but programming is still fun.

Purely by chance, one of my best friends from college is now a software engineer. He recommended a book that I reviewed a while ago. After completing that book and another course I wanted to build a real project. That project was this blog. I built this thing basically from scratch! Cool!

Once the blog was working, I asked my wife to take a look and tell me what she thought. I trusted her aesthetic sense much more than mine (and rightly so, she’s an incredible photographer). She furrowed her brow and said “I think you need to put some more thought into your fonts.”

I did.

Six months, three design books, five web dev projects, and three logos later: I’ve thought an awful lot about fonts. Two books that helped me get my ducks in a row were Practical Typography by Matthew Butterick, and Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger.

Practical Typography


I found Practical Typography the same way I finished college: Google. I Googled “Typography” and read through every link starting at the top. When I got to Practical Typography I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. The book was and is free to read, it looks great on mobile, and it’s just text so the page loads wouldn’t use up my entire data plan. It was the perfect e-book for someone always on the road.

In the book’s introduction, Butterick establishes that the intended audience for this book is anyone who writes as part of their job. That includes quite a range of professions. Because of its wide intended audience, Practical Typography strays clear of discussing ascenders, descenders, and x-heights. Instead it focuses on habits you can adopt that will make your spreadsheets more legible, your reports less boring, and the meaning of your written text more clear. Every page (chapter? It’s hard to tell on the web) of the book covers a typographic rule, and explains how to apply it in common word processors.

Butterick’s writing is very clear, if a bit pedantic at times. Each section starts with rules that are simplest to apply, and every single rule will make your writing look better. Butterick also does an excellent job of making every rule easy to apply and demonstrates them effectively.

The downside to Practical Typography is that it might be a bit dry for most of its intended audience. Unfortunately most people just don’t seem to care how their writing looks. For those that do care Practical Typography lives up to its name perfectly. It is a practical guide to everyday typography. It is not a deep dive into the way letters are formed or how to use them as shapes to make art, but then again it doesn’t try to be.

Overall, 4/5 - would recommend. The only downside was not being available to download. Given that the book is free to read and Butterick only makes money from people choosing to pay through the website—I totally understand.

Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works


Stop Stealing Sheep is the deep dive that Practical Typography couldn’t be. Somewhere along my learning journey I found a youtube channel called The FuturIn any episode where Chris Do takes user questions, he always recommends Stop Stealing Sheep when a viewer asks about typography. After seeing him mention it a few times and seeing it on several “top 10” lists of graphic design books, I bought a copy.

To accurately and honestly describe this book, I need to break the 4th wall (is it the 2nd wall since this is a screen and not a stage?) and drop the semi-formal blog author tone.

This book is rad. It’s totally awesome. It is chock full of reference material for anything having to do with type, type-setting, fonts, and typography. I read it cover to cover in two days, and I will constantly be pulling it off the shelf to look at it for inspiration. I seriously could not put this thing down once I started it. For a book about something most people never notice, Stop Stealing Sheep makes letters into a pretty compelling topic.

*Ahem*

Stop Stealing Sheep is so useful for a few practical reasons. Spiekermann and Ginger look at a wide range of applications of type and explore why various type designs work or do not work for each practical scenario. Every example comes with just enough historical detail to be interesting without being dry or boring. The writing is often times witty, and the design and page layout is varied enough to hold interest through long reading sessions.

The book is broken down into sections that focus on different aspects of type design and type-setting. Every page spread has a visual example having to do with the current topic on the left page, and an explanation of how type is used to the desired effect on the right page. Each page also contains samples of every font used in these examples along with their foundries so you can find them later.

Overall 5/5 - Highly recommend. If you are going to go through the process of choosing fonts for projects more than once, get this book. Your future readers, poster viewers, clients, or sign-looker-aters will thank you. This book will take a lot of guess work out of choosing and combining typefaces so you can do better work faster.

Which One?


Despite personally strongly preferring Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, I feel compellled to give a qualifed recommendation here. If you have no interest in letters, typefaces, or fonts and are only concerned with optimizing your typography for ease of reading and organization, you should read Practical Typography.

For anyone who is interested in letter shapes, fonts, typefaces, etc. read Stop Stealing Sheep. Or both of them.