The Typographic Hub

The Visual Dictionary of Typography

5th May 2011

The Visual Dictionary of Typography: AMBROSE, Gavin, HARRIS, Paul; AVA Publishing, Switzerland, 2010; ISBN 978-2-940411-18-4

This little book is a chirpy, flirty trip through the mysteries of typography: a light and visually pacey introduction to the typographic arts, which is aimed at new entrants to the profession and students of the subject. 

The Visual Dictionary of Typography is a guide to the ‘many and varied terms’ currently used by practitioners of the subject. Organized alphabetically the dictionary devotes a single page to each of the 250 entries, and covers all aspects of the subject: practical, technical, historical, empirical and includes typographic personalities. The terms are explained through written explanations, which are supported by visual descriptions and the book concludes with a timeline of typographic developments.

The charm of this dictionary is also its downfall; it is a butterfly publication, which settles momentarily and randomly on one subject before alighting on the next and the reader is treated to unconnected juxtapositions such as ‘animation’ and ‘apex’ or ‘vector’ and ‘vernacular’ and unexpected entries such as ‘museums & galleries’. Whilst this adds visual excitement to the content, it brings confusion to the subject as the text lacks any systematic or thematic structure; and because its omissions are as curious as some of its inclusions [‘letterpress’ is included but not ‘litho’; ‘condensed’ is given space but not ‘expanded’] it cannot really be regarded as a dictionary.

Questions also have to be raised as to the accuracy of some of the definitions. I was surprised to read, for example, that ‘typography is a . . . subject spanning many millennia’ or that a font is ‘the physical means of typeface production’.

However, despite my reservations, this is an interesting little book for students to dip in to and its range of entries give an indication to the extent of the subject.