What the Font?! – A Manga Guide to Western Typeface – Kuniichi Ashiya

3 out of 5

The concept and general structure of this are really fantastic – a delightfully playful educational resource, that works both as a random exposure to its subject matter, fonts, and also, I’m supposing, exactly as it does for its lead character, Marusu: a slick introduction to a complex set of information for someone just trying to get their feet wet. Furthermore, I’m reading this translated and it’s still effective in both of those senses, when I’d think the first intended audience here is a Japanese one, struggling with why the heck there are 100s of different font choices for those English letters you want to add to your project.

What the Font?! is primarily what its subtitle claims, listing out several major Western typefaces, and briefly explaining their origin and how that informs their general use. It sheds light on something we lay, non-designy types probably overlook: how little nuances can drastically shift the readability and impact of a font. To make the subject matter even more visual (and admittedly easy to get in to), this is all told in comic format, with Marusu agreeing to take on a design job at work without much knowledge on the matter, and getting directed to a school in which all of the fonts – personified as people with tell-tale personality attributes and manners of dress – attend. So as Marusu tours the school and meets said fonts, we get a well-packaged rundown – partially notes in the margins, mostly through manga-ized conversations – of the aforementioned info, along with some real world examples of the font’s use and an A – Z demo of each form. There is a lot of info, but it’s all very compact and readable, with acknowledgements that it’s just a chip off the block of what’s out there. The art is rather simple, focusing mostly on the characters, but that’s fine – it’s pleasant, and easy to follow, and there’s no need to go deep with backgrounds or action or whatnot.

So: I’d started by specifically calling out the concept and general structure as being noteworthy. What hinders the project, though, is the sequencing, and, perhaps more frustratingly, the editing. The structure groups the fonts into their different overall styles, and it’s a breezy 4-or-so pages per font, which is just enough room to get the job done and keep us moving; this makes sense a lot of sense, but it also can’t be linear – fonts have been created and recreated all across different eras, and so talking about one often requires using some terminology up front that we won’t learn until later. I don’t have a “clean” solution to this, but maybe some asides that we’ll take about X later could help – sometimes it’s not clear if we’re expected to know something already or not. This isn’t a huge knock, but it can take you out of the funness of the thing. What’s problematic above and beyond this, though, is when the translation or editing straight up presents something incorrectly. Even though this is presented in a right-to-left manga fashion, some of the diagrams seem to have their information transposed – that is, defining something on an image on the left that’s actually on the right. Additionally, there are some key things that would seem to be typos (or, again, could be translation issues); both of these things are really tough to take when you’re intended to learn from something.

Still, the amount of info offered up in What the Font?!, and the creative and fun way it’s presented, ultimately make this a worthwhile read, accepting you’re willing to go through it with a critical eye to know you might have to self-correct or append to some of what’s here.