One Book to Specify Them All

FontBookSome people find it hard to believe, but I do in fact like to use typefaces other than Helvetica. Recently, for instance, I’ve been really feelin’ Apex Serif, a beautiful, contemporary typeface that, as the name suggests, even has serifs. I like it so much that it’s the primary typeface for a side project I’m working that’s currently in ‘coming soon’ mode.

It’s not that often that I come across typefaces that I like as much as Helvetica, or even as much as Apex Serif. I probably wouldn’t have found it, though, if I hadn’t been flipping through the FontShop’s massive, nearly comprehensive tome, “FontBook.” It’s billed as “the largest typeface reference in the world,” and just a single flip through its 1,500 pages leaves one with no reason to doubt that claim.

The book is most directly a product of the mad mind of Erik Spiekermann and co-edited by Jürgen Siebert and Mai-Linh Thi Truong. But I was first turned on to this new version by Stephen Coles, author and editor of the wonderful Typographica blog. Stephen was a long-time user of the previous edition of the book, and was so persistent in sending his notes and corrections to the editors, that they hired him to help with this edition, fact-checking, editing and working on cross-references. In the interview that follows (conducted over email), I asked him about who would take on an outsized project like this and why.

Stephen Coles on “FontBook”

Khoi Vinh

What makes “FontBook” different from other type specimen catalogs?

Stephen Coles

Most digital type specimen books are temporary catalogs of a particular foundry. House Industries, Typotheque, and Emigre produce some excellent booklets for their font collections. “FontBook” is unique in that it compiles the typefaces of these and ninety other foundries into one objective reference. This allows the editors to be systematic in how the book is organized. Sans, serif, slab, and display typefaces are grouped together so you can find and compare fonts based on their characteristics, rather than the way they were released or promoted. There are also cross-references for almost every typeface to help you find designs that are closely related and discover new stuff.

Spread from FontBook

And unlike the foundry catalogs, “FontBook” isаintended to be a permanent part of a design library. It’sаhardcover and very heavy.аIt makes an excellent door stop. Erik Spiekermann uses it to weigh down the scanner lid when scanning books.

It’s not the first guide of its kind. The “Precision Type Font Reference Guide” took a similar approach and it’s a great reference for text faces, but the last edition was published in ’96 so it’s sadly out of date. With the fourth edition of “FontBook” we tried to be as current and complete as we could, up to the printing date (fall of last year).


How much work did it take to bring this up to date? When did you start working on it, what kind of work was required, and how did you go about it?


For this answer I thought I’d better bring in the man who has been involved since the first edition, Erik Spiekermann:

“It took more than two years in production. We had to totally redesign the database. We still worked with a database from 1991 and the software had been discontinued. At that time, we also had a programme written for us (in Smalltalk) that took the fonts for each page, opened them, laid out the page in Quark, closed the fonts again. In those days, the RIPS couldn’t handle more than a dozen fonts or so.

“Now we generate PDFs, and we can have hundreds of fonts open at the same time. The pages are still generated automatically from templates, but we have to interfere a lot. Naming isn’t consistent between foundries, fonts are damaged or incomplete, versions have changed, etc. In total, the database has a few hundred thousand entries because it has to have every single font for every platform (PC Type 1, Mac Type 1, TrueType for both, Open Type), plus bundles, packages, language versions, updates.

“Altogether there were half a dozen people involved, some of them pretty much full-time. It took a year from the time we saw the first PDF files until we went to the printers. And we still missed a few families because we didn’t get the right data from the foundries or got it too late or simply didn’t realize that something was missing. It’s difficult enough to proofread 30,000 fonts, but more difficult to notice what is not there.”

As for myself, I helped to identify what wasn’t there, but by main task was to create the cross-references. That work took ourа‘See Also’ team of three a few weeks to complete.


It sounds like a tremendous amount of research invested in a uniquely authoritative resource. Given that, why is it important that “FontBook” is a book? Why isn’t it a piece of software — either an application on your desktop, or even better, a Web site that will reach more designers than the book?


Give or take a few items,а essentially is the book in digital form. You can find and sample almost any of the fonts found in the book.

But, for many, FontBook is an essential companion to the Web site. A lot of typefaces — especially text faces — are meant for print, so that’s how they should be seen. LCD displays haven’t advanced to the point where you can adequately judge the quality of a book serif at 11 pt. Beyond that, some people simply prefer the experience of browsing type on paper, flipping pages in a group setting or away from the computer.

We want to offer a PDF version of FontBook someday, but there are some legal and technical hurdles to leap, not the least of which is the sheer size of the files. The latest PDF proof I saw weighed several gigs.


What are the economics of this book — is it intended to earn money on its own, or serve as a loss leader for the sale of typefaces?


At US$99, it’s not a cheap book, but it wasn’t made cheaply. The paper is opaque, the binding is sturdy — always opening flat like a good reference should. This edition even includes silky bookmark ribbons, like any proper bible.

So FSI doesn’t profit much from FontBook sales, especially considering the crazy amount of man hours that went into its production. Yeah, we hope people will remember FontShop when they find something in FontBook they want to license, but ultimately, it’s simply the sort of labor of love that only aаtypomaniacаlike Spiekermann would undertake.

“…it’s an incurable, if not mortal disease. I can’t explain it. I just like looking at type. I get a total kick out of it. They are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine or girls’ bottoms, I get kicks out of looking at type.”

  1. If you like Helvetica so much, why don’t you put Helvetica before Arial in your style sheet? I personally use “Helvetica Neue”, Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif.

    Also why don’t you add a font-family to your comments textarea?

    Just curious.

  2. Putting Helvetica first in the stylesheet is stupid, since Windows machines do not have helvetica as a default, so the Windows machines that do have Helvetica will probably use a version that is great for print but butt ugly when it comes to on-screen text smaller than 16 pt because most incarnations haven’t been hinted. That will ruin the website for all of those. Arial on the other hand comes with every Windows and Mac machine, is beautifully hinted, looks great in body text and is really not that much different from helvetica, especially at small sizes.

  3. Those look great. Personally, I like to use “Typogrophy: An encyclopedic survey of design and techniques throughout history”

    It isn’t so much of a dictionary of fonts, but an encyclopedia of font uses, with full color examples. It touches the soul at so many levels.

  4. While this is something of a rat hole, for the style sheet problem between Brent’s post and Peter’s, couldn’t you simply use:

    font-family: ‘Helvetica Neue’, Arial, sans-serif;

    …and thus get the better typeface for Macs (and anyone who’s installed Helvetica Neue, of course), and the acceptable Arial everywhere else?

  5. I’ve been using Helvetica as my main font for some time and I have to say, I love it, but Futura and Univers are so damn gorgeous! Aphex Serif looks cool, thanks for sharing that.

    As for the book, I think it’s a must have for any designer that is serious about design, then I’ll start my professional career this will be one of the first books I’ll buy.

  6. Peter,

    That’s the point of putting Helvetica first. If the windows machine doesn’t have Helvetica it will use Arial instead. Helvetica on my Windows machine looks just fine on the screen. And I would venter to say that 99% of the people on the web that have windows don’t have Helvetica installed.

  7. Windows users rarely have a remotely sensible version of Helvetica, always seems cobbled together from about 5 releases. I work in a pretty big design studio at the minute who unfortunately run Windows.
    I have:
    Helvetica + Bold in Mystery Type1
    Helvetica Linotype 2002 Adobe Truetype
    Helvetica Neue Mystery Type1
    HelveticaNeue-Condensed Mystery Truetype
    Helvetica Neue Roman Linotype Type1

    WHAT A PISSING MESS! Why are most designers who run windows so damn clueless about fonts.

  8. I think that the bevy of terrible versions of Helvetica on other platforms is why Apple includes Helvetica Neue.

    I’ve seen plenty of Windows boxes, and most X windows installs (Linux) ship with *bitmapped* versions of Helvetica!

  9. That it’s possible to write an article about type specimens and not mention Hoefler + Frere Jones is really incredible…

  10. Margeret – I agree that H&FJ has a history of producing some of the finest type specimens and I’m sorry I neglected them. Though, if I mentioned all the foundries which do great work but don’t see the spotlight, that first paragraph of my response would be a very long one indeed.

  11. the question I want to ask might seem a bit foolish, but when a font from the book caught my attention, where will I get this specific font from?

    I don’t assume that there is a cd/dvd with all the fonts coming with the bookЁ

    do you search for the fonts in several online font-shops then???

    sry, it nearly hurts with such kind of stupid question, but I’m a bit confusedЁ

  12. It’s not a stupid question, Lorenz. Maybe I wasn’t too clear in the interview, but nearly every font in the book is available to test, purchase, and download at Besides being a good general reference, FontBook is a catalog of FontShop’s collection.

  13. As soon as I can find $100.00 to drop on a book, that will be the one I get. I would love to own it, or even know someone that does own it, so I can atleast take advantage of it.

    Nice interview, it just made me want one that much more…

  14. I’m hardly as font-involved as I once was, especially since experience has shown me that how you set type is far more important than what font you use.

    I have the original FontBook and Vol. 2 and older FontShop catalogs. I sometimes take notice of new faces but I don’t feel compelled to immediately use them. I had no interest in getting a revised Fontbook until I read your post.

    Even if I never use another new typeface this book looks like an essential historical snapshot, a must-have artifact. Thanks for the heads up.

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