Characters is a coffee table book with a designer brain. Compiled by Melbourne typographer Stephen Banham over two years, the volume traces a host of the city’s public typographic gems to map the reciprocal relationship between a city and its typefaces.

Characters offers a new way of looking at the familiar. It reveals the detailed stories behind Melbourne’s historical advertisements, street signs, shopfronts and neon eye-catchers such as the Skipping Girl Vinegar sign, The Herald Sun Building and the darker side of the Qantas logo.

A typography lecturer at RMIT since 1991, recent curator of the Paper City exhibition as part of 2011’s State of Design Festival and the founder of typographic studio Letterbox, Banham takes the reader on an engaging historical journey.

“Typographic storytelling links and interweaves stories of social change, politics and economics,” writes Banham in his introduction. He then goes on to explore stories of political exposure via graffiti, when anti-logging campaigners used the abandoned 110 meter high Spencer Street power station tower as a vertical canvas by scrawling ‘No jobs on a dead planet’ in huge white block letters.

He also explores notions of cultural change. For centuries, advertisements were designed to attract slow-moving passersby at eye level, but the automobile changed this in the mid 20th century. The 1950s saw the Victoria Bitter sky-sign on Nepean Highway accused by road authorities of distracting drivers with an eye-catching spectacle of colour and lights. “We see culture reflected everywhere in typography”, writes Banham. He shows us that poetic instruction is tucked into every suburb corner, in the form of ‘Don’t Walk’, ‘Give Way’ or ‘Cross Here’ signage, while Fitzroy Pool’s bold black ‘Aqua Profonda’ (deep water) is a testament the Italian migrant community of the 1950s.

Surveying Characters imparts an uncanny sense of nostalgia for Melbourne. It is for the curious as much as the architect, the artist, the designer or the historian. While coffee table books are usually flick-through affairs, this in-depth volume merits a much deeper reading.

Characters is available from the following bookstores at characters.net.au