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Philosophical Designs

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Sometimes you come across a book that changes how you view the world. For me one such was Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (1st ed. 1992). My father gave me a copy of the third edition when I was just beginning my own career as a copy-editor, and it opened my eyes to a new philosophy of life applied to the arrangement of type. Until then, I had never really thought about what text looked like. I liked books to have attractive covers, but the words inside were just words, weren’t they? How wrong I was.

The Elements of Typographic Style is concerned with the printed word in its own right, as something more than a vehicle of meaning. Printed in black, grey and red on creamy laid paper, the book is, in Bringhurst’s own words, ‘the fruit of a lot of long walks in the wilderness of letters: in part a pocket field guide to the living wonders that are found there, and in part a meditation on the ecological principles, survival techniques and ethics that apply’. Which is to say that it is a book about what makes a page or a letterform ‘good’ (in other words, both functional and pleasing), how such things have been achieved in the past, and how one might go about achieving them today.

This balancing of the philosophical with the practical is evident even in the chapter titles: 3 Harmony and Counterpoint; 6 Choosing and Combining Type; 11 Prowling the Specimen Books. On p.78, in a section called ‘Consider even the lowly hyphen’, we read of how the first hyphens were single canted penstrokes (the narrowest stroke a pen could make), how their slopes varied with shifting human inclinations, and how Renaissance typographers could choose between the canted hyphen and the flat hyphen. Some preferred one, some the other, and some ‘mixed the two at random . . . to give a touch of scribal variety to the typeset page’. On p.79 we are in more practical territory: ‘If you are tempted to redesign an existing font,

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Sometimes you come across a book that changes how you view the world. For me one such was Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (1st ed. 1992). My father gave me a copy of the third edition when I was just beginning my own career as a copy-editor, and it opened my eyes to a new philosophy of life applied to the arrangement of type. Until then, I had never really thought about what text looked like. I liked books to have attractive covers, but the words inside were just words, weren’t they? How wrong I was.

The Elements of Typographic Style is concerned with the printed word in its own right, as something more than a vehicle of meaning. Printed in black, grey and red on creamy laid paper, the book is, in Bringhurst’s own words, ‘the fruit of a lot of long walks in the wilderness of letters: in part a pocket field guide to the living wonders that are found there, and in part a meditation on the ecological principles, survival techniques and ethics that apply’. Which is to say that it is a book about what makes a page or a letterform ‘good’ (in other words, both functional and pleasing), how such things have been achieved in the past, and how one might go about achieving them today. This balancing of the philosophical with the practical is evident even in the chapter titles: 3 Harmony and Counterpoint; 6 Choosing and Combining Type; 11 Prowling the Specimen Books. On p.78, in a section called ‘Consider even the lowly hyphen’, we read of how the first hyphens were single canted penstrokes (the narrowest stroke a pen could make), how their slopes varied with shifting human inclinations, and how Renaissance typographers could choose between the canted hyphen and the flat hyphen. Some preferred one, some the other, and some ‘mixed the two at random . . . to give a touch of scribal variety to the typeset page’. On p.79 we are in more practical territory: ‘If you are tempted to redesign an existing font, using a digital font editor, the hyphen is a good character to start on.’ That ‘scribal variety to the typeset page’ is telling, for this book is deeply humane and humanist. In the foreword Bringhurst points out that, for as long as people have been writing, the principles of the good page have been based ‘on the structure and scale of the human body – in particular the eye, the hand and the forearm – and on the invisible but no less real, no less demanding and no less sensual anatomy of the human mind’. That underlying humanity never dies: even the most technical discussion of mathematical proportions matters only in so far as it will help to produce that which is pleasing to human eyes, hands and minds. The writing itself is likewise a joy: witty, clear and striking. Bringhurst (who is poet and translator as well as prose writer and typographer) has a genuine flair for metaphor and writes with the forthright confidence of one who trusts his readers to be interested or be gone. And interested you must surely be. Here you will explore the history and spirit of different fonts, and the associations they bring with them; you will learn about page proportions and how they may be related to the mathematics of the eight-note musical scale; about text figures and lining figures, small caps and titling faces, and how best to use them; how to distinguish true italic from sloped roman. You will gather printers’ flowers; you will discover the beauty of empty space. A book about typography had better be an example in itself, and The Elements of Typographic Style is just that. An unusual shape – about twice as tall as it is wide – it sits comfortably in the hand and will surprise and delight you with every lively, lyrical page. It shows while it tells: when you are advised to do X instead of Y, both X and Y are illustrated so you can see the difference for yourself; a discussion of outdenting is set in outdented paragraphs so you can grasp its effect; margins are put to surprising uses. Extracts from Plato, Aristotle, the Song of Songs, Thoreau and Dostoevsky are set to provide typographical examples. (Bringhurst himself is Canadian, but his outlook here is global: Arabic, Asian and Russian scripts feature in the discussion as well as Latin and Greek.) After each reading you will come away not only more knowledgeable, but also refreshed by having interacted with a lovely and stimulating thing, in the company of a human being so generous as to lavish attention on an apostrophe. Such generosity is perhaps not altogether practical. ‘The first task of the typographer is . . . to read and understand the text; the second task is to analyse and map it.’ Few typographers today, I fear, can afford themselves the luxury of actually reading the texts they set. ‘Give full typographical attention even to incidental details.’ How many publishing schedules allow that? But the philosophy holds true nonetheless, for the ability to imagine and aspire to the seemingly unattainable is surely one of humankind’s more admirable traits. And in any case, this model of best practice is not to be followed uncritically: typography ‘should honour the text for its own sake – always assuming that the text is worth a typographer’s trouble’. Bad text does not deserve good letters. Such profound respect for one’s craft and its tools – and, indeed, for oneself as craftsman – is both humbling and exciting. But why should any of this matter? Is it not merely what my friends are pleased to call ‘font fetishism’? Does all this talk of kerning and the Golden Section not reek of pretension? I don’t think so. For although typography considers written words as aesthetic entities in their own right, it does not forget that they are first and foremost the servants of sense. The ultimate purpose of typography is to make reading as pleasant as might be, sparing the reader discomfort and distraction, and thereby freeing that reader’s energy and intellect to attend to what the words mean. Good typography is the glass lamp that shields the candle of civilization, that its light may shine through steady and clear.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Marianne Fisher 2022


About the contributor

Marianne Fisher enjoys hunting good typography in the wilderness of letters and tries to remain philosophical.

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