Is typography necessary?
and even printers have been known to smile indulgently when watching a typographer
pondering the proof of a title-page long and earnestly and at last marking a
point of space in between two capital letters. What does it matter, they ask,
and was it not perfectly legible before?
Legibility is not
enough to aim at when one is printing books. True, G. K. Chesterton said that
if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. And a poorly printed copy
of a favourite book is better than no copy at all. Probably everybody will agree
that a well-produced book is better than a moderately-produced book. The difference
between the two is small. Is it worth the extra trouble? will one point (one
seventysecond of an inch) be noticed? Does typography matter?
Assuming that anything
matters. then certainly it matters how things are made and what they look like,
and typography is responsible for how printed words are made and what they look
like. Many books today are printed in good types, on quite good paper. and yet
the result is only moderately pleasing. An enormous amount of skill (five hundred
years of it. at least) has gone into the design and manufacturing of the types;
the brains of engineers and scientists of many generations have gone into the
making of the paper and the ink and the printing machinery; and highly skilled
craftsmen have done the actual printing. It has lacked one ingredient, the brains
of a typographer. and so is by that amount less good than it should have been.
The fact that good
types are available at all today is due to typographers' efforts in the past;
that work is now done, and a publisher can be sure that every book printer today
is stocked with several excellent founts of type. Of what does typography consist
when applied to the actual production of a book?
The first and all-important
principle is that the type matter should be so arranged that the author's message
is transferred to the reader's brain as quickly and smoothly as possible; the
mechanism by which this is achieved should not be noticeable. If one is judging
a new type face. one looks at a page of it. and if any letter springs to the
eye. even as being particularly beautiful, that letter is wrong.
A great many modern
books offend by trying hard to be well designed or 'modern', and there certainly
are cases where the contents matter so little that a piece of clever design
relieves what would otherwise be boredom; but in all real books, the book is
the author, and not the printed page: it is just as annoying when the printer
or typographer obtrudes his personality into the author-reader relationship
as when some outsider rings a bell for tea or switches on the telly.
But if some books
are spoiled by too much typography, more books are spoiled by having too little.
One of the first concerns of a typographer in planning a book is to decide on
the size of type that will be right for the size of page, and for the length
of line, and to determine the amount of leading required. Normally there should
be not less than ten words per line on a book reading page, and not more than
fifteen: too short a line means turning back too often, and too long a line
means losing the right line when you turn back. The amount ofleading, or white
between the lines, depends partly on the length of the ascenders and descenders
of the fount. Most type is easier to read if it is slightly leaded. It is also
a rule of good composition that setting should be close, and as even as pos
sible; the space between words should be about the width of the letter 'j',
and never much more. The longer the gap between words, the harder the work for
the eye, and the greater the risk of a word in the line below being nearer than
the next word, in which case the eye will jump to it instead. Also, when spacing
between words is too wide, ugly rivers of white appear, and the even grey texture
of a well-set page of type is lost.
Margins are also
important. They are the frame surrounding a page of type and separating it from
the scenery in the background. In the old days, when people read books seriously,
they were used for making notes, and they were always as generous as possible
because every time a book is re-bound, something more is sliced off all sides.
Nowadays the convenience of having books we can slip into the pocket and the
exigencies of wartime have made us less sensitive to margins and we find we
can, when necessary, do with very narrow ones. Sometimes, modern books are printed
with normal margins reversed, i.e. with the outside margin narrower than the
inside margin. If such books will never need to be re-bound, there seems no
technical argument for this. It merely looks awful.
There are a thousand
other details in which good typography can improve a book, and one seventy-second
of an inch may in fact make a noticeable difference. That all made things should
be made as beautiful as possible is one of the details in which civilisation
consists. It is no more important that books should be well-made, than that
anything else should be well-made; unless, indeed, you happen to regard books
as friends. We do not want our friends all to be well-dressed, but we do, I
think, want them all to be comfortably and appropriately dressed. Therein lies
the pleasure and the skill of book typography.
ANYWAY, what is
I am writing this
in the UK, where 'typographer' does not mean, as it does in the USA, the man,
woman or firm who sets the type. I mean the designer.
But today, when
there are so many different terms covering so many different activities - layout
staff, graphic artists, 'graphikers', visualisers, etc., - let us use the word
'typographer' in its traditional sense of the person who lays out or arranges
type in order to be read.
As opposed, for
example, to the graphic designers who make 'images', who use not words but symbols,
shapes, photographs and other visual ideas. That is something completely different.
The tWo skills are not often found in the same person.
then, in the original sense of the word, uses type to communicate an author's
message. For many years after the invention of moveable type way back in the
1400s, the typographer was always the printer. In a famous book published in
London in 1683-4, called Mechanick Exercises or the Whole Art of Printing,
the author Joseph Moxon wrote 'by a typographer, I mean such a one, who by his
own Judgement, from solid reasoning within himself, can either perform, or direct
others to perform from beginning to the end, all the Handy-works and Physical
Operations relating to Typographie'. That still does not define the actual job.
But Moxon was writing a manual, and went on to describe those 'Handy-works and
Physical Operations' in detail.
Putting words together,
letter by letter in the composing-stick, was the job of the compositor. 'A good
Compositer, [sic]', wrote Moxon, 'is ambitious as well to make the meaning of
his Author intelligent to the Reader, as to make his work show
graceful to the eye, and pleasant in
Reading'. That says it all. Designing printed matter so that the words 'show
graceful to the Eye, and pleasant in Reading' continued to be the work of compositors
for centuries. They sometimes worked on their own, but more often under the
direction of the Master Printer.
By the end of the
nineteenth century, Monotype and Linotype hot-metal composition systems had
both been invented (in the United States). The old days of hand-setting, hand
presses and hand-made paper were ended. The Master Printer now had to master
a lot of new techniques, including machines run by steam and electricity, not
to mention the host of new typefaces made possible by the Benton punch-cutting
machine. His hands were full. No wonder that he had to look around for someone
else to attend to the finicky details of typographic design.
Since many of these
new developments came from America, it is not surprising that the first freelance
typographer, Bruce Rogers, and the first freelance type designer, Fred Goudy,
were both Americans.
did not become a profession, in which you could be qualified, and be awarded
a degree, as in medicine, accountancy and architecture, until much later. In
Britain certainly it came only after 1945. But the job remained the same: to
make words 'graceful to the Eye, and pleasant in Reading'.
It is a more complicated
job than at first may appear. There are many different kinds of book, let alone
the modern visual aids, and there are many different kinds of text: some, like
dictionaries, that you usually only want to read a few words at a time; some
that have to be read very carefully and perhaps re-read several times; others
that have to be skimmed through very quickly in order to find a needed reference
or fact: and the ideal type and typographical treatment for each may be quite
Aren't the author's
When a typographer
is given a work of literaturepoems, prose, or whateverthen of course
the words, or punctuation? or use of capitals?may not be changed without
the author's permission. Authors, like everyone else, make mistakessome
are very grateful when they are corrected, others less so! But mistakes (e.g.
quotations from the Bible, or other words of printed literature) have to be
But not all typography
is book typography, in which the words are usually sacred. Magazine, brochure
or newspaper texts, especially headings, often can, and even must be changed.
In a magazine, the title of an article usually has one main purpose: to tell
the reader what the article is about, to give him or her the choice whether
it's a 'must' or can be skipped - or in some 'popular' journalism and in advertising,
to try to make the reader want to read it. Designers must have the freedom to
suggest better wording for a title, perhaps to fit a space or an illustration
that the original writer did not know about.
All experienced typographers know that in many kinds of work words that come
to them are not right. In a letterheading for example, it is surprising how
often the client supplies the wrong street number or postcode, or leaves out
some important wording completely.
I once had to design
a poster for the notice-boards of a university, telling graduates and undergraduates
how to register for their courses at the beginning of the academic year. The
university could not understand why the existing poster was being ignored.
I sat down to read
the 'copy' I was given. It took me all of three hours to puzzle out what the
man who wrote that copy was trying to say. He could not write plain English
- a gift, like that of 'common sense' which is not so common as you may think.
Having, with many doubts, arrived at what I thought was meant, I re-wrote the
copy and returned it to the university saying (apologetically) 'Is this what
you mean?' It came back saying 'Thank you, yes'. The 'typography' was then easy.
But with a text that did not make sense, it was impossible.
The words have to be right.
of the above was originally printed in The Folio, Vol. 1, No. 5, May-June
in Carsaig library, 1990. (Photo by Colin Banks.)