Too Subtle for Me: Some comments on The Elements of Typographic Style (Version 4.0) by Robert Bringhurst.

There’s a certain incongruity in writing about The Elements of Typographic Style, a book about how to design books, using my Alphasmart Neo, which gives me five narrow rows of heavily pixelated characters. Except this is not true; it is in fact completely in keeping, because one of Bringhurst’s messages is, I think, learn about your tools (where a tool might be a typeface or a page design, as well as a piece of software), use the right ones for the job, and use them well. For producing plain text the Neo is the right tool; it is not the right tool for designing a page or driving tent pegs.

Bringhurst’s book is a modern classic and a ‘review’ is at best redundant, so instead I’ll just make a handful of random comments and say that lots of people should read it.

* In some ways the centre of the book is in this extract:

‘The needs of the text should take precedence over the layout of the font, the integrity of the letterforms over the ego of the designer, the artistic sensibility of the designer over the foundry’s desire for profit, and the founder’s craft over a good deal else.’

Indeed, the first subsection of the first chapter is titled Typography exists to honour content.  But how do you recognise the needs of the text and design a page and choose type accordingly? Surely there are essentially three parts to mastery of most things: (1) Being able to physically do it. (2) Being able to tell shit from clay. (3) Knowing what to do about the shit. (I apologise for the crudity, but the idiomatic force is irresistible.)

Sticking to the subject of typography, thanks to computers (1) is now not an issue for most of us. Where once the physical act of setting type was a skill in itself, even apart from getting the subtleties right, now we can get a first pass just by bunging text into a program, whether InDesign or Quark or LaTeX or whatever, and we can get on with (2) and (3). These require an educated eye and a brain that knows a few rules and tools for finding solutions to design issues, and it is here that this book is so very useful.

* The title reminds us of Strunk and White, a prescriptive little book about writing; and the quoted text above contains the word ‘should’. Educators can argue about the value of highly prescriptive guides. Do the strangle creativity? Are they even correct? How much of it is purely subjective? A good prescriptive guide should at least give the beginner something sound to start with, and doing what Bringhurst suggests will get you most of the way to a useful, usable result. Deeper mastery will tell you when even Robert Bringhurst should be ignored. It’s a bit like Orwell’s five rules for writing, which are all definite and clear, and then at the end are followed by ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’.

* For me, the ideal of book design is rather like a comfortable, handsome armchair. On the first meeting it is nice to admire it and appreciate its many good qualities. But its main task is to let me engage with the text. Bringhurst makes this point over and again. The typography serves the text.

* I guess it is one of those arts that only gets noticed when something goes wrong.

* The book is (of course) clearly written; it is almost too easy to read. It is (of course) very well designed, and extremely informative.

* The back cover tells me that Hermann Zapf himself said ‘I wish to see this book become the Typographer’s Bible.’ Who am I to argue? Maybe the typographic Gideons could make sure a copy shows up in the desk drawer of everyone charge with flanging together the office newsletter.

* The book could act as a text for a course, a gift to anyone who likes books as objects, or the beginning of an education for anyone who has to design, well, almost anything — not just books, and not just working with text.

* I recently read The Form of the Book by Jan Tschichold, an equally, possibly more, prescriptive look at designing books. Bringhurst edited the English translation, as it turns out. The two have much in common, including a pragmatism that grounds them and makes them at once useful and inspiring.

* Page 321 suggests that 360″ = 1o; I am pretty sure that should be 3600. I’m sure that will be fixed in version 4.1. Should I email the publisher? No, someone will have told them by now….

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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