Thursday, June 22, 2006

Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style

I have more than once expressed the view that the physical shape and design of a book has a pronounced effect on the reader's enjoyment of it. Usually this effect is unconscious, but it's real enough, and it is more important, I think, than many people realise -- including professionals who ought to know better.

I have also said, from time to time, that on average, year in and year out, it seems to me that American book design is superior to British.

Well, in Robert Bringhurst's classic text The Elements of Typographic Style, we have some wonderful insights into how the conscious or unconscious impact of a well designed book is brought about. The Elements of Typographic Style is vastly superior, in every way, to Williamson's Methods of Book Design, which was recommended to me a decade or so ago as the authoritative book its field.

Bringhurst's masterwork was first published in 1990. Rapid developments in digital technology meant that it had to be revised and enlarged in 1996; and the third edition, again fully revised, appeared in 2004. It is widely recognised, I believe, as a classic in its field, and I can't say that I am surprised.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that every author and publisher ought to own this book (though I have bought one myself), because it is extremely technical in places, and overall is far too detailed for most laymen. However, I do think it would do no harm for all book lovers to take a look at it, if only to understand how deeply some people care about the importance of the page's appearance.

In itself, this book is an exceptionally elegant piece of design: but you would expect that, I think. Taller and narrower than many books, it was designed by the author, set into type in Canada, and printed and bound in Hong Kong; because the world is flat. The basic font used is Minion Pro, which I first noticed, and heartily approved of, in the latest Terry Pratchett novel.

Minion is not without its critics: someone told me that, as issued, the closing quotation mark is positioned too close to the full stop, with the result that it can all too easily be mistaken for an exclamation mark. However, I didn't notice that in the Pratchett book; and in any case, as Bringhurst explains, the skilled typographer can tweak the kerning settings of most fonts these days, so as to eliminate any nuisances of this kind. And, bearing in mind some of the examples that Bringhurst offers, you will be amazed by how sharp an eye some of these typographers have.

The contents page reveals that the book is divided into 11 chapters with five appendices. This page could, with advantage, give a much more detailed breakdown of the sub-headings within each chapter, as the titles themselves -- e.g. Rhythm and Proportion; Harmony and Counterpoint -- do not tell us very much. However, there is a very thorough index at the back.

The early chapters give us a number of practical working rules: e.g. Add extra lead (space) before and after block quotations. On hyphens, for instance, Bringhurst is relaxed about their appearance at the end of a page (something that the old guard would never have allowed), but says that 'in the interests of typographic hygiene, unnecessary hyphens should be omitted.'

We also have a vast amount of background information. For example, I learnt that the mediaeval scribes and clerks devoted much more attention to the layout of their manuscripts than I had hitherto suspected. I suppose this is fairly obvious when you think about it: copying a document or a book might take you a week or a year, and the result would have a substantial value, so naturally you would give a great deal of thought as to how to make a good job of it.

The mathematical bases for the various traditional (and new) page sizes are fully explained, and, interestingly, parallels are drawn with music. 'The shape of the page itself,' says Bringhurst, 'will provoke certain responses and expectations in the reader, independently of whatever text it contains.' For example, 'the very long and narrow columns of newspapers and magazines have come to suggest disposable prose and quick, unthoughtful reading.'

And so on. This is not a book that can readily be summarised. It can only be studied and admired.

Bringhurst himself, I discover, is a bit of a polymath but perhaps principally a poet. Typography seems to be almost the least of his interests. If you want to read an interview with him (from 1997), there is one on the typebooks site. I particularly like the following response, when he is asked what book he is working on at the moment:
I think that books, like people, are better off not being talked about behind their backs. Before they are finished, books are all back. After they are published, people, including the author, can say what they please.


Anonymous said...

You might want to search out Jan Tschichold's 'Asymmetrical Typography', a brilliant book from the letterpress era that was way ahead of its time, and still is, judging by the lacklustre book design that you see all around these days.

I agree with you about American book design, there are some very fine examples, to name but one that sticks in my memory: 'The Golden Peaches of Samarkand' by Edward H Schafer, which in the original hardback is given such a fine design by the University of California Press.

These days, it seems many publishers cannot even get such basics as degree of paragraph indentation right. And with Indesign and Opentype fonts there really is no excuse any more for ignoring typographical ligatures (which were standard in letterpress), but still you see the dot of the 'i' butting into the loop of the 'f', like some amateur DTP of the late 80s. It's painful to see this kind of thing from big publishers.

archer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
archer said...

My favorite book and type design is by Knopf. Their three-volume edition of Mencken's The American Language is perfect. The typeface and the paper quality make you actually want to read the hundreds of footnotes. Mencken elsewhere goes into detail about working closely with Knopf to get exactly what he wanted.

ivan said...

I'll have to agree with Archer.
Knopf has the best book designs.
Pick up any Updike, novel or short story collection, hardcover and you'll have a fairly portable book withe an uncluttered dust jacket that somehow echoes Updike's first love of graphic arts. It is so clean!
That being said, any damfool writer who has gone some way realized that the medium of the printed page is way, way superior to any other medium, including film or television. White space can be as compelling as the actual
copy. Like frozen music set in white.
The computer has wrecked this esthetic matrix; that's why reading from a screen just doesn't do it.
There is nothing like a story set in the medium of the printed page or a cover that emulates high modernism. The Thirties forever!

ivan said...

Oh I don't know. I like to show off my typographic knowledge too, maybe even in Bodoni Bold. Sans serif.

It's actually refreshing to come across somebody else who knows about antique printing and the sumbols for same.

I went to some Ugandan friends to
publish one of my books (uh, Ivan-subsidized publishing), asked them to indent a line seven ems and the colum set ten picas and they all said in Swahili that the customer had surely gone mad.

Printing has changed so much in the last ten years, all projects on a template, all so
computerized, that I have seen printers reading a book while their presses were labouring mightily.

I mentioned to one of the young guys that I really wanted radiant condensed in a chapter heading, thirty-six point high and he appeared to take me for a fine arts guy. Just shook his head.

Ah for the old days when the gay linotype operator may have been exchanging mash notes with the guy on the matrix, but you could be sure he understood what you meant when you said 1-36-3, one column,thirty-six-point type,three lines. And when you marked STET on the copy, he would walk right over to the chase and reinsert what he had just thrown on the floor.
Ah, for the good old days of reading backwards!

Peter said...

I love this book, but as you note:
"it is extremely technical in places, and overall is far too detailed for most laymen".

I'm curious - what would you recommend instead for people who want a working knowledge, but not to this depth?

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