Best-selling classic manual – the typographist’s Bible
Subscribers to Internet lists dealing with fonts and typography often ask “Which books would you recommend as a guide to good design principles?”. And no matter how many responses emerge, one book comes out on top every time – Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It’s a book packed with design wisdom. Bringhurst has produced what is essentially a first principles of typography – a grammar of good taste based on the relationship between form and content of printed matter.
It’s also a very beautiful book in its own right. You will not fail to discover visual pleasures on almost every page, and the text is illustrated with such an astonishing variety of beautiful fonts, that this almost doubles as a catalogue of type designs. It is obvious from almost every word that he’s thought profoundly about the fundamental issues of printed words on the page, and he often has insights to offer on topics most of us take for granted. He can conjour poetry out of the smallest detail, and he offers a scholarly yet succinct etymology of almost every mark that can be made – from the humble hyphen to the nuances of serifs on Trajan Roman or a Carolingian Majuscule.
The well-made page is now what it was then: a window into history, language and the mind: a map of what is being said and a portrait of the voice that is silently speaking.
As you would expect, he traces the development of type from its origins in eleventh century China to the present, and he deals with such extremely subtle distinctions as the differences in quality of letter forms produced by pressing hot metal onto paper, by offset litho (laying the letter on top of the paper) or by the digital means of charged electrons on the screen. he doesn’t actually have much to say about computers and typography, and yet his brief comments summarise almost everything there is to say about digital type:
Good text faces for the screen are therefore as a rule faces with low contrast, a large torso, open counters, sturdy terminals, and slab serifs or no serifs at all. [And he might have added – ‘a large x-height’.]
He does seem to become a little fanciful when discussing the mathematics of page proportions, especially when maintaining an extended comparison with the musical scale, and he misses the chance to give historical examples of page design, rather than the mathematical tables which populate this part of the book. But it seems almost churlish to complain when everything is so beautifully presented.
He ends with two very useful chapters – one of which analyses commonly available fonts (“prowling the specimen books” as he calls it). Paragraph-length potted histories are followed by suggestions on how the font is best used. This is typical of the manner in which he very elegantly combines scholarship and a cultivated taste with the requirements of a practical guidance manual.
Bringhurst is also a novelist, and he brings a prose style of some distinction to the subject, ornamenting his text with the lyrical jargon of typography, and quite obviously relishing terms such at the pilcrow, the octothorpe, the virgule, guillemets and chevrons, and the solidus; as well as the romance of small caps, analphabetic symbols, the shape of pages, the order of footnote symbols, the ‘looser dressing’ and the ‘larger torso’ of a font.
The book ends with a fascinating tour of sorts and characters, revealing the subtle functions of the cedilla and the ogonek; the umlaut and the diaeresis; the ligatures aesc, and oethel; the prime, the macron, and the vinculum. He completes this tour de force with several more appendices: a glossary of typographic terms; a listing of type designers; another of typefoundries; a recapitulation of the main recommendations in the text; and a list of further reading.
This is a wonderful book which fully deserves its widespread reputation as a classic and the ultimate guide for laying out pages in print of on screen. Anyone who wishes to gain insights into the aesthetics and the finer details of good design should read this book. Anyone with a serious typographic intent should own it.
© Roy Johnson 2000
Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (2nd edn), Toronto: Hartley & Marks, 1996, pp.351, ISBN: 0881791326