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Commentary

Contrasts in Book Design: A Review of “Recent Typography” and “Texts on Type”

Bob Manson on December 28, 2004

I’m never sure what’s going to show up in the morning mail. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s awe-inspiringly bad, but it’s always fun.

You see, many weeks ago I gave a bibliophile friend an extensive list of typography-related books I wanted to purchase, and as she spends her time exploring bookstores and online sites she sends me random selections (plus a few of her own choosing). My postman has gotten used to dropping off one or two little packages every day, but he knows — he’s a book collector too.

Three books arrived on Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer set of Christmas presents: Stanley Morison’s A review of recent typography, the essay collection Texts on Type, and Linotype One-Line Specimens circa 1958. I’ll avoid discussing the contents (at least for today) and many of us are familiar with the prosaic functionality of the Linotype specimen books. But the contrasts in typography of the first two are notably deserving of comment.


The Morison book is 8vo, covered in a sturdy yet “rather boring” green cloth. (My copy has an interesting pattern of fading from having sat in the same bookshelf for eons.) The binding is weak and I’ll have to resew it sooner rather than later, a few of the pages were badly opened with a dull knife, but the contents are in excellent condition and should easily last for another 80 years.

It was printed by Walter Lewis, M.A. at the Cambridge University Press, published by The Fleuron Limited in 1926 “With sixteen illustrations”. Some modern readers may find the sixteen illustrations bit rather laughable, as these illustrations aren’t tired stock photos of bra-flinging women, they’re printed copies of title pages from then-current books. (I’m merely surprised it didn’t say sixteen color illustrations, because some of them use… red.)

The contents? The adjective nice feels inadequate, but some may consider beautiful a bit much when it comes to describing a book. I mean, come on, it’s a dull, perhaps hackneyed arrangement. The opening paragraphs use two-line-high dropped caps (a style already seen as dated back when Benjamin Franklin was a printer), the body text is set in stodgy Baskerville, texture-laden paper with rough edges, printed using a process involving metal type, messy ink and the occasional blank spot where the ink didn’t quite reach. Imperfections abound.

I’ll call it beautiful anyway. I own more colorful and typographically interesting books, and I’m sure there have been plenty of other works which were better set, but I can find nothing to criticize. It’s functional, entirely readable, and attractive. The title page examples were innovative for 1926 — and, at least to me, still have a great appeal.

Texts on Type, on the other hand, presents a worrying moral dilemma. I can’t decide if it was designed by people with no taste and poor vision, or if its badness was purely intentional. I suspect the former, but its typography is so blaringly awful I’m reluctant to abandon the latter.

Let’s start with the front cover. I won’t inflict a scan of it upon the reader, but… it’s pink. I mean pink. A pastel pink, granted, but not exactly a color one associates with fine works of typography; it is almost precisely the pink one associates with Mary Kay fanatics. A white three-dee wireframe T with jumbled lines of italic Helvetica Black running through it spell out the title. I’m wryly amused but not impressed.

The usual back cover blurb blurbles out some self-sanctifying madness about the “aesthetic and civilizing aspects of typography”. I wish the designers had considered aesthetics and civilization when they designed the front cover, or gave some practical thought to using something other than the unreadable sans font they chose for the back. (Oops, I’m cheating — I promised I wouldn’t go into the content.)

The Mary Kay resemblance doesn’t stop at the front. More 3-D T madness on the title page, then we encounter the contents listing. Large, almost-unreadable figures [in Pablo Medina's Cuba --- Ed.] are used for the section numbers. The three-dimensional effect wouldn’t be so bad if they had chosen a decent font, but whatever they used gives this book a classic self-parodic feel: “Take us seriously at your own peril!” Don’t worry, kids. I won’t.

Not having gotten enough mileage out of the circa 1985 “modern look” the same three-dimensional font was gainfully employed for the opening paragraph drop caps. Huge drop caps, like 12 lines tall and a half-page wide. Excellent! Most excellent! A hearty, festive hurrah for modern typography circa 2001! (It’s a good thing it’s a paperback.)

This suggests the old bromide “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” In this case, just because you can easily use vibrant pink covers, tastelessly bad fonts and humongous drop caps in modern printing doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Creativity shouldn’t mean throwing good taste out the window, or tossing out old styles just because they’re old. It’d be one thing if this book were just a bit over the line, but they tried to abuse almost every possible device — and gloriously succeeded in producing a mess.

I don’t believe I’m “hung up on the past” I dearly welcome innovation. I find much of today’s advertising and other visual design efforts to be innovative, creative, and attractive. But good book design is falling by the wayside, and there’s an increasing dependence on stock photos and an abundance of bad judgment when it comes to cover design and basic text layouts. Texts on Type is a creatively bad example, but I’ve run across many less egregious ones in the last few years.

Merely because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. When it comes to books, the best designs look the simplest and easiest of all. It’s a challenge to do a book design on the level of the “simplistic” style used in A review of recent typography, but almost anybody can make a jumbled mess. I know; I’ve made many myself, and I’m sure to make many more before I learn what makes a truly good design.

21 Comments

  1. Bruce the Koala says:

    Interesting. Thanks, Bob – can hardly wait for the contents reviews.

  2. JLT says:

    Good stuff, Bob.

    As a printing teacher of mine used to say, “there are only two colors: black and red.”

  3. Forrest says:

    The way you feel about Texts On Type is much the same way I feel about Stop Stealing SheepI was so turned off by the hyperactive, jumbly style of the book that I really couldn’t see myself ever reading it seriously. Form follows function and the medium is the message are two hoary designer’s clichs which spring to mind when I encounter books like this. I have a hard time figuring out how the designers think using that kind of flashy, quickly-dated design is going to make a case for the content of the book.

  4. Bob Manson says:

    Thanks for the feedback!

    JLT, from what I’ve seen so far I’d have to agree with you, certainly when it comes to text. I continue to be amazed at how the careful use of just black and red on a page can really make text stand out.

    On the other hand, one of the more admirable book covers I’ve run across recently is is Ruari McLean’s Jan Tschichold which is… well, it’s somewhere between orange and red. It’s rather bright, but I think it’s an excellent combination with black text–almost the anthesis of the Texts on Type approach.

    Forrest, I totally agree. I have a copy of Stealing Sheep but it’s way down on the list of books to read; so far down that I may never get to it. It’s tough to take anything seriously from books with such scattered design.

    I hate to judge a book by its cover (so to speak) but sometimes it’s impossible not to. I’m glad I slogged my way through Texts on Type because it has some valuable insights to offer, but it was really tough going.

  5. Hrant says:

    Feel free to use any color, as long as it’s black. On the other hand, it’s as easy as it is misguided to ignore the color of the paper, which is never really white.

    hhp

  6. Bob Manson says:

    The Henry Ford/old Ma Bell approach to typography, eh? I s’pose there’s something to be said for that.

    Then again, after reading Eric Gill’s essays I’ve been mulling over how I’m ever going to hand-grind toner for my laserprinter… :)

  7. Hrant says:

    I’m no old fogey! I see more bad than good in existing/old practice (including the lame structures in the Latin alphabet itself), it’s just that monochrome design (and no half-tones, please) brings out the true story. Kind of like seeing a person naked; or at least without makeup.

    hhp

  8. Bob Manson says:

    Actually, Hrant, you’re one of the last persons I’d suspect of being an old fogey, and I apologize if I implied anything else.

    I was just reminded of Henry Ford supposedly saying “any color Model T so long as it’s black”, and the reluctance of Western Electric to produce phones in any other color until the 1950s–both for extremely sensible and practical (though today seemingly arbitrary) reasons.

    Ford switched to all-black cars because black paint dried the fastest, lasted longest, and greatly simplified the assembly line. Phones were all black because black “goes with everything”, and “japanning” (a process involving a durable baked-on black enamel) was in common use for many decades. Wasn’t until the Princess that they seriously considered using alternate colors.

    That’s a very valid point about monochrome bring out the best and worst of art. I just wish laserprinters rendered decent blacks…

  9. David says:

    I’m fairly sure it is as it is the right time / press / style, but can anyone confirm if that title page’s engraving was Mr Gill’s work?

  10. Bob Manson says:

    I’m 99% sure it is, based on the style, that fact that it’s Golden Cockerel Press, and from what I remember reading in a biography of Eric Gill which specifically mentioned him working on the engravings for the gospel series. But A review of recent typography doesn’t say anything about it directly.

  11. JLT says:

    I noticed that too. The profiles and hair look like Gill’s work, but I can’t find any reference to his having authored that particular piece. Even the otherwise-complete Gill Engravings book doesn’t have it.

  12. Ricardo says:

    Stop Stealing Sheep… has had a second edition (white cover), but for me the first one (dark blue cover) was a bit easier on the eyes… less hyperactive than the current one (if, indeed, you are referring to the second edition, Forrest).

  13. forrest says:

    I was browsing both versions of Stop Stealing Sheep at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, and I couldn’t really get into either one, especially because I was already holding a copy of Emil Ruder’s Typographie and Kimberley Elam’s almost excruciatingly concise and telegraphic Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type. Powell’s has a good enough selection of typography books that I could drive myself broke just buying the really good stuff; it makes the second-string material all that much more obvious. Stop Stealing Sheep reminds me the early days of Raygun and Wired, when type served pretty much any purpose except actually being read.

  14. Hrant says:

    I think SSS is OK.
    Purposefully fun, if limited in depth.

    hhp

  15. Derrick Schultz says:

    As I recall, Mr. Gill was one of the first to promote ragged lines in copy. Many people in his era told him he was crazy and that rags affected legibiity negatively. Hell, designing magazines at this exact moment, I still have a hard time convincing publishers of the idea of rags.

    Not to call anyone old fogeys, but give certain design ideas time. While Texts on Type may be hard to decipher now (or at least annoying to some), future generations may find it very easy. I’d be willing to bet certain groups now would find it downright obvious. But only time will tell.

  16. Bob Manson says:

    I don’t believe Mr. Gill was among the first (I have a typography primer from the 1840s which strongly advocates it and follows its own advice—gasp!) but he was certainly one of the more vocal advocates.

    Unfortunately, I think the rag he chose for his essay collection didn’t speak well for the format. I’m all for ragged-right justification, but only if it’s done well. I also believe it’s almost as much work to make ragged-right look good as it is to just use full justification.

    One of the major arguments at the time was the saving of space offered by fully-justified text. A word here and a word there adds up to several pages in a typical book. I can’t argue with that for printed text, but electronic documents are a totally different story. (Then again, one of the purported reasons blackletter died was because of the ink consumption.)

    In terms of its readability, I’m on the “it depends on what you’re used to side. Typewritten documents were in use for many decades, and I hav yet to see any long diatribes against them because the ragged margin made them totally unreadable. I do think there’s a bit of an adjustment period, and it’ll be a bit harder sell now because it’s seen even less frequently in printed text than before. (Though it’s obviously very common online.)

    As for Texts on Type being ahead of its time, there may indeed be something to that. That’s also an easy cop-out, because that argument can be applied to any artistic endeavor.

    The bleeding-edge typography (if that is indeed what it is, and not just bad design) didn’t enhance it in any way. The yucky overly-abused 3D effect was dated in 1990 and it’s twice as dated now; it didn’t strike me as fresh or innovative, but quite the reverse. And I’d hope they were writing for readers today, and not for the ones circa 2100AD.

    I didn’t find what they did to have any major effect on readability, so it’s not a practical issue so much as aesthetics. I can definitely say that I’m not a fan, and that’s not a style I plan on adopting anytime soon.

  17. Ricardo says:

    My guess is that whoever designed Texts on Type was afraid of all those essays looking too serious in a more traditional layout, hence the use of graphic elements that were perhaps meant to inject some visual fun into the mix.

  18. Ricardo says:

    Although I have to add that, like Bob, Im not a fan of the results.

  19. Jordan says:

    Bob–
    I like the article and I too weep at some of the tasteless, thoughtless and objectively ugly covers and text-designs abundant in far too many typography/design books. I also agree that the cover of Ruari McLeans biography of Jan Tschichold is a delight, because of rather than despite the rather vividly coloured cover!

    “On the other hand, its as easy as it is misguided to ignore the color of the paper, which is never really white.”–hrant

    Unless you are the aforementioned Heir Tschichold setting his seminal Die neue Typographie of course ;-)

  20. Ricardo says:

    Quite by chance, today I discovered that in the UK and Europe Ruari McLeans book on Jan Tschichold has a different cover, although the color orange is still very much present.

    ;-)

  21. Bob Manson says:

    Hmmm… I guess those Europeans must be a little less conservative or something ;-)

    I was also amused to see in the Tschichold biography that he’d done at least one rather brightly pink cover. As they say in Zanesville, a sense of design makes all the difference.

    I’ve been meaning to follow up with a more “proper” review, but I’m currently trying to beat a neural net into submission. It has a rather serious bent for taking over the world, but all I want it to do is choose an optimal parse…

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