Book Review

Jan Tschichold: Master Typographer

Reviewed by christopher hamamoto on January 14, 2011

Jan Tschichold embraced extremes. His work, most notably “Die Neue Typographie”, embraced and defined modernist typographic ideas. At his most provocative Tschichold only condoned the use of sans serif type. Later in his life he condemned his own pro-modernist stances as too militaristic, comparing them to the thinking of the Nazis which compelled Tschichold to leave Germany.

Regardless of his dichotomous views and styles, Tschichold’s work showcases attention to detail and an emphasis on communication that has proven to be lasting. Because of his strong ideological stances Tschichold is one of the most defining voices in 20th century typography.

“Jan Tschichold: Master Typographer: His Life, Work & Legacy”, takes on a daunting task. To characterize Tshcichold’s varied career, designs, and life requires the unification of extremes. As a result, the book is forced to take the long view. But it does so in a way that allows for some scrutiny of details. The collection of essays focuses on Tschichold’s early training, modernist writings, modern poster designs, classic designs at Penguin, and the rethinking of his Sabon into Sabon Next. The focus on specific facets of Tschichold’s career yields some interesting insights.

Unfortunately, the multiple author format also produces some redundancies. Almost all of thae essays begins with an explanation of Tschichold’s upbringing, and mentions his need to flee Germany under Nazi regime. While important to any Tschichold history, reading the same details gets tiresome. Furthermore, Tschichold condeming all serifed type is mentioned at least three times in the book. While not surprising — its a striking quote — it showcases the drawbacks of multi-essay compilations like this one.

Regardless of these shortcomings “Master Typographer” works. Doubleday’s essay on Tschichold’s work for Penguin, during which Tschichold designed today’s Penguin logo and unified their cover designs, introducing the iconic Penguin Paperbacks, is particularly interesting. Possibly because of Penguin Paperbacks recent resurgence in popularity, but more likely because of the intimate details of the essay. Original notes, sketches, and a detailed chronology give stunning insight into the remaking of the Penguin Paperback. A discussion on Tschichold and poster design succeeds on the same fronts. A detailed chronology of Tschichold’s poster designs brings us hidden gems of modern poster design. Sadly, the broad analysis of the posters leaves something to be desired. By highlighting these two essays I don’t mean to discount the others in “Master Typographer”. With the exception of the section on Sabon Next, which is mainly a feast for the eyes, each section is an insightful examination of Tschichold’s character and works.

For all of the successes of “Master Typographer”, I think it’s fair to note that it would be difficult to write a book on Tschichold that wasn’t at least a bit compelling. Tschichold was an opinionated man who led an amazing life. At one point changing his name to Iwan as a sign of support for the Russian Revolution; writing and exploring with the likes of Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitsky, and Renner; fleeing Nazi Germany; and taking part in Post-War reestablishment of printing in England. Tschichold’s life is amazing.

I see this volume as an enticing introduction to Tschichold, and a insightful companion to the Tschichold follower. Tschichold remains a largely unrecognized figure in modern design outside of type circles. I’m hopeful that compilations like “Master Typographer” work to strengthen his legacy.

Lastly, the designers of Master Typographer, Corine Teuben and Cees W. de Jong, deserve praise. The layout and composition in Master Typographer are top-notch.

christopher hamamoto is a designer and educator based in Berkeley, CA. He holds an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts. He co-designed and developed Typographica.


  1. While it’s true that any book about Tschichold should likely turn out compelling, it always sounds to me like the man had a difficult edge to him that might make anyone want to give him a piece of their mind. And so, I guess, it really is necessary to take the long-term in looking at his life and career. I’ve blogged my interest and frustration with him and his ideas a number of times and am no closer to a unified sense of it all. I do tend to come back to his not allowing audience questions when he spoke.

    I have a list of folks, living and dead, that I’d like to have drinks and conversation with. Sandy Koufax, Hunter Thompson, and Emily Dickenson are notably on the list. I think I’d add Jan Tschichold.

  2. Craig Eliason says:

    Who are the multiple authors? Perhaps I’m missing something but I can’t find anywhere in the review nor the Amazon page the list of contributors besides a very fuzzy jpg of the cover.

    Anyone have thoughts about how this book compares to Christopher Burke’s “Active Literature” (beyond its longer chronological scope)?

  3. @Craig, the authors are:

    • Introduction Cees W. de Jong (editor as well)
    • Tschichold and the New Typography Alston W. Purvis
    • Tschichold and Poster Design Martijn F. Le Coultre
    • Resurgence of Classical Design Richard B. Doubleday
    • Perfectly Legible and Readable Hans Reichardt and Cees W. de Jong

    I’d also like to credit Corine Tebuen and Cees W. de Jong for the design of “Master Typographer.” I’ve updated the article to include them by name.

  4. Anyone have thoughts about how this book compares to Christopher Burke’s “Active Literature” (beyond its longer chronological scope)?

    I love the one by Christopher Burke. Very good. The book design is very well done. Good relation between texts and content, typography.

    On the side of illustrations, sources, topics this special issue of Idea 321 magazine on JT is number one for me.

    Still “Jan Tschichold: Master Typographer” nicely set in my Sabon Next is a good piece indeed. Thanks for the review.

  5. Dai says:

    Anyone know where I can buy the Napoleon poster?

  6. […] that Jan Tschichold’s father was a sign painter, too. The second variety of apparent detail in Lichtspiele is “type […]

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