Since its inception in 1980, Hyphen Press has built an impressive catalog: more often than not, the imprint’s titles are exercises in critical thinking and articulate design. Currently, Robin Kinross and his team of collaborators are working on the first English version of Gerrit Noordzij’s De streek (The stroke), to be published in late September. Last year, Hyphen re-issued two of its titles, which is a good excuse to review them here.
Book Design as a Process
Anyone with an interest in books, including bibliophiles and graphic designers, will welcome the chance to get acquainted with some of Jost Hochuli’s ideas in the paperback version of Designing books: practice and theory. There are other economical volumes on book design, of course — The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography comes to mind. Designing books sets itself apart with its manifest intention of combining thinking and doing. It is also distinguished by a concise yet thorough treatment of the subject matter, its refined design, and an emphasis on a non-dogmatic approach.
Hochuli, for example, invokes Immanuel Kant and his motto of enlightenment: “Have courage to use your own understanding!”. Kinross echoes this thought in his introduction, where he writes that “each individual book requires fresh thought and an open mind”. Hochuli also argues that a book is something that has a function, and that typography should be placed in the service of the reader: “…the motto that ‘typography serves’ holds good for almost every book, where it serves with special modesty. Modest, not uncaring: even the simplest typography can be decent, appropriate, yes even beautiful”.
The book opens with a first-rate example of Hochuli’s rigorous approach: in “Book design as a school of thought”, he discusses the symmetry inherent in the form of the book, the distinction between function and functionalism in book typography, and the perils of forcing ideologies upon design systems. The second, more practical section consists of short texts about designing various types of books. A generous selection of covers and interiors (most of them from European and American publishers) accompanies these texts. The third part, written for the Hyphen Press edition, shows 27 examples of Hochuli’s own work, presented in chronological order and with brief comments by Kinross.
Hochuli’s design for this volume is seemingly traditional, yet he has provided ample white space in the layout and used simple black and red diagrams to illustrate his points, making for an uncluttered book which is easy on the eyes. It is truly pleasurable to read, and one more example of the principles outlined in its pages. Yes, the reproductions have been considerably reduced, but with good reason: to make their page structure visible. Designing books is concerned with layout, or macrotypography — Hochuli already addressed issues of microtypography in Detail in typography. Perhaps Hyphen would consider publishing a new English edition of that hard-to-find work? It would make a fine companion piece to this lucid volume.
Connecting Typography to Everyday Life
In contrast to Designing books, the new edition of Modern typography: an essay in critical history, by Robin Kinross, has several differences with the earlier one (published in 1992). As Joshua Lurie-Terell noted here last year, the most noticeable change is its smaller size, combined with a tighter layout (by Françoise Berserik). The previously black-and-white photographs near the back of the book have been replaced with newly-made color images. And there are changes to the text. In some cases, the changes are small, reflecting recent research. But the closing chapter has been rewritten and expanded, putting into perspective the last few years of typographic development in the Western world.
The main theme of the essay remains the same: the ongoing rationalization of typography. The author has taken Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “modernity as a continuing project” and applied it to the field of typography. (In 1980, the German philosopher compared the goals of modernity to those of the Enlightenment: to use science, morality and art “for the enrichment of everyday life”.) As for his approach, Kinross makes clear that Modern typography is “an attempt to criticize the existing model for the [history of typography] genre”. It is a book with an emphasis on ideas — “the thought that accompanies making” is just as important as technology and production. It is also a book informed by other books, and the author likens this to “one voice in dialogue with many others”. This is part of what makes his account a marvel to read.
So, what constitutes modernity, typographically speaking? For Kinross, it is “the discussion, description and ordering of practice, rather than mere practice and mere products”. For example, the book doesn’t start in the 1450s, with Gutenberg — the author makes the case that while printing was fundamental to the development of the modern world, “recognizably modern attitudes in typography only began to emerge some 250 years after its introduction”. Kinross proposes that printing and typography are two different things, the former developing into the latter around 1700, with the appearance of the first printing manuals and the division of labor within print shops. With this sharing of knowledge about itself, printing begins to move away from being a mysterious “black art” — a process that continues even now.
The author traces the history of this “rational approach” chronologically, limiting his scope to the Western world and to typography that employs the Latin alphabet. Kinross is always an engaging writer, and his broad interests are evident in the way that he relates other disciplines to the practice of typography. To keep things brief, he has had to condense his material. However, condensation does not mean oversimplification. One of the author’s goals is to suggest “new directions for typographic history”, and he goes into great detail about people, events and ideas barely mentioned (if at all) in other histories.
Kinross presents his material in a way that makes you want to find out more. For the curious reader, he provides an entire chapter in which he discusses his sources, plus a bibliography, an index, and a postscript on how and why the items in the photo section were selected and reproduced. These things may seem like trifles, but they indicate a seriousness of purpose, and they make the book into more than just the essay its author intended — it is a compact, useful reference work. Many of the subjects presented here could be the starting point for further studies. (I am aware of at least one current research project that touches upon similar subject matter, although it was not inspired by this book.)
Respect for the Reader
These books are well worth getting hold of — Hochuli’s is an exemplary manual which contains some clear-headed thinking about the practice of book design. Kinross’s presents a history of typography that is rich in ideas and precise, pithy arguments. Both authors speak of “respect for the reader” when designing or typesetting a book, but their own respect begins at an earlier stage: in their writing, which is never hasty or sloppy. According to Hans Peter Willberg, “A good typographer gets involved in the subject matter of the work he is designing, and particularly if it concerns ‘his’ subject — letters.” Let it be said, then, that Hochuli and Kinross get involved with their subject matter, whether they are writing, designing, or publishing. We are lucky to have these challenging, stimulating works available.