Book Review

Designing Books and Modern Typography

Reviewed by Ricardo Cordoba on September 3, 2005

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.

See also: New(ish) & Notable Books : Crewdson’s “New Series” : Type Spaces — How Aldus Measured Text

Ricardo Cordoba is a graphic designer based in New York City. His interests include book covers and typeface design. He contributed to Quipsologies from 2010 through 2017. During 2017, he worked as a freelance copyeditor and fact checker for AIGA’s Eye on Design. He is a frequent contributor to Typographica.


  1. Norbert Florendo says:

    Great review on Hochuli’s Designing Books, and thanks for reminding me of his Detail in typography, a small but informative book which has been out of print for many years.

    Detail in typography was initially released in 1987 by Compugraphic Corporation (now Monotype Imaging) and was translated into English by Ruari McLean, a close friend to Jost. I had worked with both Jost and Rauri during the preparation of book.

    Perhaps your suggestion of reprinting Detail in typography should be brought to the attention of Monotype Imaging (I believe Allan Haley is still there) since Compugraphic held the original copyright.

  2. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Norbert, thanks for the information on the English translation of Detail in Typography! You are absolutely right: requesting a reprint of the book should be addressed to Monotype Imaging, not Hyphen Press. I stand corrected.

  3. Gerald Lange says:

    Detail in Typography (not translated) is available in PDF.

    Gerald Lange

  4. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Hmmm… I see that this PDF is from a Spanish version of the book. Not sure where that came from. Somewhere there must be an angry book publisher, if this Spanish edition is still in print.

    By the way, the New York Public Library�s only copy of Detail in Typography is the German edition!

  5. Norbert Florendo says:

    I know I have a few copies of Detail in typography stashed away in my dusty archives. Two Engish vesions I have in front of me right now. I know I had a German version as well. The German to English version is the one I assisted with.

    I don’t recall if Agfa-CG in Europe translated additional version, a practice they often did for more important publications. It is quite possible that copies may have been printed in French, Italian, Spanish and Nederlandische.

  6. Nick Shinn says:

    “Modern Typography” is a somewhat understated title.

    Suppose Foucault had named his masterwork “Modern Penology” rather than “Discipline and Punish”.

    “The Stroke” sounds more promising, although an adjective would help.

  7. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Norbert, when I was preparing for this review I checked (and, of course) and found several editions of Hochuli’s books, in different languages… all out of print, naturally. A copy of Book Design in Switzerland escaped my greedy paws by just a few hours.


    I just assumed that the rights to all of Hochuli’s Compugraphic books had reverted to the author, since Hyphen was publishing a new version of Designing books.

    Nick, the full title is Modern typography: an essay in critical history… which may also be an understatement, but Kinross gives a full explanation of the scope of the book in the introduction and opening chapter. He even says that using the term “Modern typography” might be a duplication of meaning, because of his argument that printing spans the years 1450-1700 and typography begins in 1700 (see eighth paragraph, above).

  8. Horatio says:

    I read the first version of Modern Typography: an essay in critical history in one sitting. Looking forward to reading the new edition! I have a few of Hochuli’s books and booklets, and they’re all very nice pieces.

  9. Thanks for the review and comments!
    About Hochuli’s Detail in typography:
    In 1987-8, Compugraphic published editions in German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish. Hochuli is now working on a new edition, due for publication in German perhaps next year by Niggli in Switzerland.
    We hope to make an English-language edition. Fans of Hochuli’s work should get hold of his beautiful monograph Jost Hochuli: printed matter, mainly books (another understated title), published by Niggli. That’s where I got the information about editions of Detail in typography from.

  10. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Hochuli is now working on a new edition, due for publication in German perhaps next year by Niggli in Switzerland. We hope to make an English-language edition.

    That’s great news! Thanks for the update, Robin!

  11. Tom de Gay says:

    I think the title may be a reference to Ken Frampton’s ‘Modern architecture: a critical history’, to which ‘Modern typography’ has some similarities of method and structure. Not catchy, but it is very yellow.

  12. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Hyphen’s website has a great interview in which Kinross speaks (among other things) about the origins of Modern typography, and he mentions Frampton’s book as one of his influences.

  13. Norbert Florendo says:

    Lo and behold!
    I finally found my copies of Jost Hochuli’s three books (English):
    Designing Books,
    Detail in typography

    and Jost Hochuli’s Alphabugs

    All three were distributed as a set within a paper slipcase titled:
    all types in all variations: Agfa Compugraphic, Type 90, Oxford

    With that I also found a copy of Bücher machen, the original German version printed in 1989 which proceded Designing Books by one year.

  14. Indra Kupferschmid says:

    Just read about your trials to get hold of Hochuli’s books. In case you have not found them all by now:

    The Hyphen Edition of “Designing Books” is published in german as “Bücher machen” by Niggli, Sulgen and is the same revised and more detailed version of the former Agfa-volume.

    The german “Das Detail in der Typografie” is meanwhile (10/05) published also by Niggli and a close reprint of the old one.

    The book “Bookdesign in Switzerland” with a small introduction on bookdesign by Hochuli and work of influencal bookdesigners from Switzerland can be optained in english, french and german from “pro helvetia” in Zürich.

    The various Typotron-books designed or written by Hochuli (fe. alphabugs) and mentioned in “Designing books” by Hyphen can be ordered on

    I can highly recomend them all.

  15. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Norbert and Indra,

    Thank you for the detailed info on older editions of these books!

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