With the advent of the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing software in the 1980s, tasks once performed by others, such as typesetting and the creation of mechanicals, fell upon the designer. But what of the typesetter’s knowledge and craft? The appearance of new technologies seems to produce a disconnect between old and new ways of doing things. Something valuable gets lost in the shuffle.
Written for “anyone who regularly and enthusiastically commits acts of visual communication”, as well as to accompany her own courses in typography at Maryland Institute College of Art, designer, author and curator Ellen Lupton’s new handbook, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, provides not only the how but also the why of basic typesetting practices for both print and screen, grounding this practical knowledge in a historical and theoretical context. Much care has gone into the creation of this third title in the Design Briefs series from Princeton Architectural Press, bringing the instruction of typography into the twenty-first century.
The book is organized into three main sections — Letter, Text and Grid —, each of which starts with a well-researched, thought-provoking essay. The article on Letter furnishes a brief overview of major trends in typeface design, from the fifteenth century to the present. The second essay articulates the evolution of text from linear page to non-linear screen. The third piece presents the different ways in which grids have been used to organize typographic matter.
Each essay is followed by an amply-illustrated how-to section and exercises. And like any good educator, Lupton doesn’t just tell you typographic dos and don’ts, she shows you, with examples that are smart and humorous. The different typographic choices available to today’s computer-enabled designer are displayed, along with reasons for picking one over the other.
An Appendix offers a crash course in editing and proofreading, as practiced today, and some excellent free advice to boot.
The book is beautifully designed and finely illustrated. Carefully chosen graphics of historic and contemporary works inform the text, and vice-versa. Every surface has been used to communicate some aspect of type, and Lupton’s wit is evident throughout. Even the title page, a tightly rendered sketch that echoes the cover layout, seems to imply that thinking, or designing, with type is best done on paper, before one sits at the computer. Color is used subtly, not only to differentiate page content and sections, but also to demarcate examples and reproductions. Relevant quotations are judiciously placed throughout the text — Lupton practices what she preaches, providing the reader with plenty of points of entry and exit on each page.
It’s hard to find something not to like about this volume. I suppose that some readers, wanting more, will find Thinking with Type too brief! It is meant to be a basic text. Nevertheless, the author covers a lot of ground in just 176 small (7 in. × 8.5 in.) pages. For those whose interest is piqued, there is an impressive bibliography at the end. Lupton has also created a companion website that includes much of the practical instruction from the book and adds a special section for educators. (The essays and examples of designers’ work are not on the website, but some additional didactic material not found in the book is included).
This is a rewarding and recommendable guide, all the more so because of Lupton’s gifts as an educator and critic. Her expositional style is sophisticated yet approachable, and her analyses refuse to take anything for granted. By taking apart even the oldest of typographic conventions, Lupton casts them in a new light, bridging the gap between type’s long-standing traditions and its newest, most up-to-date practices.