Thinking About Type

July 14th, 2007

Sitting down at the marina having lunch, something I’ve been doing solo lately, I squinted as the bright sunlight reflected off the white pages of the book I was trying to read. It took some effort, as distractions abounded. There were the seagulls, noisy as ever, and a raft of senior citizens lunching with each other and their grandkids. But mostly there was the glare of the white-hot sun on the white pages.

I opened the book, Eileen Lupton’s wise and witty thinking with type, to the page I was up to, somewhere in the middle. It turned out to be page 102 of 176. And I read from the book: “Paragraphs do not occur in nature.”

Paragraphs do not occur in nature?

I exploded with laughter. All the grandparents and their grandkids stared at me. I tried to remember when I had last heard something that came out sounding so funny. Forget the sense it made. I imagined a professorial voice explaining how commas were no longer found in the wild, either.

The point is that all we regard now as “the rules”: grammar, spelling, the dos and don’ts of typography are human constructs that gained some kind of agreed-upon legitimacy over time and by the consent of people who knew enough to make a call on what was to be regarded as the standard.

In the book I was reading over lunch the other day, that sentence I found so funny was a lead-in to some discussion and illustration of different ways that new paragraphs are set off from the ones preceding them. The two ways that we use most regularly these days are the indent and a line space between paragraphs. To see the others, you should just pick up a copy of thinking with type.

What stayed with me of what I read was the notion that one very important reason to learn the rules of an endeavor is so we can break them in a knowing and intelligent way. That, I decided, is the best explanation of why I am steeping myself in books on typography and page layout in what turns out to be a return to summer as the slowest season for freelance book design and page makeup work. Last summer proved an exception I had hoped would continue: in 2006 I was busy from May through December.

I kept going back to the book. But the bits and pieces of conversations that I overheard distracted me. Involuntarily I tried to hear in paragraphs. The only time I felt I succeeded was when I listened to two middle-aged me complain about a third. They spoke in short, angry outbursts, using creative obscenities. Each pronouncement detailing something else they disliked about the person they spoke of stood out alone, just fine, as a short, discrete paragraph. Natural, even.

Entry Filed under: design books

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