The Elements of Typographic Style

November 7th, 2010

An old piece from the corrupted blog, this one on what I consider the Bible of setting type and page design …

A careful reading of Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, Publishers, 1992,1996, 2004, 2005) rewards as few books do. Written in some of the most graceful prose I have ever read, it forces you to consider just as carefully—if you love books and if you love making books—all the typographical angles.

Some time ago, when I began this blog, I admitted to considering myself something of a mercenary. I took, and even preferred, layout jobs, as opposed to designing. All for the paydays. Sometimes I smiled to myself when I thought the word “mercenary.” Well, now the other shoe drops. Reading Bringhurst makes it all too clear that I have not always kept the faith, so to speak. While I convinced myself that experiencing and executing other people’s designs was part of my typographical studies, I was not as aware as I might have been of what was in front of my eyes.

Oh, I did right by my authors in that I worked to convey their words and pictures without any fanfare for myself. I also honored my obligation to readers in doing so.

None of this goes to say anything negative against any of the “house designs” I helped to implement or carry on. For one thing, as with any business proposition, there exists an element of “the paying customer is always right.” Yet pages that were perfectly serviceable when I made them, with reflection on The Elements of Typographical Style, now seem questionable. While it pays to be mindful of the whole book—and I am little more than a quarter of my way through—a handful of Brinhurst’s lines already stick out and I find worth memorizing:

Choose faces that suit the paper you intend to print on, or paper that suits the faces you wish to use.

Choose faces that suit the task as well as the subject.

Use what there is to the best advantage.

Choose faces whose individual spirit and character is in keeping with the text.

Respect the integrity of roman, italic and small caps.

Consider bold faces on their own merits.

Pair serifed and unserifed faces on the basis of their inner stucture.

Match the continuity of the typography to the continuity of thought.

Add no unnecessary characters.

Don’t mix faces haphazardly when specialized sorts are required.

And from me: Don’t wear suede in the rain. And get the name of the book right!

Entry Filed under: book design,design books,typefaces

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