Typography leaves its subtle mark practically everywhere: in this article, in your favorite restaurant’s menu, in messages on your phone, on product packaging, and of course, in books. Every written message, however benign, makes use of rules of graphic design, from choice of characters, to text size, layout and color.
Whether it is to improve readability, convey a feeling or convince consumers to buy a book, typography is one of the most important elements of a book, along with its binding, the design of its cover and the choice of paper.
With the help of renowned Montreal typographer Dwight Smith, we take time in this article to explore what typography is and the key role it occupies in book publishing.
About Dwight Smith
Dwight Smith began his career as a paste up graphic technician, managing a typographic composition store at Concordia University. Interested in publishing, he started Xceteras magazine in 1981, then opened his own composition studio, Zibra, in 1984.
It was during discussions with owners of composition workshops in Montreal that he met typographer and calligrapher Tony Lucas, renowned for the excellent quality of his work. This is where he fully discovered the world of typography and it didn’t take long before his composition studio Zibra achieved the same status as Lucas’ studio, Typecraft. Lucas and his team eventually joined Dwight at Zibra. Together, their studio quickly achieved world-famous status.
Dwight has agreed to contribute to the Rapido Books blog to share his lifelong passion with you.
What is typography?
Typography traces its origins to Gutenberg in the 15th century, and his printing technique using movable lead type. Blocks of lead were carved with reliefs in the shape of characters of the alphabet, and then used to press ink onto sheets of paper. This allowed the book to be produced in series, a major innovation from the previous method of copyists who were forced to produce one copy of a book at a time.
The importance of typography in book publishing
Books are the reason typography exists. They were the first objects to be printed serially, and it is the invention of the printing press which gave birth to the need for typography.
While cover stock, paper and binding are the material with which a book is made, typography can be seen as a book’s architecture. In a sense, typography is the soul of the physical book—that intangible presence which lends a book its cohesiveness and particular flair. When done properly, typography plays a discreet but essential role in conveying the author’s message both elegantly and effectively.
The font designer, gardener of words
Typography is a craft practiced by anonymously passionate people who worship form. Typographers have no other desire than to serve the text, much like a good set designer serves a theatrical performance. The great typographer Jan Tschichold wrote: “For most people, a perfect typography does not offer any particular aesthetic appeal […]. The awareness of serving anonymously and without waiting for special recognition, works of value and a small number of optically receptive men, is in general the only reward received by the typographer for his long, never-ending apprenticeship.”
If the typography of a book succeeds, the role of the typography will remain invisible. The reader will experience the pleasure of reading without knowing why. However the reader’s pleasure is facilitated by the choice of the right font, the placement of the text frame on the page, the line length, the kerning and line spacing, the size of the font. All these factors create what is referred to as the typographic colour of the page. If it is pleasant then reading will be easy and satisfying. If not, most readers will not make it to the tenth page and they will not know why. If the typography fails then no cover or paper can compensate for that failure.”
A universal typographic rule: the space
In order to demonstrate the rigor and attention to detail which typography requires, we present to you one of its oldest and most common notions, a notion that is used in every book ever written, in every language: the space.
A space is a silent character that allows you to insert an empty interval in the text. A space only separates words. NB: according to the typographic code, we never put a space before the period or the comma.
In Canada (eng&fr): do not insert a space before the semicolon, exclamation point or question mark. This usage comes from English, where no space is inserted between words and punctuation marks either.
em: unit of measure for the length of spaces. The em is the same size as the font used: thus, in a text in size 11, the width of the em measures 11 points. Rather, the unit of reference that typographers use in practice is the en, which is equal to the width of the number 0.
The word space designates the space between words and has, at a minimum, an en value that corresponds to the width of the Arabic numeral 0. This is an essential concept for anyone involved in text composition. There are three values (optimal, minimum and maximum) defined by the creator of a font to adjust the value of the spaces between the letters to justify the text across the width of the box. A good page layout software will justify the lines by adjusting the word space, then, if necessary, it will also add leading, i.e. space between the letters.
Style guide and house style
A style guide or manual of style is a collective work written by a professional union which identifies all the typographic rules that the organization wishes to set. A house style is an internal guide that was once specific to a printing house. Today, that would be more the case with a publishing house.
Typographical rules from one organization can inspire others, as was the case, for example, with the French publishing house Hachette, whose typographical progress has long served as a benchmark for many publishers. Publishers create collections in which they publish certain types of books: novels, thrillers, short stories, essays, theater, poetry, etc. Each collection has its own identity which is defined by the choice of format, paper, type of binding and, of course, typography. This last category is undoubtedly the one which gives the strongest identity to the brand of this collection. We know the white collection at Gallimard. Let us also mention the Quebec publishers Héliotrope, Del Busso and Le Quartanier who do a neat job in terms of typography.
On the English side, The Chicago Manual of Style was the house style of The University of Chicago Press, then became the reference work for many English-speaking editors and proofreaders in the United States.
For example, here are some questions that a style guide addresses:
- Do acronyms need periods?
- When can we shorten Missus, Miss, Mister?
- Under what circumstances should Roman numerals be used instead of Arabic numerals or should the numbers be written in full?
- When should Italic be used?
- When should small capitals be used?
- How to format a bibliography?
Specificities of typography in North America
“I would say in general that English Canada tended toward conformity to British standards in terms of typography. Most early practitioners were expats from England after WWII. Hence classics, such as Morison and Eric Gills, Beatrice Warde.
After the quiet revolution in Quebec and the liberation within the design community from English Canadian (British) influence, Quebec created a design language of its own which was exploratory and uninhibited. At UQAM school of design, originally under the direction of Frederik Metz and then Angela Grauerholtz, students were incentivized to experiment, to break boundaries, to deconstruct typography to its core. Distinguished teachers such as Judith Poirier, Lyne Lefebvre and Angela Grauerholtz inspired a kind of typographic renaissance. I think the spirit of Quebec typography was more closely aligned with the kinds of design emerging from the Netherlands during the 1990s, which was influenced by the French deconstruction movement when typographic exploration achieved feverish heights. This in turn would influence the London school of design with type designers like Neville Brody who would in turn light a fire in Toronto and the English Canadian type designers.
The situation in the United States is another story. Never one to conform, some of the most audacious typography would emerge particularly on the west coast with people like Suzanna Licko and David Carson however never quite able to liberate itself from American practicality and the need to make a dollar.”
The great typographers
Like any art form, typography is a discipline that has been shaped over time, thanks to the contributions of emblematic figures. These figures have laid down the main rules with precision.
The complete list of the most influential typographers since the emergence of typography in the 16th century is worth an article on its own. We have instead chosen to present to you in the list below some of the greatest typographers of the 20th century, each of whom in their own way brought letter design to life, always inspired by the work of the great founders of the past.
Stanley Morison (1889-1967), creator of the famous Times New Roman typeface which was first used in 1932 by The Times newspaper, for which Morison was a typography consultant. This font is a tribute to the Roman font, developed around 1470 by Nicolas Jenson in Venice, whose goal was to optimize the readability of characters while minimizing the amount of ink needed to print them, because it was very expensive to print at that time. Times New Roman was the default font used in Microsoft Word for over 15 years.
Jan Tschichold (1902-1974), principal theorist of the New Typography, to which he devoted a book in 1928. He created many typefaces and contributed during the second part of his life to a traditionalist approach to typography, specifically dedicated to the book and the art of layout.
“Space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.”
Herb-Lubalin (1918-1981), a great character designer, was the father of the Avant-Garde, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970 he created the famous ITC company (International Typeface Corporation) which was the first North American type foundry to devote itself solely to design, at a time when photocomposition was making its appearance to supplant typographic composition.
“You can do a good ad without good typography, but you can’t do a great ad without good typography.”
“Typography is two-dimensional architecture, based on experience and imagination, and guided by rules and readability.”
Rigor of form and readability are the concerns of type designers. While the offering today is huge, good designers usually use a select number of fonts. The great designer Massimo Vignelli himself declared: “There aren’t more than a dozen really effective typographies, and I’m generous. I’ve never used more than three or four in all my life…”.
“There are so many marvellous type designers. I think of Claude Garamond who in the early days of the printing press created a font which in a way standardized the form of the roman alphabet which continues to this day. Garamond in its many reincarnations continues to be one of the most legible fonts today.
The Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger who brought beauty to sans-serif fonts and would impact the design of fonts in multiple non-latin alphabets such as Russian, Arabic, Japanese and Hebrew.
Eric Spiekermann, who with German wit and audacity, worked hard to liberate the Germans from Helvetica and created some of the first fonts specifically designed for digital technology. He was also the first, with one of Canada’s preeminent typographers Ed Cleary, to create a retail outlet, The Font Shop, to distribute digital fonts and encouraged a revolution of design during the 1990s.
In Canada, we have Carl Dair who in 1967 created the first distinctively Canadian font: Cartier. He graduated from the school of design here in Montreal. The font would later be converted to digital type by the great Canadian typographer Rod MacDonald, a good friend of mine and a friend and partner with Ed Cleary.
I also think of Carol Twombly who assumed the post of type director at Adobe following Sumner Stone, both of whom established high standards for digital fonts.
There’s also Jonathan Hoefler, whose font Hoefler Text was one of the most beautiful serif fonts created in the last 50 years. I often use this font.
And finally, though I have omitted many, Matthew Carter, a true renaissance man when it comes to typographic design. For a few years, I had the honour of rubbing shoulders with most of the leading typographers and type designers in the world, from Zaph and Frutiger to Spiekermann and Carter. Carter is the only designer I know who began his career by punch cutting metal fonts and has survived all the technological transitions to exist today as one of the foremost type designers on the planet. He singularly defined the Microsoft font library. Who has not used Verdana? He is a charming, dry witted and erudite typographer.”
Book typography today
The role of typography has not changed much in the five centuries that separate us from the invention of printing: its main function has always been to enhance the readability of written texts.
Typography includes a large number of rules. These rules evolve and manuals of style are updated every couple of years, such as The Complete Manual of Typograhy. If you take your research a little further, you will find that manuals of style do not always agree with one another. Not everyone moves at the same pace and each cultural community has its own codes that define its identity. When you choose a typeface, you are asserting your identity. When you apply rules, you show your aesthetic sensibility. Your choices indicate what matters to you. We therefore recommend that you gradually build your own typographic style.
An example of typography composition
“In the 1990s our studio was brought in to work with Bell Canada and Sumner Stone (Adobe’s first typography director) on the Stone font, which was originally designed with many flaws.
Our mandate was primarily to help re-engineer the font so that it worked across all the platforms. At the time there were few fonts which worked in both Mac OS and Windows. It also required testing on all available Internet browsers at the time, of which the primary one was Netscape, a few years before Google appeared.
This new version of Stone, named Bell Stone, became the standard font for Bell for the following decade.
A few years after that would emerge Open Type technology which would address the same issues we were pioneering.”
The most notable development in recent decades is technical: the technology that now surrounds typographic composition has undeniably changed the way typographers practice their craft. Due to the advent of digital composition and the liberation by Apple from traditional means of composition, many previous collaborations have ceased or been redefined between type studios and publishing houses.
In terms of cover design, there is a growing tendency to turn to designers with a refined and elevated sense of typographic design. That said, in terms of designing the interior, I think the relationship with qualified typographers is one of budget and happenstance.”
We can determine three essential objectives for the choice of a typography: its principal role is to facilitate readability. Its second role is to convey an aesthetic or a feeling that highlights the content, without ever weighing it down. Its third role is to create a graphical environment that associates with the identity of the publisher.
While typography is changing under the pressure of marketing, it is also changing with technology. Layout softwares now provide much easier access to many sophisticated typesetting tools. But it’s also important for users to have appropriate training and use the time that the technology saves them to devote themselves to perfecting their art. Unfortunately, as Dwight Smith notes, this is sometimes what is lacking with the composition of book interiors. Typography is a bit like music theory: just because you know how to align notes on a score doesn’t mean you will make good music.
This article is the first in a long series devoted to typography, in which you will gradually learn about its history, its key figures, the most important typefaces and its main rules.