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Jan Tschichold



Jan Tschichold's design breakthroughs in typography were two fold. He was the first typographer to apply the aesthetics, in his day, of the Bauhaus to ordinary, day-to-day printing. Secondly, his great flexibility of vision allowed him to relinquish those design principles of asymmetry and articulate a wider vision after his exile from Nazi Germany. The Bauhaus had a tendency, after all, to use type as an element of abstract art, and Tschichold would never be swayed from his conviction that typographical design must serve communication. He would incorporate the dash and elegance of Bauhaus form, but never sacrifice legibility for flair. Function, in his case, would always follow form. His aesthetic, however, was indelible. With his early training in lettering and calligraphy, Tschichold "... became the first to offer a coherent philosophy of design by which all typographic problems ... could be tackled in ways that were rational, suited to modern production techniques, and aesthetically satisfying."

Jan Tsichold’s Die neue Typographie appeared in Weimar Berlin in 1928. An English translation was published in 1995. The book, one of the founding documents of Modern design in the Machine Age, caused an uproar in the world of design. Starting first with some historical context, Tsichold describes the principles of the new typography as a revolutionary movement towards clarity and readability; a rejection of superfluous decoration; and an insistence on the primacy of functionality in design. A critque of its populist rhetoric in the journal of the bauhaus challenged him “to address not just the visual appearance of advertising but the very existence of such advertising.”

“Clay in a Potter’s Hand”

(Written in England, late in 1948)

Perfect typography is more a science than an art. Mastery of the trade is indispensable, but it isn't everything. Unerring taste, the hallmark of perfection, rests also upon a clear understanding of the laws of harmonious design. As a rule, impeccable taste springs partly from inborn sensitivity: from feeling. But feelings remain rather unproductive unless they can inspire a secure judgment. Feelings have to mature into knowledge about the consequences of formal decisions. For this reason, there are no born masters of typography, but self-education may lead in time to mastery.

It is wrong to say that there is no arguing about taste when it is good taste that is in question. We are not born with good taste, nor do we come into this world equipped with a real understanding of art. Merely to recognize who or what is represented in a picture has little to do with a real understanding of art. Neither has an uninformed opinion about the proportions of Roman letters. In any case, arguing is senseless. He who wants to convince has to do a better job than others.

Good taste and perfect typography are suprapersonal. Today, good taste is often erroneously rejected as old fashioned because the ordinary man, seeking approval of his so-called personality, prefers to follow the dictates of his own peculiar style rather than submit to any objective criterion of taste. In a masterpiece of typography, the artist's signature has been eliminated. What some may praise as personal styles are in reality small and empty peculiarities, frequently damaging, that masquerade as innovations. Examples are the use of a single typeface—perhaps a sans serif font or a bizarre nineteenth-century script—a fondness for mixing unrelated fonts; or the application of seemingly courageous limitations, such as using a single size of type for an entire work, no matter how complex. Personal typography is defective typography. Only beginners and fools will insist on using it.

Perfect typography depends on perfect harmony between all of its elements. We must learn, and teach, what this means. Harmony is determined by relationships or proportions. Proportions are hidden everywhere: in the capaciousness of the margins, in the reciprocal relationships to each other of all four margins on the page of a book, in the relationship between leading of the type area and dimensions of the margins, in the placement of the page number relative to the type area, in the extent to which capital letters are spaced differently from the text, and not least, in the spacing of the words themselves. In short, affinities are hidden in any and all parts. Only through constant practice and strictest self-criticism may we develop a sense for a perfect piece of work. Unfortunately, most seem content with a middling performance. Careful spacing of words and the correct spacing of capital letters appear to be unknown or unimportant to some typesetters, yet for him who investigates, the correct rules are not difficult to discover.

Since typography appertains to each and all, it leaves no room for revolutionary changes. We cannot alter the essential shape of a single letter without at the same time destroying the familiar printed face of our language, and thereby rendering it useless.

Comfortable legibility is the absolute benchmark for all typography—yet only an accomplished reader can properly judge legibility. To be able to read a primer, or indeed a newspaper, does not make anyone a judge; as a rule, both are readable, though barely. They are decipherable. Decipherability and ideal legibility are opposites. Good legibility is a matter of combining a suitable script and an appropriate typesetting method. For perfect typography, an exhaustive knowledge of the historical development of the letters used in printing books is absolutely necessary. More valuable yet is a working knowledge of calligraphy.

The typography of most newspapers is decidedly backward. Lack of form destroys even the first signs of good taste and forestalls its development. Too lazy to think, many people read more newspapers than books. Small wonder, then, that typography as a whole is not evolving, and book typography is no exception. If a typesetter reads more newspapers than anything else, where would he acquire a knowledge of good taste in typography? Just as a person gets used to poor cuisine when nothing better is available and means of comparison are lacking, so many of today's readers have grown used to poor typography because they read more newspapers than books and thus kill time, as it is so succinctly termed. Since they aren't acquainted with better typography, they can't ask for it. And not knowing how to make things better, the rest lack voice.

Beginners and amateurs alike overestimate the importance of the so-called brain wave, the sudden brilliant idea. Perfect typography is largely a matter of choice among different and already existing possibilities: a choice based on vast experience. The correct choice is a question of tact. Good typography can never be humorous. It is precisely the opposite of an adventure.

The brilliant idea counts for little or nothing at all. It counts the less, since it can only apply to a single job. It is a condition of good typographic work that each single part be formally dependent upon every other part. These relationships are developed slowly while the work is in progress. Today, the art of good typography is eminently logical. It differs from all other art forms in that a substantial portion of the inherent logic is accessible for verification by lay persons. Circumstances exist, however, where a perfectly logical but too complex graduation of type sizes may be sacrificed to achieve a simpler image.

The more significant the content of a book, the longer it has to be preserved, and the more balanced, indeed, the more perfect its typography has to be. Leading, letterspacing and word spacing must be faultless. The relationships of the margins to each other, the relationships of all type sizes used, the placement of running heads: everything must exhibit noble proportions and yield an unalterable effect.

The decisions made in higher typography—about the design of a book title, for example—are, like a highly refined taste, related to creative art. Here, forms and shapes may be invented which in their perfection are the equal of anything good sculpture and painting have to offer. The connoisseur is compelled to admire these creations all the more since the typographer is chained more than any other artist by the unalterable word, and only a master can awaken to their true life the rigid and formal letters used in the printing of books.

Immaculate typography is certainly the most brittle of all the arts. To create a whole from many petrified, disconnected and given parts, to make this whole appear alive and of a piece—only sculpture in stone approaches the unyielding stiffness of perfect typography. For most people, even impeccable typography does not hold any particular aesthetic appeal. In its inaccessibility, it resembles great music. Under the best of circumstances, it is gratefully accepted. To remain nameless and without specific appreciation, yet to have been of service to a valuable work and to the small number of visually sensitive readers—this, as a rule, is the only compensation for the long, and indeed never-ending, indenture of the typographer.

The Form of the Book—Essays on the Morality of Good Design, Jan Tschichold

Translated from the German by Hajo Hadeler

Hartley and Marks, 1991

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