We may ask ourselves why there is so little room for good typography in books. After all, we produce more books than ever before: In Great Britain book-production went from 6817 in 1905 to 44174 in 1985 to 88718 in 1995. Not that the amount of books produced should guarantee quality typography, although Tschichold certainly lifted the Penguin editions. But why aren’t certain books given proper typographic treatment? I suppose the Norwegian situation is a bit different, as we are only 4,5 million people in a country with very little actual tradition for fine-tuned type. We reward and give attention to coffe-table books with graphic effects and illustrations rather than books with good type. Maybe we don’t know what to look for?

InDesign and OpenType now walk hand in hand, and provides us with opportunities for excellent typography. We certainly cannot blame the software for our low standards. And the money? Does it really cost that much more to provide at least some of our books with good typography? I once had to persuade an editor to design an author-friend’s book for free.

So what should we look for?

Well, I’ll try to set up a few pointers:

– The typeface used for setting longer amounts of text should be legible. Which means that it should be unobtrusive. A good old-style face (Adobe Garamond or Sabon for example) or, if a sans serif is used, a humanist one (like Syntax, Gill Sans, Stone Sans or Stone Humanist).

– Ligatures should be used for difficult letter-combinations, like fi, fl, ffi, ffl.

– Renaissance-figures (old-style figures) should be used with minuscules, and lining figures should be used with capitals.

– All majuscules/capitals/small caps should be loosely spaced. In headlines optically adjusted.

– Attention to detail in all respects.

– Attention to the use of space: More word-space than letter-space, more interlinear space than word-space, more distance from new elements to the block of text, than interlinear space.

– Margins should be harmonious. In general, assymetry is more difficult than symmetry, and experimental grids (sic) are not for beginners. Use Tschicholds diagram (derived from Medieval/Renaissance sources). Simple. Good starting point.

– Respect historical periods: Old style fonts rarely need to be set in heavier weights (semibold/bold), as we have a whole palette to choose from: italics, small caps, caps. It is idiosyncratic to use bold renaissance fonts. On the other hand, sans serifs are well suited for heavier weights, and not so suited for italic.

– Books should honour the text, not the designer.

Have you ever read a book which is simply pleasant to read and hold? A book whose qualities are hard to put your finger to? It may have caused the maker many hours of fine-tuning and adjustment, blood, sweat & tears. Only to give the book this unobtrusive and dignified appearance. This quality which is so hard to grasp, but so much of our culture is founded upon.

Author: Christopher Haanes

Calligrapher, typographer, book-designer. Teacher and author of several books and articles on letters.

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