THE ELEMENTS OF TYPOGRAPHIC STYLE
updated 10/30/16 | posted: 12/29/15
Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Fourth edition. Seattle: Hartley & Marks, 2012.
One reason for the high acclaim the book has received is that Bringhurst bucks the late-twentieth-century design trend of totally ignoring the requirements of content whenever they inconvenience the designer in any way, such as by demanding that the designer think and learn.
However, Bringhurst lacks experience, or sufficient breadth of experience, in some critical areas. These include professional-level typesetting and editorial work, and also apparently, scholarly reading. He is thus, in certain areas of practical typography, prone to rely on the authority of others rather than on experience. In typography, wide experience is rarely an attribute of authorities recognized outside the now-vanishing production trades.
For this reason, Bringhurst himself has acquired far too many of his ideas from late-twentieth-century designers, while, judging from the contents of this book, he has a relatively superficial acquaintance with the knowledge possessed by editors, who are the professionals as far as content is concerned, or by first-rate digital production typographers, who are few and rarely met with by people who write about type for audiences outside the production trades. The demands of content are far more complex than Bringhurst realizes, and far more complex and uncompromising than those of aesthetics (or of typography).
Accordingly, while moving away from the ignorance of designers, Bringhurst travels only about a quarter of the way to the destination he claims to have reached: the just balance between typographic aesthetics and content. A good many professionals—editors, production typographers, and even (though not recently) a few designers—have been working at that balance point for generations. Their knowledge has been set down clearly and made widely available. (See the bibliography on this site for samples.) That it is ignored by the design community, and hissed at when it can’t be ignored, is a reflection on the qualifications and integrity of the design community.
Of the proven professionals of the printed word, it is the editors whose work requires the greatest knowledge, and it is in their work that mistakes are of the greatest consequence. As for the aesthetic work of designers, purely aesthetic mistakes grave enough to seriously impair the function of a printed piece are so radical that they are rarely made—except by designers in creative-driven environments. The same is true, though less so, of typographic mistakes, except the literal and typographic errors that a skilled proofreader will catch.
In any lengthy text, there are any number of points at which editorial compromises can render the meaning dangerously unclear, for reasons that no designer, and few typographers, can be expected to appreciate. An editor is at least more familiar with this sort of issue, and may also be in direct contact with the writer. Therefore, wherever content is a consideration, in cases of doubt or dispute it is the editors who should be followed—and followed blindly, if that is the only way you can be sure of following them fully and consistently.
Bringhurst is dangerously ignorant of the complexity that underlies the conventions of editorial style. Wherever he differs from conventional editorial practice as embodied in, e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style, Bringhurst should be utterly ignored.
Bringhurst is also seriously inadequate where his aesthetic notions about type color—blindly copied from the superficial learning of designers—come into conflict with readability, in decisions about spacing and justification in text. Here, Bringhurst’s overriding criterion is “text color”: an even overall visual impression made by the text on a page. Text color is a legitimate objective in typography, but a skilled typographer can take care of it to the highest standards by properly specifying type size, leading, and, in digital type, hyphenate-and-justify parameters. (Defects in a font, odd combinations of characters, or the visual effects of some strings of three or more characters, will often necessitate some tweaking by hand in quality book and short-text work. Additional hand-kerning is the norm in quality display work, and in quality book work when needed to gain or lose lines to avoid widows and bad page breaks. Font-level kerning may also be required in quality book work; Adobe’s optical kerning, while a real improvement for run-of-the-mill typesetting, is not a panacea.)
Bringhurst, however, demands that adequate minimum spacing between words and sentences be sacrificed for the sake of text color. He doesn’t seem to realize that, if you want text color to be that even, the occurrence of short lines at the end of paragraphs blows the whole idea out the window.
In making a fetish of text color, Bringhurst reverts to an episode of the Victorian era—the typographic aesthetics advocated by William Morris. (See the article Bodoni to Morris: From One Extreme to the Other in the Fashion Typography of the 1800s, elsewhere on this site. On the question of text color, see also some quotes on the subject from Bruce Rogers, in the article on adjusting text spacing in digital typesetting.)
In fact, Morris and his imitators, consistent with the principle of even text color uber alles, tended to reduce paragraph line breaks or eliminate them altogether. Instead of line breaks, Morris liked running text, with few or no line breaks anywhere. This imitates the practice of some early printers, notably (in England) Caxton.
Instead of line breaks, Caxton and Morris marked the beginnings of paragraphs with stubby black pilcrows (paragraph marks) that stood out like so many odd-shaped black blotches on his pages, creating as much visual disturbance as line breaks would have. If they didn’t stick out like that, they’d be non-functional as paragraph markers, and would prompt the reader’s brain to try to interpret them as letters. Anything that functions as a paragraph marker is by definition a violation of even page color. In Caxton’s time, printing conventions, which in significant part had to be created from scratch to meet the visual and production possibilities and constraints of typesetting, were evolving toward better tradeoffs. Morris, after the need to learn the lessons was forgotten, devolved away from them.
Bringhurst ignores these practical matters in The Elements of Typographic Style, and thereby creates grave doubt as to whether he has any awareness of the implications of what writes about text color.
Nor, of course, does Bringhurst go farther and reflect that local unevennesses in the text color might help make paragraph indents and space after short lines less visually intrusive, since they would not stand out quite as radically from the rest of the text. (Compare this to the function of “noise” in various other contexts, including other kinds of information processing by the human brain.)
This exaggerated importance given to text color leads Bringhurst into another error that is of serious import in the digital production of book texts. He maintains that the text color should never be disturbed by adjusting the tracking (the overall letterspacing) of any part of the text in order to prevent short lines at the end of a page and keep the depth of text on a page consistent. Instead, he advocates the much more troublesome, and equally unaesthetic, practice of letting the text depths vary whenever the unadjusted text makes this necessary, while keeping them consistent across a spread.
Bringhurst seems to be ignorant of the range of finer techniques used in digital typography to adjust letterspacing, ensure text color, and gain or lose a line as needed to control page depth. So his advice on these matters, and the techniques he does advocate, fall seriously short of the practice of skilled digital typographers. (In fact, skilled digital typographers use many of the same techniques—trial-and-error adjustments to word- and letter-space—used by handset compositors, and discussed in any good book on hand composition techniques. The main difference is that corresponding digital techniques are incomparably easier, faster, and more flexible.)
Tightening or loosening the tracking of carefully selected sections of text by up to fifteen thousandths of an em is aesthetically invisible, or at worst no more visible than any other adjustment that might be made, and gives a great deal of leeway, to a skilled hand, for adjusting the depth of a text block by losing or gaining lines. A bit more, perhaps up to twenty-five thousandths, is allowable for less demanding work. For narrow measures, even greater tradeoffs between tracking, word spacing, and word breaks are required. Further adjustment can be made by kerning in at wider-than-necessary openings in the text or before punctuation, or kerning out between tight letter combinations.
A skilled digital typographer can do this sort of thing quickly, and meet the standards of the most demanding clients and readers. I have done so for many years, in many different establishments, for many different clients, and usually in the small hours of the morning under production pressure incomparably greater than what is normal in book typesetting—overnight deadlines, as opposed to next month. And usually, I had to stay until all the work was done, whether that was 2 a.m. or noon. My colleagues and I were not interested in wasting time.
(A more detailed how-to discussion of the techniques of adjusting text spacing in digital typesetting would be worthwhile in this connection, and I hope to present one on this site. I’ve covered some of the major points here.)
Bringhurst also displays serious ignorance of the complexity of the demands of content, of reading, of information processing (and of production by any means but the pen) in subscribing to a notion that appeals mainly to semi-literate designers and other dilettantes of the book: that some sort of “richness” has been lost to typography with the discarding of such relics of medieval scribal practice as ligatures. Here again, Bringhurst, perhaps unwittingly, echoes the medievalism of William Morris. (This site has a page on ligatures, with some handy references for the next time you read a book from the 1500s or earlier: click here.)
The above deficiencies, though grave, are largely confined to certain sections of Bringhurst’s book. But they can affect his judgment on detail in other sections, which means that an unusually well-informed and critical reader is required throughout if the book is to be used with confidence.
A relatively less important shortcoming is that Bringhurst attempts to apply the historical periods commonly spoken of with regard to the arts to the historical classification of type designs. The results may appeal to certain academics, but are of little value for any practical purpose, do not correspond well to the phases through which type design has gone, and can be quite incongruous with actual historical development.
For example, Bringhurst classifies Bodoni’s types as “Romantic” because they were developed in years that coincided with the early part of what is called the Romantic period. In this period, “Romantic” meant the diametric opposite of “Classical”, and the Romantic movement was an explicit (over)reaction against classicism and “Neo-classicism”. But the Neo-classical and Romantic periods overlapped, as cultural movements are apt to do, and Bodoni, in his own vague mind, was a staunch classicist. (Stephan Füssel, editor of the 2010 Taschen facsimile of Bodoni’s Manuale typografico, places Bodoni firmly in the “Neo-classical period”.)
Bodoni was the type of person who expressed his “classicism” in his types by exaggerating classical tendencies to the point of travesty. His motivation was the desire to outdo Baskerville, a genuine classicist, whose aesthetic achievements were based on careful attention to, and innovation in, many aspects of printing technology (which Bodoni imitated), and in finely modulated letterforms quite unlike Bodoni’s simplistic formula. The only thing about Bodoni that was peculiar to the Romantic period was the extraordinary adulation he received in his lifetime and after, adulation that still carries weight with less-knowledgeable commentators. (That romantic adulation, in fact, is perhaps sufficient to explain why Bodoni’s typographic innovations were not dropped even sooner than they were, and why they were imitated for long enough to be seen as marking a distinct phase in typographic history.)
For the reasons mentioned above, typography is more technology than art. In addition, technological factors are important influences on the design of typographic letterforms, since these factors determine what can and cannot be done with a given typographic technology. Printed matter is also used in ways very different from the ways art is used. Therefore, the evolution of typographic forms is subject to a different set of determining factors than is art, and artistic categories are of very limited usefulness for type. Classifying Bodoni’s types as “Romantic” designs is about as useful as classifying early twentieth-century civil engineering as “Impressionist.”
On the plus side, the selection of design characteristics used by Bringhurst to characterize the typefaces he assigns to each period is well chosen: valuable to anyone learning to distinguish and analyze typefaces, and illuminating to any practitioner.
To repeat the closing comment on the Reading page: Doing justice to the book’s many and remarkable merits would require much more space, and is less urgent, since many others have praised the book. Suffice it to say that many parts of the book deserve to be accorded the scriptural authority the blurbs claim for it. However, given Bringhurst’s somewhat overextended ambitions, only one who is both an expert typographer and an expert editor, with considerable real-world professional experience in both fields, can independently determine which parts those are. There may be be dozens of such people; there are not hundreds. Such an expert can still gain a great deal of advanced knowledge from Bringhurst, on very many topics, and will want to spend a lot of time studying this book.
It’s a shame that it’s such a dangerous book for anyone else. If Bringhurst had only known his limitations, this would have been one of those classics that are both essential reading for serious beginners and an inexhaustible resource for all practitioners at every level. To make it into a such a classic, the book does not need amplification or refinement. It needs a series of amputations, followed by invasive surgical removal of metastasized error.
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