Reading notes

On “masculine printing” versus “feminine printing”

At a printers’ convention in August 1892, De Vinne proposed the ideal of “masculine printing,” in opposition to the “feminine” variety that he saw as a weakening of standards. This latter was an approach interested in ornamental effects and especially in a cultivation of hair-line delicacy…By contrast: “The object of the masculine style [was] the instruction of the reader.”

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 53

Disregard the unnecessarily gendered language and you’ll find a strong argument for legibility. And by legibility, I mean not merely what’s required to discern the words on a page, but a design that encourages thoughtful reading. De Vinne’s use of the phrase “instruction of the reader” suggests a concept of design that is oriented towards learning.

On the question of what is literature

John M. Ellis has argued that the term “literature” operates rather like the word “weed”: weeds are not particular kinds of plant, but just any kind of plant which for some reason or another a gardener does not want around. Perhaps “literature” means something like the opposite: any kind of writing which for some reason or another somebody values highly.

Eagleton, Literary Theory, page 8


New typography thus resisted the idea that literature should enjoy a separate, special status: it was another design problem. And perhaps more interesting than “literature” for new typographers were industrial catalogues and other texts with complex problems of ordering and configuration to be resolved.

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 117

Of course, what you value reveals a lot about who you are—and what you want of the world around you.

On the typography of democracy

Sandberg’s typography suggested a way out of the modernist impasse of perfect technique. Conditioned at first by sheer material scarcity, his typography seized the opportunities offered by ordinary materials: characteristically, paper or board normally reserved for wrapping or packaging. Roughness and chance were prime qualities of his work,…but Sandberg also stuck to DIN formats and to a limited and mundane selection of typefaces. He was also an early user of text set with equal word-spaces (unjustified). This mode of setting synthesized the two aspects: open to exact specification and thus more rational than the approximations of justified setting; but also “ragged” and informal in appearance. Sandberg’s was a typography of open, democratic dialogue, and a continuation of the spirit of resistance into the post-war world.

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 125

On modern typography in America

Designers were to become as Toscanini to the Beethoven of the writer, arranging and re-scoring and inevitably leaving very evident signs of their involvement, for example in the complete integration of text and image. This was an opposite from the traditionalist ideals of invisibility and unity of materials.…In the USA, modern typography now had no independent existence; it had been dissolved into something larger and more worldly. “The vastly expanded resource available to the book designer indicate a fundamental change in his function. He is essentially an art director.”

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 134

I wonder also if this modernizing and essentially authorial approach to book design described herein was a reflection of the very American attitude of colonizing new territory. American artists are often loathe to accept the boundaries of the discipline as they are presented to them; that typographers should be no different is no surprise.

Tschichold arguing against Swiss design

He suggested that a preoccupation with the arrangement of blocks of text led to the reduction of words to mere colour and a denial of their meaning.…In a series of objections to the cult of sanserif, he asserted that it was not the duty of letterforms to correspond to the spirit of the age, nor to its newest material products (skyscrapers or car bodies); rather “typography must be itself. It must be adapted to our eyes, and to their well-being.”

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 152

Much lamentable book design is a result of disregard for the well-being of our eyes.

On the “science” of typography

Regarding the design of Adrian Frutiger’s Univers:

If all this gave off an air of scientificity, attractive to typographers interested in possibilities of logically determined design, the considerable sophistications of Univers depended on old-fashioned drawing skills and patient small adjustments: it was an exemplary product of the Swiss craft tradition. Though it anticipated the possibilities of computer-aided typeface design, this was done quite innocently.

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 154

It’s a common fallacy to observe the trappings of science in a work or text and assume that the process of science lies underneath. Similarly, many people read Pynchon’s novels and assume a familiarity with physics far beyond what he actually possesses (his physics education didn’t persist past his sophomore year); in the preface to Slow Learner, he confesses:

For a while all I worried about was that I’d set things up in terms of temperature and not energy. As I read more about the subject later, I came to see that this had not been such a bad tactic. But do not underestimate the shallowness of my understanding. For instance, I chose 37 degrees Fahrenheit for an equilibrium point because 37 degrees Celsius is the temperature of the human body. Cute, huh?

Pynchon, Slow Learner, page 13

It’s the equivalent of a literary or artistic viceroy, in which the appearance of a scientific justification is enough to suggest the existence of the real thing.

Criticism for the new grotesques

Both Univers and Helvetica came in for some criticism from Karl Gerstner: as being too smooth and producing too even a colour. If this was a “graphic” advantage, it was not a “functional” one: “what has ocular clarity may appear monotonous when read.”

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 155

This is an irrelevant criticism when addressed towards display faces, but a book face that doesn’t serve the reader is a failure. Adrian Shaughnessy’s book (How To Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul) is beautifully set in Akzidenz Grotesk, but fuck if my eyes weren’t bleeding while I read it.

Kinross on the typographer’s bible

Kinross on the typographer’s bible:

For all its learning, for all the width of its reference, Bringhurst’s book lacked a critical or historical sense. In this vision, concentrated so exclusively on the well-resolved product and neglecting the dimension of process (and thus the unfinished, the disputed, the failed and discarded), there could be no power of explanation.

Kinross, Modern Typography, page 175

I love the language here. “The unfinished, the disputed, the failed and discarded” evoke the poor, the neglected, the tired and sick; he’s appealing to our sense of democracy. No government can succeed if it oppresses or ignores the majority of its people, just as no theory can be complete if it forsakes the process by which a work is created. Criticism does not admit of immaculate conception.