Tuesday, March 8, 2011


A Brief Review of Five hundred years of book design
By Alan Bartram

In his book, Five hundred years of book design, Alan Bartram performs a critique of the canons of typography, aiming to “look at books a fresh through the eyes of a 21st century designer” (9). One of the first things a reader scrutinizes when reading about book about book design is the book itself. The book is tall and narrow, typeset in Monotype Fournier and published by Yale University Press. Bartram emphasizes over and over in his essays the importance of deliberate use of space and consequently leaves generous margins around the text body on three sides (surely not intended for marking up with notes?) The book is pleasurable to hold and easy to visually digest, and provides a unique and snarky commentary on the history of typography.

Bartram briefly describes the history of printing and then proceeds to launch into a cynically disdainful critique of famous printers, typesetters & designers. Bartram displays a photograph of a book layout on each page, describing its designer, location, year and size and then opens fires on its obvious shortcomings. Sometimes he applauds small details, but more often than not, various page layouts are, “dreadfully dense,” “downright ugly,” “full of follies,” “unexpectedly poor and…wretched” and even goes as far to say that typographer W A Dwiggins “seems unskilled in the use of space – rather a handicap for a typographer” (182). Oh snap! He states in his preface that printers in history have ignored form and function, careful layout, and a plethora of “baffling lapses in judgment” have occurred (22). Essentially, more mistakes were made than that of the entire freshman class at drag ball.

While Bartram does lay it on thick, he provides unique insight on typographical errors in a practical sense. As a student of book design, rarely do I ever come across examples of blatantly poor design. In a field where skills develop based largely trial and error, and one must cultivate the elusive “informed intuition” its helpful to see textbook examples of what NOT to do. As soon as Bartram points out the error, it becomes obvious and visually agitating.

Bartram also brings up the important point about the role books play in our society and the split between books that are meant to be read, versus book that are meant to be held. The industrialization of printing in the early twentieth century meant that books could be prolifically and cheaply manufactured and were merely “texts whose purpose is communication.” He writes of the split between mass-produced books and fine-press books and that, “It was disconcerting that the most highly regarded designers of the early twentieth century devoted their time to creating books which were primarily visual toys” (121). Private presses were becoming “self indulgent exercises for wealthy patrons” recycling primarily old texts. These are books that are “not for the working man” despite the inherent hard work involved in printing books (112).

This commentary makes me question why I am involved letterpress printing in the first place. Although I have no conclusive answers, Bartram convinced me that printing should be integrally tied up in the dissemination of important information that is clear, concise and elegant. Printing should have integrity as integral to the information as it is to elegance, fluidity and aesthetic value. (Best get out of the greeting card/wedding industry ASAP…) Alas, Bertram ends the book with a solid quote from Benjamin Franklin,

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed” (184).

Bartram, Alan, Five hundred years of book design (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

No comments:

Post a Comment