Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Jan Tschichold is the only typographer in Five hundred years of book design who Alan Bartram doesn’t aggressively criticize, and lets his designs “speak for themselves.” (184, Bartram) And for good reason! Jan Tschichold’s beautiful design sense immediately captivated me, and page after page of consistently dynamic layouts proves him a master of the trade. Jan Tschichold was born in 1902 in Leipzig, Germany and was a book designer, typographer, teacher and writer who revolutionized typography in the machine age. He was greatly influenced by the Bauhaus school, and not only designed type but created a manual for designers called Die Neue Typographie, (The New Typography), recognized as a definitive manifesto on graphic design in the machine age. Here are some beautiful examples of his early work:

In this book, Tschichold emphasized elements that reflected the machine age: dynamic energy, implied movement, as well as balance, asymmetrical placement of contrasting elements, flush left headlines, and layouts based on horizontal and vertical underlying grids. Rectangles, rules and bars enhanced structure, balance and stress. The essence of New Typography was to clarify information and communicate it in the most direct and effective manner possible, looking for inspiration first from the text itself. One of my favorite elements of New Typography is the emphasis on contrasting and vibrating colors. Type becomes symbolic of meaning as well as a visual code for translation, and those symbols “bring letters together to make a new form, or illustrate the product” or better yet, both. (110, Tschichold.) Initially, Jan condemned all type faces except for san-serif.

New Typography was a direct response to the disorder in European typography in the early twenties, and consequently rationality and functionality were of paramount importance. Tschichold was reacting against the old typography, whose objective was beauty and ornament and whose superficiality could not “produce the pure form” and “the degree of logic we now demand.” (66, Tschichold) Specifically, type design up until then was characterized by a central axis, type placed on a page (as opposed to the page being part of the layout) and emphasized a rigid form for plugging in text. Jan thought that typography should “not be an expression, least of all self-expression, but perfect communication achieved by skill.” (64, Jong) Its main objective should be to develop its form out of the text, not from any preconceived notion.

One of the most significant aspects of Tschichold’s contribution to typography was its integral connection to politics. Typography then carried a symbolic weight that indicated political opinion and consequently, Tschichold and his wife were arrested and labeled “cultural Bolsheviks,” accused of advocating “un-German” typography (22, Jong).

Although Tschichold advocated san serif typography in The New Typography, he later rejected his own philosophy in favor of returning to traditional and symmetrical typography he had so aggressively condemned ten years earlier. At a seminar in 1959 he wrote,

In light of my present knowledge, it was a juvenile opinion to consider the sans serif as the most suitable or even the most contemporary typeface. A typeface has first to be legible, nay, readable, and a sans serif is certainly not the most legible typeface when set in quantity, let alone readable….Good typography has to be perfectly legible and, as such, the result of intelligent planning. The classical typefaces such as Garamond, Janson, Baskerville and Bell are undoubtedly the most legible. (63, Jong)

To say the least, this did not please the cult followers of his previous school of thought, but he claimed that he “detected most shocking parallels between the teachings of The New Typography and National Socialism and fascism. Obvious similarities consist in the ruthless restriction of typefaces…and the more or less militaristic arrangement of lines” (21, Jong).

In the latter part of his life, Tschichold went on to re-vamp everything published by Penguin Books, and created a new set of rules known as The Penguin Composition Rules. Technology was allowing for color plates and pictorial covers, which functioned as “attractive collectors items for the general reader.” (278, Jong). During his career with penguin he re-designed some 500 books, sometimes one a day. Beautiful in a different way than his earlier work, Penguin books employ centered titles, strict adherence to letter-spacing, and a color-coding system and patterned bounding around many a cover. Here are some examples of his work for Penguin - you can see here he is using a centralized axis and serif fonts again:

In terms of my own letterpress practice, there are many nuggets of wisdom to steal from Jan. He writes that there are no set rules for anything – a good typographer is constantly adapting his design not only to the message he intends to communicate, but also to the conditions of the time. Practicing designers must first and foremost listen to the texts and their logic. “The typographer must take the greatest care to study how his work is read and ought to be read. It is true that we usually read from top left to bottom right – but this is not law” (67, Tschichold) He encourages designers to employ the “liveliness of asymmetry” and “employ contrast to create unity.” ( 70, Tschichold) He suggests using three to five sizes of type, and emphasizing the intention of negative space of the page as a deliberate component of layout.

In particular, Jan encourages using abstract forms only if they are relevant to the communication of the text. I am guilty as charged on this account in a few of my poster-press projects – coming up with a design simply for aesthetic reasons rather than communicating the essence of the event. He holds photography to be the most effective tool for illustration, because it eliminates the chance of misinterpretation and possesses “intrinsic objectivity” (31, Jong).

So, has the import of typography in our society changed since Jan's time? Do we have anything as strong as Nazism to react against symbolically? Going back to Bartram’s point, we must ask ourselves constantly, Why does this print MATTER? This idea made me think of Aaron’s post regarding “the return of the democratic multiple” about screen prints made recently during the protests in Wisconsin. Printeresting describes this as a “living breathing example of print being employed for the cause of the day.”

Lastly, one of my favorite warnings from Tschichold is to avoid using historical type-faces without a specific purpose, “for they are foreign to our time.” To illustrate this metaphor he asks, “Can you imagine an airline pilot with a beard?” (83, Tschichold) Well, Jan, you might be a typographical genius, but maybe you just need to think outside the box, or shall we say the axial grid…?

Bartram, Alan, Five hundred years of book design (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) 184.

Jong, Cees W. de et al. Jan Tschichold: Master Typographer: His Life, Work & Legacy (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008)

Tschichold, Jan. The New Typography. Translated by Ruari McClean (California: University of California Press, 1995)

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