By Sebastien Hayez. Published April 05, 2023

The Elements of Typographic style

The Elements of Typographic Style

It is becoming increasingly rare for a French publisher to publish a reference book that was previously only available in English. In fact, every publisher in the field of graphic design and typography must have a series of manuals in its catalogue that establishes a solid link between its readership of graphic designers (students, beginners or experienced) and the rest of its catalogue. Retaining readers is easier when they are at the beginning of their careers...

The excellent B42 publishing house, founded in 2008 by Alexandre Dimos (also co-creator of Studio DeValence), has already made a name for itself by publishing numerous titles by international stars such as Robin Kinross, Otl Aicher, Otto Neurath, Fred Smeijers, Jost Hochuli, Gerard Unger. Among these titles, which stand like steles in the pantheon of typographic publishing, B42 has decided to publish in French the catalogue of the excellent London publishing house Hyphen Press (1980-2017) founded by Robin Kinross (1949-).

The Parisian publishing house will probably provide us in the near future with other indispensable volumes to perfect practical and scientific knowledge.

Robert Bringhurst (1946-) is best known in the publishing world for his talents as a poet, in verse and prose, and as a translator. However, this scholar and typography enthusiast has slowly been forging opuses to fill the gaps in our libraries. 

The Elements of Typographic Styles is certainly his standard work, published in 1992 by Hartley & Marks Publishers, and revised in 1996, 2001 (v2.4), 2002 (v2.5), 2004 (v3.0), 2005 (v3.1), 2008 (v3.2), and 2012 (v4.0).

Hermann Zapf (1918-2015) said of this book, "I wish to see this book become the Typographers' Bible. Jonathan Hoefler (1970-) and Tobias Frere-Jones (1970-) consider it "the finest book ever written about typography," according to the FAQ page of their typographic foundry.

But how does this volume make it an important reference in the typographic publishing landscape?

The first surprising feature of this book is its literary quality, both in its writing and typographic design. It is true that the title is already an unconcealed allusion to The Elements of Style, a classic writing guide written in 1920 by William Strunk Jr (1869-1946). The links between typography and text are obvious, but here the text is a literary material and not just the medium of language in the same way as graphic signs or images.

The 477 pages of the French edition are extremely respectful of the original edition: the format, pagination, typography and layout are in every respect similar to the original edition. B42, in this mission, is as much an adapter of the text as of the overall spirit, and the few translator's notes underline the care given to the integrity of the text.

The narrow format of the book refers to the Renaissance editions where the double-page spread fits into the space of a hexagon. The French cover, the only freedom from the English edition, displays the canon also reproduced in the opening pages. The demonstration is made: the book is the best example of the knowledge distilled in its pages.

The table of contents is laid out with the utmost simplicity. The general classicism of the layout is a tour de force of minimalism whose spirit is not incompatible with functionalist modernity, even if it is also a guarantor of classical tradition. Good graphic design, as emphasised in the opening pages, has no side, only that which works and from where one wishes to take it.

The table of content is a demonstration of pragmatic purity and elegance.
The canons on the left page are also demonstrating that the book itself is the best example.

The book is intended to be a manual on typography, from the synopsis of its historical creation to its calibration on the page.

The first three chapters are an excellent introduction to the philosophy of classical typographic composition. Through his writing and the poetic images used, Bringhurst distils with pedagogy and naturalness what many teachers struggle to share with students. It is this breath of fresh air that is the author's strength, rather than the erudition that can easily be found in other textbooks.

The first chapters are introducing a wide panorama of type history.

The author's choices are not always easy to follow. Thus, after the first few chapters dealing with the composition of certain levels of text (headings, beginning of paragraphs, captions, notes, etc.), the reader is led to consider ligatures and hyphenation. Bringhurst aims to be relatively comprehensive, presenting the glyphs common in English, but also ligatures limited to the Greek italic alphabet, as well as the rules and exceptions for many languages, without being complete. 

The example of the entry on the hyphen is quite telling. The author discusses the history of the hyphen, its use by Estienne and Gamaront during the Renaissance, its graphic aspect, whether it was slanted or not, single or double. In the same paragraphs, the author goes on to discuss the conflicts between the calligraphic or purely linear and modernist versions preferred by font distributors as opposed to the choices of type designers. From these aesthetic considerations, the type designer will receive totally relevant content, but the graphic designer or layout artist will probably be lost in the richness that is so profoundly necessary for total professional success.

It is this completeness of approach, but this in-between exhaustiveness, that seems to be shaky. The use of complementary and specialised manuals is essential for the graphic designer wishing to perfect the knowledge distilled here in dots, even if this requires the acquisition of numerous books.

These chapters are not the most original ones, but the author is remarkably pertinent.

Bringhurst anchors his approach in that of a textual pedagogy, where reading is the anchor of knowledge. The book's format, which respects the classical canons, confirms this choice, and the consultation of the volume is closer to that of a novel than a guide to visual culture.

The examples illustrated are numerous and telling, but their placement and functioning are almost secondary, both in their dedicated spaces and in the relative discretion of their presentation.

One could have dreamt of a manual working by double-page, with commented and corrected counter-examples in order to understand how the settings produce an indisputable harmony. Other more contemporary authors have successfully attempted this didactic exercise.

Photograph pictures remain exceptions in the book. The examples shown are also only theoretical and no real project are displayed.

Another point that seems to me to be a pity is that the historical interlude in chapter 7 should have appeared much earlier. Indeed, the previous chapter, devoted to the marriage of characters, alludes to historical contexts that are dealt with later. Things are quickly fixed, but the logical link is fragile.

On the other hand, Chapter 8, devoted to the page and its margins, is masterly erudite. It is probably the book that compiles the largest number of page layout canons, with 27 explicit examples. It also draws a clever parallel between the Pythagorean scale of musical tones and variations in page proportions, both of which are based on numerical ratios: an analogy that has never been crossed before.

The canons for page proportions are really exciting, establishing a great comparison between musical scale and page proportions.

Bringhurst works differently. His voice and his mind require the unfolding of the text, in a quasi-narrative approach, so that the knowledge is anchored deeply in the mind. If the image speaks for itself and is worth all the talk, it can remain the surface of knowledge that needs to be approached with more finesse. And this is probably the author's tour de force: to be a learning companion who distils with finesse knowledge that it would be too easy to summarise in an image.

The author's aim is not so much to offer a guide that can be consulted in the face of the problem, but to approach the problem as a context to be circumscribed with caution and understanding. Instead of the culture of zapping and consultation, he seems to prefer slow and wise reflection.

Basic mathematics and geometry provides a good taste for establishing the page proportion and layout.

Elementary Principles of Typography, a History of Style
(The Elements of Typographic Style)

Robert Bringhurst

Price: €30

Catalogue number: B42-165
Release: March 2023
Language: French
Design: Robert Bringhurst
Graphic adaptation: deValence
Format: 140 x 235 mm
Pages: 480 p.
ISBN: 9782490077656
Translation: Perrine Chambon
Revision: Marc Kopylov & Jeanne Lebastard


Table of contents:

- Foreword
- Historical Synopsis
- The Grand Design
- Rhythm & Proportion
- Harmony & Counterpoint
- Structural Forms & Devices
- Analphabetic Symbols
- Choosing & Combining Type
- Historical Interlude
- Shaping the Page
- The State of the Art
- Prowling the Specimen Books
- Appendix A: Spells & Characters
- Appendix B: Glossary of Terms
- Appendix C: Type Designers
- Appendix D: Typefoundries
- Appendix E: Recapitulation
- Appendix F: Further Reading
Afterword to the Second Edition

Most of the book is massive text. Don't take it as boring content, the author excelled at writing in a very fluid and pictorial style.
All pictures, copyright B42.

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