Innovation and change

Innovation and change as in life is not always Chiaroscuro and Contropasto, less rather than more dramatic, except in nightly news and advertising. In less we talk about the likes of Gutenberg.

In speaking about poetry Borges said he thought of himself “as being essentially a reader . . . I have ventured into writing; but think that what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes—yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.” How gracious Borges is being when he says this. With all the learning and studying and practice, we are allowed to be literary by being solely a reader. This is important to us all as artists, being creative in whatever work we are doing, because reading is a personal association, we are connected by thought to another and at the same time with our own thought, we only need to be validated in our selves. Our inner creative foundation is constantly being thwarted by experience in the outer world. It must be maintained as a balance or we lose touch with creativity. Easy to say. By being innovative in our thought we can change the way we look at creativity.

A fragment of a message from a friend about design and the title page:

Alan Bartram’s Five Hundred Years of Book Design. In the event you don’t know the book, here are the opening sentences of the Introduction:
‘The history of printing is in large measure the history of the title-page.’ Stanley Morison’s little finger knew more about printing history than I have ever known, but that remark of his has always baffled me. How the text pages I show here could be extrapolated, or guessed at, from title-pages, as Morison seemed to claim, I do not know. It is they, not title-pages, that show the remarkable changes that have taken place over the centuries.

See this paper on title pages and design .


the California type case


The title page for The New Typography- Jan Tschichold

After reading the email I began to recall the history of title pages, which were largely non-existent before printing, and after were almost always static lines of type centered on an axis, at least into the nineteenth century before machine composition and the Arts & Crafts and Private Press movements, Bauhaus, and designers like Jan Tschichold in the early 20th C. tschichold 605px-Tschichold_medieval_canon.svg This is partly due to the fact that designers were not a creature of norm per se, although the master of a printing houses, such as Aldus Manutius might be considered a designer, book formats were based on paper sizes and how they folded down into sections or gatherings. The page margins having been established somewhat geometrically since the days of manuscript scribes using something of the golden rectangle proportion to determine them. Almost design by rote. Composition by hand was the method for almost 500 years, individual types being set on lines of 2 point lead all the same length, such as 20 pica, hence: the leading, whatever space was used between lines throughout a book. Early printing in Europe had its own system of measurement. All this is documented in Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises.

In relation to title pages, printing history and design, I don’t think the Morison statement was meant as an “on the surface” idea, but perhaps a reference to innovation; as the title page became and developed, one can see a display of new methods and techniques on title pages, kind of an expression of trends in printing.


Aldus Manutius was probably the first printer to invent the pocket or portable book. Small volumes, truly a “design” innovation from his imagination and attention to customer use. These small volumes must have been something of a compositors nightmare. Even though hand type setting on a stick was normal and the compositors memorization of the “type case” (learned by rote) meant that it almost didn’t matter which size the type was as all fonts sat in the cases, by letter of the alphabet, in the same location. Still, if you’ve set any type by hand, you know the “dance” involves more than type alone, and setting equivalents of 8 point or 6 point type can be visually challenging. Speed and not correctness may have been more important since the first page proof would reveal the accuracy of the compositor and his knowledge and ability at setting according to the case, oh, and the distribution of any types either from fresh castings or from previous printings. There could be problems in reuse since damaged letters were probably common and most printers of Manutius size would have a casting operation. The punch cutter Griffo worked for Aldus and one of his faces, renamed Bembo, was widely used in the 20th C because it’s alphabet length is short. This meant you could fit more on a page. Determining the size of a book is or was called the “cast off”.

Innovation sometimes comes from an idea and sometimes from something new being introduced. Times became harder for scribes as the printing from moveable types spread. Then their work, which had been to copy entire books by hand, was only used to rubricate printed pages with initials. Rubrication was one of several steps in the medieval process of manuscript making. Practitioners of rubrication, so-called rubricators, were specialized scribes who received text from the manuscript’s original scribe and supplemented it with additional text in red ink for emphasis. The term rubrication comes from the Latin rubrico, “to color red”.

littlepretty_titlepg_largeHere is a gallery of early title pages.

Reflections on design

After going through a rather lengthy process with someone over a book and its design, it seems right to say something about practice and theory. I like Jost Hochuli’s Designing Books; opening section Book design as a school of thought; On symmetry in the book, on function and functionalism in book typography, and against the ideologizing of design systems. When it comes to symmetrical and asymmetrical typography Jost is not summarily speaking but asks for a “rational assessment of typographic ways and means.” Of “enlightenment . . . as a lance against typographic dogmas,” and from Kant: “The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!”

This is a fine attitude and find solace in it as it is an opening for a breadth of integrity. Of course Kant was speaking generally about a view of the world, and Jost uses his words for a “modest and specialized level of typography” as what one might say to young designers.

It might be important to note that using your understanding doesn’t always mean being against something. Assertion with proof can also be misleading in typography. It will not always be true to use an example of an existing design, even assertion by example can become dogmatic. Space, for instance, around typography, once a system is established, once the framework of margins or grids is determined suitable for the material going into a book, it is best to maintain them. And a highly organized book of information, with a large number of illustrations and plans, can make use of three different grid systems. They may also be based precisely on the measurements of just one text area. If a pages content, such as a heading or opening or short passage of text, seem high and irregular by comparison, with all its white space and too close to the head margin, this is to be expected if it follows the plan. Typography breathes in space and we must learn to respect and see the relationship and not impose a tendency to adjust what has been set up to take into consideration a great number of elements.

Lyons:Mareschal and Chaussard 1510

In an opening discussion of symmetry we find definition; ‘symmetría’ signified measure, harmony, the right proportion. Symmetry in the ancient world must be seen in the Pythagorean view of the universe, and the mathematical concept more narrow yet precise. Still, it has a rich historical background with a number of symmetrical transformations; for typographic purposes we look at bilateral symmetry which does not function in a restricted sense. “The only thing that displays absolute axial symmetry is the open book block, in its familiar codex form.” The theoretical discussion might appear formal but asks us to see if what we think as symmetrical is really so. Only the blank pages that turn on the spine of a book are so. Printed pages are never identical. Right and left images are not interchangeable.
Marcellus Nonius

Centering lines on an axis became possible with the use of type. Scribes of manuscripts, illuminated books, all books and scrolls written by hand were done without centering. It is extremely difficult to letter, to print by hand, around a central axis, centered on the page, or for that matter, on the text block, that area designated by the margins in proportion to the open book. Type composition done by hand allows for equal spacing to be easily divided to the left and right of the word or phrase. And mechanical setting devices and machines allow for this as well. This was used primarily for title pages and used to death by the end of the nineteenth century. It is not the fault of the design principle but its ill-considered application. The relationship between printed area and white space must be worked out, between positive and negative, the figure / ground relationship. Use imagination and individuality rather than simply applying a principle again and again until it becomes dull and lifeless. One basis for this is to remember that a pages margins were never meant to be centered on a single page, the relationship is between the two pages on the spine, the inner margins to the outer margins, and the head margins to the foot margins. These can vary but should not drift without reason toward becoming equal. Mass market books for a long time used little margins, and near to equal, on part being subject to photographic stripping, high-speed presses, mechanical trimming, and to save materials, to save money, to get thousands out to “the masses” and eventually fall apart or be thrown away. They serve their purpose, but let us not use them as an example of a system to apply a priori.

The discussion with my colleague entered upon an aspect of page design known as the text block and the relative margins, and moved to the realm where page elements were taken out of the relationship under the pretense of looking odd or to busy. These elements are rarely arrived at randomly, especially if any pleasing proportion to the text of poetry is to be achieved, and if a balance of the average line length and stanza breaks are to be a priority. Floating text blocks of poetry only occur in anthologies because authors rarely write poems of the same size in line length and number of lines, except for perhaps Haiku. Unfortunately centering is often thought to be the way poetry should be designed. This gives the left hand margin and subsequent page an inconsistent, if ever the same, placement.The natural organic appearance of poetry is different from prose when in text blocks on a double spread. Though prose that is not justified left and right can be similar visually. Margins for poetry are less obvious but they exist just the same. They are to be set based on an average line length taken from all the poems, and given proportionate margins, so that the poems do not appear to be too far to the left. This can be difficult if an author writes using both short and long line poems. Still, the system best be used and never centering because then the pages look static. Truncation would be preferable if lines are very long, but not many like that either. A change in page size is a good option, and typeface and type size is also an option.

It is better a book never have misconceptions imposed upon a design process if any beauty is to be retained. Typography should have individuality. Practices that limit style, these “dogmas,” would be unrelated to the work itself. It is why the Arts and Crafts movement was begun, and the fine press movement carried on. The designers and crafts people of those times sought to rescue the book from the effects of industry and bad materials, if nothing else, to keep alive a culture begun by the scribes, an almost sacred geometry, and later maintained by the presses of the Renaissance.

Eventually the industrial revolution for book production forced a block, a dual consideration for publishers; use imagination, or get the word out. Dissemination, mass production, ruled design, dictated beyond the question of individuality, beyond the nature of culture, machines could produce the parts of a book in greater numbers than a team of workers. many inventions improved the decoration of book clothes, the sewing of signatures, and some editions from some manufacturers were even pleasing to hold and read.

Aldus Manutius, the Aldine Press, was one of the first (c.1500) printers to consider the ability of the printing press to reach wider audiences and even educate. Imagine, if ever you have seen books from the Aldine Press or any of the period, they were all composed of handset type and printed with hand presses on dampened handmade paper, later hand sewn and bound by hand into hard cover books.
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