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.


If in doubt

Typography should be allowed individuality; this is to appear as different as the people around us, just as there are girls and men, fat and thin, wise and stupid, serious and gay, easily pleased and fussy.
—Jan Tschichold

Reading & roses

If you don’t read poetry, you won’t find the roses while looking for the puppy jobby. If you don’t read poetry, you won’t notice the lace wing that lands on your window, or suddenly appears on your bedroom wall in the late winter. Someone I was working with smirked when I told them I was writing a spoof piece (after the Onion) about reading being good for the brain, and said that music is what stimulates all parts of the brain, don’t you know, you’ve heard them speak of the music by Mozart? Of course, and I was a musician for many years, and know of the way different pitches, bass, mid range, treble, etc, stimulate different parts of the body. I also know a student that told me she felt inclined or inspired to write when she read a good book, or got an idea to make an image in paint, or was inspired to make up some music, after reading poetry.  Does it seem so far-fetched that reading inspires writing as well as doing other creative things? Being creative does not only come from the creative genius of an individual mind above all others. Creative writer Scott Hartmann ( page 25, Why We Write, July-August, Poets & Writers) writes, “I’ve never found an art form that touches me—or that I can touch people with—more powerfully than the written word.”

Reading can be difficult when a book is poorly designed. An author and I were talking the other day, and he told me about a book of poetry that was designed using a typeface something like Gothic Bold or Helvetica Bold for the text. This is something that should never be done. Most typefaces were designed for reading, most text or book faces, are designed with reading in mind. Every letter is designed to integrate with the rest of the alphabet. The eye has adapted to reading these faces. Even new faces that are designed using some older form has reading as it’s purpose, either for display or for text. Text should never be composed of display faces, or all caps, or faces that were designed for signage, or subways, or for advertising. Display faces are what newspapers use to head articles, or books use for titling, chapter openings at best.

Most book faces are based on ‘old style’ or ‘transitional faces’ from earlier centuries. Originally these faces, take Bembo for instance, were designed for printing books, and the styles were based on earlier innovations in hand writing, and took into consideration how they would appear when printed on the laid paper used in printing books of the time. Their display faces were usually larger sizes of the face in Roman or Italic, and every size was designed, drawn and cut in metal punches. The designer and punch cutter knew that each size had to have individual adjustments made to it. The metal punches were then punched into the copper matrices to be used in the hand-held mold for type casting. Each individual piece of type was cast in this way, usually quantities of each letter being cast while the mat or matrix was in the mold. Bembo also has a short alphabet length, and so it was used quite often because it actually meant you could fit more text on a page and make the book a bit shorter. Not to mention that it is a very good-looking typeface.

After casting, each type had to be cleaned and planed to be as near to exactly the same for setting by hand in composition sticks. The text would be set on a line length determined for the entire book, except in the case of marginal text or extracts, and placed in galleys, later to be made into pages, according to the book design. The pages were then imposed according to the size of the sheet of paper and how it would be folded into signatures, gathered and sewn for the binding of the book. A lot of people spent a lot of time making books this way for a lot of years. So it kind of comes down to “don’t fix what’s not broken.”

A stick of Ludlow mats ready for casting

And there is more to this integrated topic of type and book design. You may have noticed that the New York Times Magazine changed its look sometime over the past several years, so that now much of it is set in two columns or maybe three to a page, instead of four or more, like a lot of magazines and newspapers did for a long time for various reasons, partly due to the limitations of metal type machine composition. So when the New York Times Magazine determined, or a designer of stature recommended this change, it was due to the rule of thumb that designers for over a century or more knew about, good designers know, that a sentence is most easily read when it has at least nine words in it. Anything less and the eye is quivering around on the page and this kind of reading has the effect on the eye similar to what they warn can happen while playing action computer games. I never liked reading magazines much for this reason, and found out why when I studied book design and printing history.

Look at these books, to name a few: William Morris – The Ideal Book page 75, (University of California Press); Jan Tschichold: typographer by Ruari McLean (Godine); Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing by Joseph Moxon (Dover)