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Typography is a grid

This article was first published in ‘The Designer’, no. 167, January 1967. It is one of the ‘texts’ published in our book Anthony Froshaug: Typography & texts / Documents of a life’. Froshaug wrote this at the height of the vogue for grid-based graphic design, imported into Britain from (especially) Switzerland. In an earlier contribution to ‘The Designer’, Brian Grimbly – a friend and colleague of Froshaug – had discussed grids in a purely pragmatic way, as a tool for designers. (‘Designing to a grid’, ‘The Designer’, no. 162, August 1966, pp. 4–5). Anthony Froshaug then wrote this ‘call to order’, restating central tenets of his approach to typography.

Some slight editorial changes have been made in reprinting the article here. Notes to the text and illustrations were originally numbered in one sequence, but have here been renumbered in two sequences. ‘Typography is a grid’ was first reprinted in ‘Design Dialogue’, no. 1, 1969: a magazine edited by students at Stafford College of Art and Design. Froshaug’s work was important for the design course at Stafford, as Peter Burnhill implied in his retrospective: ‘Outside the whale’, ‘Information Design Journal’, vol.8, no.3, 1996, pp. 195–218. More recently, ‘Typography is a grid’ has been reprinted with illustrations and notes reshuffled and misnumbered, within the grimly utilitarian pages of the anthology ‘Looking closer 3’, edited by Michael Bierut and others for Allworth Press (New York, 1999).

Grid structures are implicit in the word typography.

After half a millennium it is time for an understanding and re-assessment.

To mention both typographic, and, in the same breath/sentence, grids, is strictly tautologous. The word typography means to write/print using standard elements; to use standard elements implies some modular relationship between such elements; since such relationship is two-dimensional, it implies the determination of dimensions which are both horizontal and vertical.

Consider the problems which faced Gutenberg, some five hundred years ago, in helping ‘the eternal God’to bring ‘into existence the laudable art, by which men now print books, and multiply them so greatly …’.1 Item, the said Johann Gutenberg knew of the invention of paper (which had reached Cologne by 1320); item, knew of the development of suitable inks … of the general features of the cloth- and wine-press, of the arts of the engravers, of the die- and punch-making of the goldsmiths (after all, he was a goldsmith himself).2 What did Gutenberg invent?

In order that letters, characters, may be arranged in lines, line upon line, for printing, each letter must be of the same depth or body-size as its neighbours, irrespective of its individual width: the vertical dimension (y in Cartesian co-ordinates) is critical. If, as seems historically probable, Gutenberg’s invention was that of the adjustable type-mould, tolerant of characters of differing widths, intolerant of divergence in body-size 3, this invention acted as a vertical grid upon the setting, the forme, the page.

But the length of line, the width of setting, provided another dimension. It seems that this horizontal dimension (x) of the grid was determined by convention, and embodied in the Procrustean bed of the composing stick – probably at that time, as more lately in the case of 13-pica fixed newspaper sticks, an unadjustable hod into which the standard bricks of characters could be successionally piled.

Of course, the fixing of a horizontal dimension or ’measure’demands conventions of variable spacing between words 4, or of abbreviation of the words themselves 5, if all the characters align at left, where the line begins, and are to end as lead-soldiers dressed by the right. The multifarious grids used by the scribes were directly translated into the techniques of metal setting. The scribes had long explored the two-dimensional axes, long before Gutenberg, long before Descartes described them as constraints.

This account restricts itself to those who used the Latin alphabet, who read from left to right; but only so far as concerns continuous narrative text. Quite early on, even in the days of incunabula, not only letters but other characters, for example numerals, needed setting – and in the attempt of mathematical conventions to show the sequence of a proof, equalities and tabulations were aligned, each below its antecedent step: centring a new implicit axis on the page 6.

So during centuries: for the first ninety years of typographic printing saw the exploration and development of justified and unjustified setting, of italic, of new letters (J and U surviving; some, like the omega, left at last), of punctuation marks. After 1530, though, interest shifted toward experiment in letter design and, later, mechanical improvement.

All later work, until the demands of writers such as Blake or Mallarmé disrupted the conventions, considered the typographic grid unalterable 7. And even with the poets, their understanding of typography was such that they hardly considered the presentation of their personal desires a challenge to the grid.

And here’s a sadness. Typography, as taught in schools of art, and captioned in the illustrated books, is mostly but a word delimiting a field of art-/craft-history; books of types, of typographic ornaments and rules, of title-pages (fewer books of double-page spreads), sit on their shelves or presses. Typography (sic) has become the study of placing letters on a field: typography, a more precise form of lettering. And lettering, calligraphy, has died some sweet Roman death or letraset itself below the ground.

It is time, after half a millennium, for the re-assessment of typography.

In architecture, stones, mud, plants humbled together, were governed; labour was delegated, craftsmen worked their feeling for materials on that material, builders organized, architects, later, chiefed constructions. After the decline of architecture, all major work nowadays is done by those who dreamed of white cathedrals or had an intimate experience or interest in their material, old or new.

So in typography: the early days were seasons of experiment; experiments became conventions, conventions rules – and after that, till now, almost always a play with shapes, with paper patterns, and the extraordinary facility of mechanical contrivance, to reach an end that is rarely worth attainment.

To print the slogan ‘re-assess’ means nothing, of itself. Qualified, defined, means know, means find the nuts of ’em. What can be done, for instance, with these standardized components? – standardized before the military uniform, in fact. Accept is obviously the answer, accept the grid which is their essence.

‘grid, n. Frame of spaced parallel bars … network … gridiron …’.8

Or, ‘net, plexus, web, mesh, twill, skein, sleeve, felt, lace; wicker; matting; plait, trellis, wattle, lattice, grating, grille, gridiron, tracery, fretwork, filigree, reticle; tissue, netting’.9

Having accepted, determine the conventions. For each text to be translated into typographic terms, determine not just how the text appears, but what it means to say. Discover if there be an existing typographic language which allows this fullest meaning to be set out. If not, how must the typographic syntax semantics be so changed that this most loved and fullest meaning is set clear. (And if the text is sacred, how does that text itself alter and enrich the typographic standards?) Follow the poets: they play the ’normal’language (as much as fools or advertising agents, they base their shocks and base their basic meanings on the norm, quite often by departing from it, but always allusive to it). Look at the length of line – consider the reader; look at the type, its size, the length of line it’s set to (the horizontal) or the relation of the x-height of each line to neighbour lines (the vertical). Make all mistakes that can be made, while thinking that this trial, which afterwards may prove mistaken, is worth the most serious exploration (but never make mistakes deliberately with hooded, knowing eyes). Acknowledge all constraints.

Now all this may appear to be, but is not far from grids. (Only this latter word has lately become a conscious term.) I can’t imagine any early printer using just such a word; I can only imagine such a concept informing his approach. To find the text, to stipulate the ways in which it gets manipulated, to cohere all the mutually-destructive (as they may, at first, seem) requirements into a still centre of quiet meaning: this needs a knowledge and a recognition of typography. Admit constraints: then, having admitted, fill with discovery.

Notes and figures

1 Chronicle of Cologne, 1499.

2 A.P. Usher, A history of mechanical inventions, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1954. Chapter 10 deals with ‘The invention of printing’; however, chapter 4 on ‘The emergence of novelty in thought and action’ should not be missed.

3 Illegibility resulting from the mixture of types of differing body sizes (the ‘a’ and ‘e’ are 13 thou larger than the other letters). H. Meisner and J. Luther, Die Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst, Bielefeld & Leipzig: Velhagen & Klasing, 1900.

4 Cover: thin, mid, thick, en and em spaces for 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48 and 60 point anglo-american. The spaces printed in grey are interchangeable with 2-, 3- and 4-pica quadrats.

5 Word and syllable abbreviations in Gutenberg’s 36-line Bible. Note that the hyphens override the measure.

6 Ptolemy, Cosmographia, Ulm, 1482. Note the comparatively small size of the numerator in fractions; compare Stock Exchange fractions in financial columns for one of the alternative solutions.

7 Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Un coup de dés’, Cosmopolis, May 1897. Consider also the problems necessarily raised by poets in a socio-religious sense, discussed by Stefan Themerson, Cardinal Pölätüo (London: Gaberbocchus Press, 1961); note also the problems of relating the manuscript to typographical constraints, discussed by the same author in a most creative article ‘Idéogrammes lyriques’, Typographica, no. 14, 1966, pp. 2—24).

8 The concise Oxford dictionary of current English, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.

9 Tabular Synopsis of Categories: ‘Class 2, Space; 2. Dimensions; 2. Linear; 219. Crossing.’ P.M. Roget, Thesaurus, London: Longmans, 1852.

For more writing on this website by Anthony Froshaug, go here.