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Two books on book typography

This review has just appeared in the new number (no. 11) of ‘Text’, within an issue on the theme of ‘Edition & Typographie’.

Hans Peter Willberg & Friedrich Forssman, Lesetypografie
Mainz: Verlag Hermann Schmidt, 2005
340 pages, 297 × 210 mm

Ari Rafaeli, Book typography
New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll / London: British Library, 2005
160 pages, 280 × 216 mm

Designing books, and typographic design more generally, is in the last analysis an indivisible process. Choice of paper will affect choice of typeface, which will in part be determined by the demands of the text (many footnotes? Polish-language names in the bibliography?), which will help to determine the size of page, and that in turn will have implications for the weight of paper chosen. So we find ourselves in a web of decision-making, which one will probably cut short by reference to precedent (‘we only have three formats for books, and this text feels like format B’), or overriding necessity (‘we can’t get any subsidy for this one, so we’ll have to print in Jordan – and those printers can only get hold of this kind of uncoated paper’). In the old days of metal typesetting, into the 1970s, choice of typeface was often a matter of what a typesetter had available for use on their machines. Now, with DTP composition, choice of typeface is less constrained, though money can still play a part (fonts do not always come free). Most books on book design tend to exclude this mundane and pragmatic level of the work. But even within the idealized micro-domain of one page of a book, which is the focus for most works of instruction on this topic, everything still seems to interact. How many words should there be in a line of text? It depends. Specifically, it depends on the size of type, on the length of the line, on the space between the lines, on the size of the page, and on the language of the text.

In this situation of interdependability of factors, how does one explain book typography? How to cut the cake? Where to start? How to proceed? Some works attempt to fit the whole of this cake within their view, and will include such vital factors as binding methods, as well as good spacing of words set in small capitals. Others take a middle view, in which the focus is on the whole page or spread of two facing pages, and everything that can happen there. This approach also entails a view of the whole book, which – this is one of the special characteristics of book design – can and should form a clearly discernible sequence of pages, in which elements are repeated or varied in meaningful ways. Willberg & Forssman focus on this middle ground. Lastly, there are works that focus on what happens within a line of text. Detailtypografie by Forssman and Ralf de Jong (Hermann Schmidt, second edition, 2004) is one of these, and it makes a companion to Lesetypografie. Another such is Jost Hochuli’s Das Detail in der Typografie, which has recently been republished in a revised edition (Niggli, 2005).


Willberg & Forssman’s Lesetypografie is an imposing work, which at first sight gives the impression of complete coverage, with every possibility listed and discussed. It is a very full discussion, but also a humane and pointed one, with a solid set of principles animating the often lively authors’ commentary. Hans Peter Willberg (1930–2003) was perhaps the major figure in (West) German book design over the last forty years: extraordinarily productive both as a practitioner and as a writer on the subject. Friedrich Forssman (born 1965) was a pupil of Willberg at the Fachhochschule at Mainz, and has followed him in combining theory with a busy practice. The first edition of Lesetypografie appeared in 1997, and this second edition is distinct from the first mainly for the reproductions of actual books, in good colour photographs, to illustrate the points being made. Most of these books were designed by Willberg or Forssman, or else by designers who one guesses are associates of the authors. These specific examples certainly help to give life and specificity to what had been a rather dry work. They also help to reinforce the sense that the book – as any worthwhile manual must – is advocating a certain approach to design. This is not a simple style, as one sometimes found it in the manuals of Swiss typography of the 1960s. Willberg & Forssman advocate something more subtle and various than that.

The governing criterion of Lesetypografie is indeed ‘reading’. What is best, clearest, most comfortable for the reader? The book is rich in its exploration of the areas beyond simple, continuous text-setting – which often describes the limits of discussion or research into legible typography. For example, the authors look at the details of how plays and poetry can be set, and suggest some quite unorthodox ways of tackling the problem of giving the speaker’s name in a drama. This is not traditionalist typography, and it is not a work for beginners either (as the authors recognize). The book shows ways in which the full repertoire of fonts can be used: bold and semi-bold weights, non-lining and lining numerals, small capitals. There can be no rules at this level of book design. A teacher can show examples and point out the principles and ideas that lie behind the instance shown. The next book that you or they take on will offer different problems to be resolved, and so will demand fresh ways of meeting them.

Willberg & Forssman are thus appropriately modest in the advice they offer. The great German (later Swiss) typographer Jan Tschichold became notorious for the briskness with which he said that one solution was wrong (‘falsch’) and another one correct (‘richtig’). In Lesetypografie, one is usually shown a range of examples all of which have their reasons; sometimes the example is good (‘gut’) contrasted with bad (‘schlecht’). Only in the domain of what the authors call ‘Orthotypografie’ (by analogy with ‘orthography’) are the terms ‘richtig’ and ‘falsch’ used. For example, the use of dashes and hyphens is governed by agreed rules, and to follow or contravene these rules is a matter of correctness, not of good or bad taste (page 83). But how an exclamation mark is placed – close up to the preceding word or with a little space between – is rather a matter of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (page 82). This kind of judgement of space and placing is indeed a grey area of practice. The space between word and punctuation mark will almost certainly not be put there by a keystroke; rather it is generated by the space built in, as kerning values, to the design of the characters. This is the domain of craft, taste, visual judgement. If the designers of the fonts and the layout software have done their work well, the makers of the pages will not have much more to do to achieve good work. But it often does not work like this, and we find ourselves grappling with poorly executed fonts and insufficiently powerful software.

Lesetypografie is unusual among book-design manuals in devoting quite extensive space to the treatment of pictures in books. This is another sign of the width of Willberg & Forssman’s vision. Here too, their approach is pragmatic and wise. Photographs and illustrations have content and meanings, just as surely as words do, and so can be included in the consideration of design for the reader.

If I had to choose just one passage to suggest how the authors approach their subject, it might be that on ‘Griffregister, gestürzte Zeilen, gedrehten Seiten’ (pages 164–165). Here some of the possibilities of a ‘thumb’ index or register are enacted on the edges of these two pages. This leads on to the question of lines or words turned through 90 degrees: something that, the authors say, a certain ‘typographic ideology’ forbids. They observe, however, that we can usually read turned lines in practice; and further, a book is a movable object and a little turning of it is no bother. They then make a classical dismissal of the amateur’s practice of setting one letter of a word under another, as a way of avoiding a turned line: the familiar silhouette of a word is now lost, and one has to slowly decipher this unlovely word-image letter by letter. The discussion concludes with suggestions for how to manage pictures and tabular matter that has to be turned, and how to treat captions and headings.

I have two large reservations about Lesetypografie, one of which is perhaps just the downside of its strength. My absolute reservation is that nowhere in the book, unless very fleetingly and by implication, is there any recognition of the part that an editor can play in making books. The authors seem to assume that the problems and opportunities of book design lie entirely in the hands of the designer or typographer. It is by means of design, they imply, that everything can be made to work. Yet, one knows constantly from experience, that many of the difficulties of design can be resolved by editorial work. Or, to put it the other way, when a text has been well edited, design flows easily. One can show this with a typical, small example. Often an author will attach a footnote to a chapter title, perhaps to acknowledge a source if the words are a quotation, or to comment on something arising from the title. A chapter title that concludes with a superior reference figure almost always looks wrong on the page. But by a simple act of editing, the visual problem can be disposed of. One may attach the first footnote rather to the first sentence of the chapter. Or, perhaps in a multi-author book, the note refers to the source of that author’s text, and this may be better treated in a list of sources for all the chapters, at the start or end of the book. Lesetypografie assumes that the text has already been edited in perfect sympathy with the design.

My second reservation about Willberg & Forssman is that they are terribly German. Their extensive bibliography of works on the topic is entirely German-language, though it does include three works translated from English. The book sits firmly in the thought-world of the book culture of the Federal Republic, in which Hans Peter Willberg practised for the larger part of his career, and which he passed on to students such as Friedrich Forssman. This is really a strength of the book: one knows what one is getting, and it is a valuable and generous tradition. The lessons of Lesetypografie – for the page and the spread of two pages – can also be easily transferred to typography in other Western languages. It is rather at the level of Detailtypografie that different usages for particular Western languages occur.

Book typography

Rafaeli’s Book typography offers a contrast to Willberg & Forssman. The book comes without a subtitle, but a kind publisher might have suggested ‘a book of personal tastes and views’ (the words of the author in his preface) and so would have warned us of the nature of this strange work. Rafaeli has written what is essentially an essay, picking out topics within the field of ‘typography for reading’ that interest him. The book opens with a twenty-page consideration of the virtues of close word-spacing and how this may be achieved. He discusses settings in QuarkXPress and InDesign, and so goes some way to providing a practical manual. The discussion proceeds to ‘Mise-en-page etc.’, then to an interlude on two recent books by authors in the same Anglo-American tradition (Richard Hendel and Robert Bringhurst), followed by ‘Points of style’ (on what is called ‘house style’), and in conclusion ‘Type for books’ – on suitable typefaces, treated one by one.

Ari Rafaeli lives and works in Chicago, but his book is extraordinarily British. His discussion is saturated with the culture of British typography and literature, as it existed from about 1920 to 1970: almost all his references and examples are drawn from there. Thus the typefaces discussed in the last chapter are those of the ‘revival of printing’ in Britain between the two world wars, and embodied in the figure of Stanley Morison at the Monotype Corporation. The editorial–typographic conventions discussed and employed are largely British ones, not those of North America. In his book Rafaeli adopts such British conventions as placing punctuation outside rather than inside a closing quotation mark (unless that punctuation actually belongs to the words quoted). When using a dash in prose, he prefers an en dash with a word space on either side of it, rather than a longer (em) dash with smaller or no space on either side. He prefers to use single quotation marks rather than double quotation marks, and then double if quotation marks within the quotation are needed: North Americans do it the other way round. Single quotation marks are preferable, he writes, ‘for saving space and maintaining colour’ (his spelling too is British: ‘colour’ not ‘color’).

One may not disagree with any of this, and it is hard for those of us who grew up in the British tradition to dissent: this is the air we breathe. Much in Rafaeli’s attitudes can be traced to the house rules that Jan Tschichold brought in the late 1940s from his practice in Basel, especially in his work there with Birkhäuser. One could analyse this Tschicholdian manner as a complex fusion of (1) good manners as practised by educated typographers such as Oliver Simon (who brought Tschichold to the Penguin job), tempered by (2) a certain rationalism that one finds equally in the ‘Oxbridge’ classical education, which has fuelled British editorial habits at the university presses and in the London publishing houses, and (3) in Tschichold’s own modernist passage in Germany and Switzerland in the 1920s and early 1930s. When Rafaeli speaks of the virtues of ‘saving space and maintaining colour’, one feels these impulses at work. The ruling virtues are economy of effort and visual modesty. Rafaeli’s remark about bold type could have come straight from Stanley Morison or Oliver Simon: ‘rarely needed in an ordinary book of text but if the book is a medical or scientific text, set in a suitable type such as Plantin or Times New Roman, then it is certainly appropriate and helpful (to the underslept medical student swotting for exams) to use bold for subheadings etc.’ (page 75) The contrast here with Willberg & Forssman is huge. Bold type is employed on every page of Lesetypografie, for the page numbers, and is used for emphasis in text, where other designers might use italics. They clearly see it as an aid to the reader, in making a difference of meaning visible: ‘colour’ is deliberately not maintained.

Rafaeli does not comment on a problem of the British convention of single quotation marks: that a closing quotation mark is the same sign as an apostrophe. There is thus always a risk of a blurring of meaning with these marks. Double quotation marks avoid this, and one might say that the quotation marks of other European languages (French guillemets, or the Gänsefüschen of German convention) avoid ambiguity even more definitely. Like the majority of authors in this field, including Willberg & Forssman, Rafaeli seems bound in his own orthographic tradition. This may be understandable. We observe the conventions in which we write and publish, and deviate from them at the risk of seeming eccentric and ostentatious. However, in writing works such as these books, it could be an author’s privilege to consider the virtues and flaws of different orthographies.

By way of conclusion, one might try to imagine translated editions of these books: Willberg & Forssman’s Typography for reading and Rafaeli’s Buchtypografie. Both would need quite a bit of adaptation, and there would be large difficulties in the exercise. For example, one might consider it wise to find other-language examples to illustrate Willberg & Forssman’s points, so that the book becomes palatable to a readership that doesn’t know German. That could be a long search, though it should in principle be possible, because what is proposed in this book are larger principles of the meaningful deployment of material, at its most transcultural in the discussion of pictures in a book. Rafaeli puts forward some large principles – his advocacy of close word-spacing is that – but for the most part his book is fixed in a particular culture and a particular tradition: the almost lost world of British typography in a golden fifty years. It is part of his purpose to reanimate that tradition. But that work would have been more convincingly done if the author had shown wider sympathies and a wider awareness.

Robin Kinross