Hyphen Press

Rule or law

The re-publication here of this essay by Gerrit Noordzij is prompted by the issue of Christopher Burke’s ‘Active literature’. Our book was made in the belief that the best service to Tschichold is a critical placing of his works and his ideas in their real historical context: the fact that we want to do this in such detail must be evidence of the importance that we think his work has. Gerrit Noordzij’s short and sharply critical essay points to what may be the central issue in Tschichold’s writings, and it does more than that. I read ‘Rule or law’ when it was published in Paul Barnes’s small book of ‘Reflections and reappraisals’ on Jan Tschichold, which he edited and published (under the imprint of Typoscope) in New York in 1995. It stuck out from that book as an unusually serious and illuminating reflection, which took Tschichold as its focus, and in the process tells a large truth about how teaching can happen, and how learning can happen. For its publication here, the text has been a little corrected and updated, in conversation with the author. It certainly merits dissemination now on the World Wide Web. RK


In his foreword to the 1955 Dutch edition of Tschichold’s Proportions of the book, Willem Ovink says that we can accept Tschichold even when we disagree with him. I could not say that, because I do not disagree with Jan Tschichold on important items. Contrary to Ovink, I reject Tschichold even when I agree with him.


In his last words on the subject of proportions, published after his death, Tschichold summarizes in one sentence the investigations of a lifetime: ‘We owe the best printing types to a careful study of ancient typefaces. Likewise the secrets of old book formats will bring us closer to the true art of the book.’ By observing his rules, designers should obtain an ‘objective canon doing away with trial and error’.

From Tschichold’s rules, parameters could be derived for a computer program that could calculate the ‘true art of the book’ by applying the ‘objective canon’ to the conditions of the job. That imaginary program would duplicate his design according to his view of his problems. It would convert the outline of every job to the framework of a Tschichold design, needing only the modifying touch of the master to come to life. If such an inspiring touch depended on me, it would change the concept basically, and the intervention of every other designer would have a similar effect. Nobody but Jan Tschichold could bring his Pygmalion to life. When imposed on the work of other designers, his pattern of rules is chilling.

Tschichold developed his rules by trial and error. When a job is finished, we can throw the drafts away. Tschichold might have thought he had thrown away his trial and error, too, by hiding them in the foundations of his design. If he wants to say that the reader should not stumble over obtrusive foundations of typography, I agree with him, but hiding the foundations is not the same as removing them. Tschichold’s rules might have been valid for Tschichold’s work, as far as they transferred his affections to the specification of his work, by trial and error. The same validity makes them meaningless for my work, which is guided by my affection.


‘There are historical facts that remarkably reflect facts of our time. We devise hypothetical roads that might connect them with our position. The questions behind such trials are justified, the answers are probably always false.’ (Karl Jaspers, Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, The origin and goal of history).

Jaspers crystallized his conception of history in clear sentences, which is remarkable enough for a German scholar of his generation. I hope that my translation has not obscured them. It is, however, compression that makes them translucent: expand before use.

Our justified trials to extract meaning from historical facts are errors because their connections are optical illusions. They only appear as real from our position in history. From another point of view at another time, other illusions fool other observers with other connections between other facts. The lesson we like to learn is probably always false, but we can’t be sure: a real connection might have existed and there is an unlikely chance that our illusory connection coincides with it. Even this illusion would not help us, for we will never know whether we hit the truth by chance. There will never be an ‘objective canon to bring us closer to true art’.

Tschichold’s view of historical facts is probably always false, and so is mine. Yet we have a tool for lifting the clouds a little. Listen to Karl Jaspers again:

Genuine scientific research fights its own desire and its own expectations. In the ultimate probe the scientist opposes his own theses. It is typical for the scientist to provoke opponents, with a preference for such who submit everything to discussion with precise and concrete objections. What seems to be destructive becomes fertile. Science is lost when discussion is avoided, when ideas are confined to congenial circles and destructive aggression eliminates opposition with truisms.

Tschichold had not the intention of provoking discussion. He wanted his rules to be obeyed without discussion. He addresses designers in a language for programming robots. I am not the first to observe this, but I seem to be alone in my conclusion that Tschichold’s rules obstruct design, undermine civilization, and offend humanity. In this lonely position, I seek the support of Karl Jaspers, but he sends me back to my own duty: if I do not want to become another little Tschichold, I have to provoke my own antagonists.

What is wrong in our answers will become manifest when the situation that raised the question changes, when it itself becomes history. Our professional classics interrogated history with a future of metal type in mind. Because this future does not exist any more, the history of the classic authors is irrelevant to us. The answers are obviously false, and, worse, they appear to us as wrong answers to wrong questions. At best we read Updike with a smile when we know that John Baskerville is meant: ‘He was not among the world’s greatest printers, because what he had to say was not in itself great.’ But my smile freezes while reading Morison, who intentionally concealed facts that were inconvenient for his ‘history’.

History cannot justify the preference on which it is founded; it is always the other way round. History depends on a preferred view. On the essential points my history differs from Tschichold’s history because I have a different point of view from which other facts show up in another constellation.


In 1972 an article in the Swiss monthly Typographische Monatsblätter entitled ‘Praeceptor typographiae’ praised Tschichold as the world’s teacher of typography. Hans Schmoller has shown (in the 1990 Typophiles edition of his Two titans) that the article was written by Tschichold himself. He concludes: ‘The first sentence is a quotation which reads: “Two men stand out as the greatest typographic motive forces of the 20th century: Stanley Morison and Jan Tschichold.”… By normal standards one may consider this outrageous, but perhaps we should be amused rather than offended by such colossal self-esteem.’

My late friend Hans Schmoller had a charming style of crushing pretensions. There should be no doubt how his witty conclusion should be understood: Tschichold’s colossal pretensions are outrageous. It is not Schmoller’s ‘normal standard’ that is extravagant, but the tacit plot that presents Tschichold as the world’s prudent teacher of typography.


In his article on book proportions, Tschichold says: ‘A line has eight to twelve words, more is wrong.’ This is a rule. Rules want to be observed because they can be broken: I can make longer lines.

Tschichold’s rule might be changed into a law: Lines of more than twelve words impair legibility. My law accepts the condition of the rule with the significant difference that it does not say what is wrong, but what happens. A law cannot be broken because it does not prescribe anything. It only predicts illegibility when lines exceed the limit of twelve words, leaving the responsibility for legibility to the designer: If the law holds, I cannot make longer lines without impairing legibility.

A rule paralyses discussion; a law provokes discussion by encouraging attempts to refute it. A law stimulates the student to find instances for which it is invalid, which eventually results in a better law with a wider scope. The law sends its disciples to the front-line; rules entrench them. The rule promises paradise, but in obedient submission. The law promises the wilderness, but in freedom.

These characteristic differences should be sufficient to keep away from rules in teaching. They lay a burden of orthodoxy upon the student and make teaching dull. On the other hand, I have only to enter a class with a provoking law to get that sparkle in my students’ eyes that I like to start with.

Students are frightened by freedom as soon as they understand that freedom leaves them alone with their own judgement. They are inclined to escape into fundamentalism by referring to the ‘trend’ or to the rules of some authority. ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.’ (Read the edifying story in the first chapters of Genesis.) A school has to persuade its students to enjoy the dangers of freedom. Every task I give my students should be a new challenge to test the conditions of the law, to find out the edges of its viability. They would find that the illegibility of long lines might be eased a little by increasing line feed. They might even discover a relationship between legibility and margins, which would undermine Tschichold’s ‘canon’. They will not be confused by the tessellated inscription in the dome of St. Peter’s: TU ES PETRUS ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORUM. This line with more than twelve words is illegible, but it is not ‘wrong’; there are situations in which legibility does not matter. Anyhow, study would at best confirm the law provisionally: as far as we can see now, long lines impair legibility. Nothing could ever confirm Tschichold’s rule and Tschichold himself would not likely have cared for such support.

He might have dreamed of cloning his typographic masterpieces, but the teacher has another objective: the proficiency of independent young designers.

The lessons of history

When imagination has solved the problems of design by trial and error, the result is laid down in a series of unambiguous roles that specify the job for execution. The roles belong together; in a typographic job the typeface, its body size, the spacing, the measure, the line feed, and the proportions of the page cannot be separated from the printing technique, the fabric of paper, and, often neglected in book design, the bulk of the book. Isolated from the specific job, they would be detached from meaning. For another job they could serve only as a checklist. Every production of the Bible has to meet the same set of typical problems. Many numerals, headings, references, and other modern anachronisms have to be combined with a classic corpus that is a library of books containing stories, poetry, dreams, propaganda, prayers and curses, wisdom, learning, and even blasphemy. The Book of books is a book of books indeed. If we didn’t know already we could learn here that typography cannot express the mood of the text. It is difficult enough to make the Bible legible while observing the silly tradition of squeezing this library into one handy volume.

My sons Christoph and Matthias have produced editions of the Bible within the same narrow margins of design that I had to consider for my own Dutch editions. We have even shared the modern method of attaching our typographic specifications to the labels of a detailed database. If a canon of design existed, it would have been possible to transfer my experiences to my sons. However, what we can exchange in our professional conversation are only mutual problems. Actual solutions are interwoven with the particularities of the actual task. A different task demands different solutions.

When we study the masters of the past, we only have to go back to Max Caflisch or Bruce Rogers to find solutions for the typography of the Bible that were necessarily connected with obsolete methods. They had to specify rules for hot-metal composition. To we who are composing the text in the reversed order, these roles have lost their meaning. We cannot derive our roles from the old masters. If we want to learn from them, we should rather interrogate them about their intentions.

Type design

We should study the old type designers in the same way. I do not understand Claude Garamond completely, but what I have understood so far excludes the idea of transferring his mannerist solution as a ‘revival’ to an entirely different situation, as Tschichold did with Sabon. Tschichold is not alone to blame for this practice. It was typical for the whole era of the composing machine. Type production was subordinated to selling machines with minimal risks. The most that men of taste such as Paul Bennett, Stanley Morison, and Jan Tschichold could afford was to fake versions of decent typefaces, but they were fake nevertheless. Tschichold was probably serious in his gratitude for the excellent typefaces that resulted from such a ‘study’ of historical type design, but in fact he recommended imitation of type design as study of type design.

If we ask for the intentions of the type designers, we find that their work reflected their attitude to writing with little regard for previous solutions. If we do not see this, we can find it explicitly in the writings of Bodoni. We are used to looking at Baskerville’s specimens and Fournier’s Manuel, but we could also read Baskerville’s ‘praise’ of Caslon and Fournier’s ‘respect’ for Van Dijck. They rejected the solutions of their predecessors because the old typefaces did not keep pace with the development of writing.


In its consequence the belief that type design could depart from type design is absurd. There is always a typeface that could not be derived from another typeface. The Roman craftsman who cast the first inlaid type for an inscription had no cast example, nor had the first designer of a printer’s typeface. Type design departs from the scratch under my hands. The scratch reflects my view on writing, which probably includes my experiences with typography, but the scratch is all I have.

The Royal Academy of The Hague demands that all its students of graphic design start from scratch. Not every student has to become a specialized type designer, but every student of graphic design must know by his own experience what a typeface is. In our view the study of design should make the student independent of trends, opinions, and rules. Nobody is allowed to remember a ‘souvenir’.

When it comes to Tschichold, we appreciate his work critically in an attempt to understand the intentions behind the often magnificent solutions. We neglect his small talk.
Long ago I had to endure a furious attack from Alexander Nesbitt in Visible Language (vol. 5, no. 1, 1971). While appreciating my approach as ‘ingenious,’ he rejected it as ‘hardly workable for the non-writer’. This is true: the illiterate has no access to typography and type design. We have to introduce him to writing and bring his scratch under his control. Illiterates do not need desktop publishing but education, if only we do not misinterpret the drill of Tschichold’s rules as education.

We are all innate illiterates. The discipline of education introduces us to civilization but some of us will remain barbarians. Because they are a danger for civilization, notably in a democratic society, we impose basic education upon everybody. This mechanism does not work anymore, because in our schools indulgence has replaced discipline. Barbarians have acquired marketing tricks and production techniques allowing them to propagate barbarism as cultural innovation. It is even an advantage that the typefaces of Emigre and Neville Brody are useless, because the barbarian society cannot read anyhow. The arrogant authoritarians have evoked this cultural revolution with their ‘objective canon’ and ‘first principles’. These imitators have made it necessary to clean up design. Their place is taken by the waste makers. It would be tempting to dig up the authoritarians again to rescue civilization from the pollution of design. Because I reject such a salvation, I reject Jan Tschichold, even when I agree with him. His oppression is not my discipline.


At the end of the 1960s, the power of our new programme of type design was my pride, whereas Jan Tschichold was very proud of his typeface Sabon. He justified this imitation with another rule: he, Jan Tschichold himself, proclaimed the Garamond as the ultimate solution of the problem of type design. The task left to us was to adapt this final typeface, as he did with his Sabon, to the conditions of current techniques (which, by the way, were already obsolete).

After annoying him with my question ‘Which Garamond?’ (Tschichold could also speak of the Bodoni without indicating which of about seventy thousand punches he had in mind), I told him that I would never accept his recommended eclecticism from my students. Our conversation between the manuscripts in the library of the Strahof cloister near Prague was lively, but in our following short-lived correspondence, Tschichold avoided a further confrontation of his rules with my laws.

Gerrit Noordzij


Gerrit Noordzij’s encounter with Tschichold took place in 1969 at the ATypI meeting in Prague. He tells more about it in an interview that I made with him, which can be found here. The article on book proportions from which Gerrit quotes has the title ‘Willkürfreie Maßverhältnisse der Buchseite und des Satzspiegels’ (‘Non-arbitrary proportions of page and type-area’). This appeared first in 1962, in Basel, in a privately published text. The page-proportions essay has been re-published in several languages and on many occasions. It came out in English first in 1963, in a rather good translation, in the trade journal Print in Britain. Tschichold’s German text appeared again in two posthumously published books whose content and design he had supervised: the Ausgewählte Aufsätze über Fragen der Gestalt des Buches und der Typographie (Basel, 1975) and the Leben und Werk des Typographen Jan Tschichold (Dresden, 1977). Later, in 1991, the article appeared again in an unhappy English translation in The form of the book (Vancouver & London, 1991). The quotations from Tschichold here are in Gerrit Noordzij’s own translation from the German. All this is said to clear up any small bibliographical questions. The strong content of ‘Rule or law’ will look after itself.


And see now the extended discussion provoked by this essay, at Typophile.