Review: The Elements of Typographic Style

The Elements of Typographic Style
By Robert Bringhurst
Published by Hartley & Marks, Publishing
P O Box 147
Points Roberts, Washington 98281 $24.95

“Typography thrives as a shared concern – and there are no paths at all where there are no shared desires and directions…. The subject of this book is not typographic solitude, but the old, well-travelled roads at the core of the tradition: paths that each of us is free to follow or not, and to enter and leave when we choose – if only we know the paths are there and have a sense of where they lead.” So begins Robert Bringhurst, Canadian typographer, book designer and poet as well as eloquent and thorough detailer of typography’s finest nuances. He uses as his model Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, with each of the first nine chapters subdivided into numbered “rules,” such as, “5.2.1 Use spaced en dashes – rather than em dashes or hyphens – to set off phrases.” (A list of all the rules appears in Appendix E, providing both a brief overview as well as handy index.)

The chapters range in subject from “Rhythm & Proportion” to “Choosing & Combining Type” and include just about every issue involving typographic characters, readability, layout, page and grid relationships and the evolution of metal type up to recent additions in computer typesetting (including multiple master typefaces). Bringhurst provides his own take on type classification, eschewing terms like “Old Style” and “Modern” for less confusing and more historically associative terms like “Renaissance” and “Romantic.” He extends it into the present with classes like “Expressionist Postmodern,” like Zuzana Licko’s Journal, and “Geometric Postmodern,” like Erik Spiekermann’s Officina, while describing such postmodern efforts as recycling and revising Neoclassical, Romantic and other forms “with an engaging lightness of touch and a fine sense of humor.”

Bringhurst’s talents as a writer and poet enrich The Elements of Typographic Style in almost every section, with metaphors and literary, historical and cultural references that serve as spoonfuls of sugar. For example, introducing a discussion of pointsize, he writes, “The simplest scale is a single note, and sticking with a single note draws more attention to other parameters, such as rhythm and inflection.” An interesting digression from the issue of punctuation involves William Faulkner’s curious use of multiple hyphens and numerous periods instead of long dashes and ellipses.

Throughout The Elements of Typographic Style, Bringhurst provides marginal notes and illustrations. These range from enlightening asides to a large sample “a” or “g” for each of the profiled typefaces in chapter 10. Among the appendices is an extensive list of sorts and additional characters so one need never again confuse a cedilla, a hanging accent used with consonants in several languages, with an ogonek, a similar accent that curls the opposite way and is attached to vowels.

This is the second edition; the original came out in 1992. The Elements of Typographic Style should be required in the libraries of anyone claiming to practice design. As for its place in the classroom: one student recently shouted after one look, “Wow, this book is GREAT!” And it is.

—Angelynn Grant