Sebastian Carter | Essays

Jan Tschichold — Master Typographer

Jan Tschichold was one of the most distinguished typographers of the last century, and has had many admirers, among whom he himself was not the least. His work has been described and illustrated in his own publications and those of Ruari McLean, who was also responsible for the translations into English of his two chief books of instruction, Die neue Typographie (The New Typography, 1928) and Typographische Gestaltung (Typographic Design, published in English as Asymmetric Typography, 1935). Since his death in 1974 there have been a number of specialist publications, including a collection of essays in German and in English translation. In the last couple of years, however, there has been a revival of interest, with Christopher Burke’s exemplary Active Literature, which deals with Tschichold’s modernist work between 1923 and the mid-1930s, and Richard Doubleday’s The Penguin Years, on his post-war design for Allen Lane. Doubleday is a contributor to the volume under review, and several of the other contributors collaborated on a recent book of Tschichold’s posters.

Jan Tschichold — Master Typographer: His life, work and legacy
is, as its title suggests, intended as a tribute to its subject, but it is one which would have displeased him greatly.

Towards the end of his life, he listed “Ten common mistakes in the production of books,” the first of which was “Books which are needlessly large, needlessly wide, and needlessly heavy.” This volume is guilty as charged, a monument of overblown, wasteful design, with thin texts leaded out widely to make them seem longer, and unnecessary part-titles, backed with pages covered with nothing but a repetition of the initials JT. Brief quotes from the master are given a full page and set in a huge size of type. Tschichold wrote at length on correctly-proportioned margins for text pages: the half-inch foot margin used here would scarcely have occurred in his worst nightmares. The openings of paragraphs are not indented, as he explicitly demanded, but space is inserted between the paragraphs, which he explicitly condemned. Indeed, he ascribed these two faults to the way typists were trained by business schools, who are “utterly incompetent when it comes to questions of typography.”

The book, edited by Cees W. de Jong, is lavishly illustrated, and the plates are well reproduced, but we get no sense that anyone actually thought very much about their selection or their placing. There is a welcome series of illustrations of the 1930 manual Eine Stunde Druckgestaltung, showing the cover, seven spreads, and even the order form. It gets only a brief mention, however, in Alston Purvis’s discussion of the modernist work, and appears facing the reference to the first manifesto of five years before, the special supplement to the trade journal Typographische Mitteilungen called “elementare.” This important document is illustrated several pages earlier, with only the cover and two spreads shown. Similarly, Tschichold’s best-known book, Die neue Typographie, is illustrated with only two spreads, 50 pages after its mention in the text. The most extreme case is that of Typographische Gestaltung. Here the brief discussion in the text comes 75 pages before the copious illustration. Fifteen spreads, and the jacket and the binding are shown, followed by fifteen more spreads of the Dutch edition, which includes a duplicate of one of the German ones. (The captions of both editions have the title spelled in the Dutch manner with an f instead of ph.)

Finally, the book is peppered with snapshots of the modernists at play, some by Moholy-Nagy, some showing Kurt Schwitters, but many with no appearance at all by the subject of the book.

As a sample of what the reader may expect from the text, the general editor writes in his introduction, “In 1967 Jan Tschichold released the complete type family Sabon, which he had produced in 1966–1967. …The name Sabon…was proposed by Stanley Morison. With Sabon, Tschichold returned to the traditional and symmetrical typography that he had so vehemently rejected a decade earlier.” Sabon, as is made clear later in the book, was released by Monotype, Linotype and the Stempel typefoundry as a joint venture. If Stanley Morison had any hand in the name, it is not recorded. He retired from Monotype in 1954, the production of Sabon was overseen by his successor John Dreyfus, and Morison died the year it appeared. Most importantly, Tschichold had begun his move away from modernism thirty years before Sabon appeared, though even before that he had never “rejected” classical typography as completely as is suggested, having continued to design in a traditional way for the Insel-Verlag throughout the twenties and thirties.

Richard Doubleday’s contribution covers the work for Penguin that was the subject of his 2006 book, together with Tschichold’s other classical design for publishers such as Birkhäuser in Switzerland, where he moved after 1933. Doubleday’s grasp of the material does not seem to have improved since his earlier book was written. He makes the remarkable claim that in England, Tschichold ”helped to bring forth a resurgence of classical typography and book design.” This would have come as a considerable surprise to Stanley Morison, Oliver Simon, and countless other designers in a land barely touched by modernism. Rather, Tschichold, while working within the existing tradition, had a profoundly beneficial influence in raising standards of design. The before-and-after examples of title-pages in the King Penguin series show how he took pedestrian layouts, tightened them up, and injected elements of imagination and wit which have greatly inspired designers who came after him.

As for the detail in Doubleday’s account, Tschichold was at Penguin between 1947 and 1949, when his place was taken by Hans Schmoller. The books shown here that are dated 1950 are likely to have been designed by Tschichold, but Doubleday also reproduces, with an admiring caption about the perfectionism of its designer, a layout and marked proof for a title-page of a book published in 1953, which are in Schmoller’s handwriting.

Jan Tschichold deserves better than this.

This article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, April 10, 2009. It appears here courtesy of the author.

Posted in: Media, Typography

Comments [10]

I had a look at this book yesterday at a design exhibition. And whilst my knowledge of Tschichold's work is not strong. I could sense the problems with it's design.

Thankyou for the insight. It helps us question the journalism of design and how it is too often that large expensive books (I saw a price tag of $150 on it yesterday) are pushed out to sell and not inform.

Sebastian, thank you for having the courage to slam a text that has it coming. By continuing to critique flawed books Design Observer is doing a great favor to those of use who want better. I am a recent design school grad and wannabe-historian who would love to have better books. I have stopped buying the overdesigned, overpriced, and not well fact-checked books that keep popping up in this genre, and the reviews on Design Observer are the best warning system around.
James Puckett

Glad I saw this. As an admirer of Tschichold I might have bought this book had I not read this review. Just the fact there is space between paragraphs gives me reason enough not to buy it. It's fine on a webpage, but in print it looks terrible. It's just like Verdana - it looks nice on a screen but you should never print it.
Kári Emil

forget this poindexterous writing about tschichold and go to the source itself- his own writings.

this book, while large scaled, is chock full of imagery. while slightly oversized, it can still fit on any normal bookshelf (give or take). it is unlike the unwieldy and entirely decorative scale of the phaidon ones.
marcus simon

Thanks for the review! I was planning to buy this book as I am quite fond of Jan Tschichold’s work. But now I will save the money to buy something better! Design Observer is doing a fantastic job by continuing to critique these and flawed books. This not only refrain the students and casual designers, but also the professionals from buying these overdesigned and overpriced books.
Ashely Adams : Sticker Printing

Thank you for this review. It is troubling to see inaccuracies in a book of this scale and price. Hopefully this lack of thorough research is not an accelerating trend in literature.

Good stiff critical writing is a breath of fresh air! More, more!
Thank you for giving us this intelligent and thoughtful look at the book, and by implication, the contemporary publishing business.

Jane Brenner

[... I saw a price tag of $150 on it yesterday ...]

I bought the english version with a different cover than shown above 2 weeks ago in Berlin for €20 (thats about $28). And they had quite a few in stock. The german version costs €50. But 150 bucks is definitley not a adequate price!

The layout of the book is nothing special, but I got some of Jan's designs packed in one book that costed me € 20 ... so i'm not complaining.

Maybe I'm just an idiot, but his review may be as overblown as the book. I bought it for about $80 and only have $3 to my name. Still haven't read much of it and probably never will. I just sit and look at the pretty pictures. Big deal. I do not vomit in my mouth any when scanning across the non-indented paragraphs, paragraph breaks, or large type. The man's long been in the grave: I doubt he's even turning in it.
Matthew Lujan

I love the content of this book, but the design is just awful. Check out this article I wrote on Tshichold and centered typography:

Jobs | July 17