Call for letters from the heart

About Face

January 10, 2003

There has been comparatively little public discussion concerning design (let alone typography) as a social or cultural activity," writes David Jury in About Face . He recognises that, during the past 20 years, design has generated public interest, "although a high proportion of this has tended to be critical".

Jury's book makes a contribution to the public discussion, but the vague terms in which this theme is introduced indicate that unless a more concentrated effort is made, discussion will rightly continue to be "critical".

About Face falls between a number of categories. It is not intended purely for professionals or students of graphic design since the level of detail would be insufficient. But while it does contain much useful practical information about how to use type to achieve legibility and grace on the computer, it is not a complete "how-to-do-it" manual for the amateur either. It contains interesting and unusual illustrations but it has more text than an inspirational source book or visual history requires. The thesis behind it fails to develop into a consistent argument.

A book to explain the continuing importance of typography is needed, for Jury's "20 years" measure a period during which design for printing, and latterly for electronic text and imagery, has been through a revolution. By 1982, the use of metal type was in terminal decline, even though amateurs wanting to do their own design for print still had to rely on Letraset and the electronic typewriter. With the arrival of desktop computers, the old professional trade skills were marginalised by the onset of "do-it-yourself" design. This situation has more good aspects than bad, and About Face succeeds best as a taster for those who would like to upgrade their knowledge of letter forms and how to use them.

Jury runs through the history of type design, emphasising the transition from intuitive letter forms based on pen strokes that were the basis of Renaissance type design and of the "Old Face" of William Caslon (1763), and the more mechanically designed alternatives from France. The last achieved dominance by 1800. The change could be represented as a widening gap between what is known through the heart and what is known only in the head, resulting in the 19th-century's loss of standards, apart from a few revivals of Caslon Old Face that were the precursors of a printing revival. After the first world war, the work of a few pioneers to rectify this situation rapidly became a universal movement.

"New traditionalism", represented by Stanley Morison's redesign of The Times in 1932, was tested by laws of functionality and logic more rigorous than those applied within modernism, an alternative reform movement. It asserted that a particular form of visual logic based on the exclusion of apparently superfluous elements such as serifs must produce the most efficient and therefore beautiful result. Occasionally it did. Now that the computer has brought the machine to dominance at a time when modernism is ubiquitous but scarcely understood, it is time to humanise both.

Jury asks for a return to the specialised skills of the typographer on the basis of maximum legibility, as established by cultural precedent and experimental research. This is a simple and understandable case, and much of the content of the book will help those with a QuarkXpress program to achieve better results using the tools available, as Oliver Simon's Introduction to Typography (1945) codified for the general reader much of the wisdom developed in printing houses from 1920 onwards.

But Jury could have been a lot tougher. "All Sublimity is founded on Minute Discrimination" William Blake said, and, strange though it may seem, we live in a world where young people are keen for skill and the inner consolations that come with an expertise that can improve the world.

In two final chapters, the book addresses broader issues of language and rhetoric that might have come at the beginning since they contain the underlying themes of what comes before. There is more at stake in the future world of global communication than just returning to a state of typographic good health, but the challenge is to understand the principles of the latter to achieve a marriage of head and heart once again in this vastly expanded field.

Alan Powers is associate senior lecturer in architecture, University of Greenwich.

About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography

Author - David Jury
ISBN - 2 88046 677 6
Publisher - RotoVision
Price - £29.95
Pages - 160

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