Tuesday, April 04, 2017

A framework for thinking about book typography

While typography evolved from classical and medieval roots, the modern body of knowledge that forms the basis for best practices in commercial (keyword that I'll get to in a minute) book typography really developed in the last few years of the 19th c. and the first few decades of the 20th. Until the 1960s, graphic arts programs taught a set of mechanical arts to bright kids who were not headed to college. Today, these same kids become IT techs and staff the genius bar at the Apple store. The requirements were the ability to learn a bunch of arcane facts, manual dexterity, and some amount of visual sense. You didn't have to be a creative genius. 

Graphic arts programs taught core skills—copyediting, markup (specifying type), typesetting, page makeup, imposition (later lithographic stripping), platemaking, press work, and bindery operations.

Beginning in the 1960s, roughly, a parallel movement started training more artistically inclined students in graphic design. Mostly, graphic designers were involved in advertising, magazine layout, movie posters, and so forth—media where a sizzling layout was more critical than readability of the text. With the advent of desktop publishing, the demand for people trained in graphic arts dried up. Today, there are lots of graphic design programs, but good luck finding an old-style graphic arts program.

So what do I mean by commercial book typography? I mean producing readable text that follows a bunch of rules that were pretty standard across publishing houses (balanced spreads, no widows, ladders, rivers . . . ). And if you did all that, the book was good enough to sell commercially. It might not get you into the AIGA Fifty Books of the Year selection, but you could hold your head up.

So when we talk about learning book typography, we're really talking about that old graphic arts curriculum, at least the parts of it that still apply, and those same commercial standards. It's a learnable discipline for anyone who meets those same basic requirements. It's not magic, but it does take practice and either hands-on training or a lot of reading.

Now I'll grant you that a lot of publishers today have stopped applying those standards and have begun to accept pushbutton typesetting, with no human intervention, as a way to cut costs. That's a reality in today's world. But it's not what I think of when someone asks about book typography.