The “Typographers’ Bible”

Elements of Typographic Style cover title

Anyone interested in becoming a graphic designer and dealing with typography should buy a copy of Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style when they become a student. They should read it once through after or in the midst of a basic typography course, and leave it by their desk for easy reference. Then, after a year or two, they should pick it back up and read it again (Who knows? Maybe there’ll be a new edition by then. There are already three) and put it back by their desk. Then, when they’re ready again, most likely after they’ve left school and worked for a while, they should read it again. If they’re lucky, they’ll readily understand 60% of it and benefit immensely from the additional 20–30% they’ve picked up since the last time.

But, like most canonical works, Elements mirrors the art it elucidates: a pool that warmly invites the reader to wade and provides depth and enjoyment for those who know how far out they can push themselves, but will appear murky and cold to newcomers unfamiliar with the waters. I’ve recommended this book to roughly 60 design grad students and probably an equivalent number of undergrads and designers. I’ve given it as a gift, and even recommended it to a few non-designers. This method probably left a few stranded swimmers, but until I teach again, with a class of my own, I probably won’t stop.

Elements is one of the most lucid, enjoyable, and enriching books on typography and type that I’ve read (I’ve thoroughly read only a few, but I’ve skimmed a decent number). I’m currently working on my third pass at the book (my first pass of edition 2.5) and I’m gradually understanding more and more of its contents. Elements is one of those books that everyone heard about in the latter half of my time at school and everyone recommended without hesitation, but I wondered how many people actually sat and read it. It’s a unique blend of handbook and prose with a strong thread of poetic grace. Bringhurst is a poet and a writer who immersed himself in typography (amongst many other things) and has distilled and organized much of the fundamental and binding practices that typographic history has to offer. The result is a handbook of typography that tells the stories along with the morals. If we take Hermann Zapf‘s assessment at face value, then most books on typography are typographers’ Ten Commandments to Elements’ “typographers’ bible.”

But the biblical nature of the praise for Elements also illustrates its greatest weakness (besides the fact that it doesn’t lay flat on its own): it’s a guide of ideals, rather than realities. Bringhurst’s seminal text describes intricate and elegant beauties, and idealized forms of geometric, rhythmic proportion that spans mathematics, music, and history in the form of the typeset page. He doesn’t address the difficulties of shitty style guides, ill-considered type choices, imperious editors, stalwart clients, or oppressive deadlines. These design impasses are treated as wrongful actions, bad decisions that should be overridden, rather than accepted and dealt with. This is the danger of The Elements of Typographic Style, particularly in the hands of a student:* it is grounded so firmly and deeply in its own art that, as a whole, that much of it must be taken as a guide to the optimal practices in the ideal situations for the best projects. This isn’t to say that rules such as using en dashes for ranges are only applicable if the budget allows, or that good design can’t be used every day, but typography is a black art (Bringhurst’s own words) that is subtle and mysterious to the layman, and is therefore usually the first thing to suffer abuse and degradation. Sometimes, unfortunately, the layman is the designer themselves. This is a fact that can be fortified against with wit, skill, and technique, but is also a reality that must be accepted and embraced. There is a small degree of flexibility in Bringhurst’s view of good typesetting, and this is as it should be for a work of this reverence and authority. However, in the hands of someone less familiar with the caprices of the real world and a block of ad copy versus a block of book typography, it can become a mire of frustration wreathed in a thicket of unfulfilled standards. But, I suppose the frustration is the result of higher standards, so there are worse problems to have while designing.

A student or beginner will likely benefit most from a guided tour of Bringhurst’s Elements, that focuses on the practicalities and most immediately useful components of proper typesetting, rather than an unguided ’sink or swim’ approach. Anyone recommending this work would do well to state, very clearly, that only the most knowledgeable and experienced of typesetters will truly understand 80% of this work on a first pass. No one should feel diminished for not full comprehending portions of the book. But, again, this is a key work for anyone who takes typography seriously, and it, along with some other books on the subject, should be in the library of every self-respecting graphic designer and design firm setting type in the western world (even if they are setting type not of the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals).

Elements' cluster of 'Es'

At its core, Elements of Typographic Style is mentorship and a practitioner’s heritage distilled, which is even more valuable as these systems fall out of use. As I continue with my third read, I see the road I’ve travelled and the a map of the expanses opened to me thus far by my continued practice of typography and design. Like any finer experience, Bringhurst’s book rewards those who make the effort to learn, and continually amazes those who see the unending possibilities. I look forward to reading it anew for years to come.

If you’d like to hear more of Robert Bringhurst’s views on his books and typography, check out this interview on Type Books (thanks to Paul Birkbigler’s post on Be A Design Group for the link).

*A student like me, for example.