An Essay on Typography

August 13, 2002 | Books I Read | By: Mark VandeWettering

Recently I’ve become rather interested in the topic of the design and printing of books. It seems that many modern books are incredibly poorly designed and typeset, despite the existence of excellent tools that should make book production simpler. The problem is that while software has been created to reduce the tedium, it has not created tools that replace inspiration and skill. In trying to understand the process of book design and typography, I bought an inexpensive and excellent book by Eric Gill called An Essay on Typography

Gill was an English sculptor, engravor, typographer and writer who lived from 1882 to 1940. He wrote this little book on typography during a hospital stay. Gill is the designer of many attractive typefaces, the most famous being Gill Sans, but also including Perpetua and Joanna, the font in which Essays is typeset.

Essays has two major themes. Firstly, it attempts to describe the history and ideas behind successful font design and typography. Gill gives a good history of the evolution of Roman typefaces, with many insights into why letters have the forms they do and what is desirable about them. Perhaps more intriguing is Gill’s insight into the increasing industrialization of the world in which he found himself, and how this industrialization and commercialization was changing the landscape for artists. While I began this book to learn about the former, I think that it is in the latter that this book really shines.

The book itself is rather quirkily typeset. While it uses the very attractive Joanna typeface, it is typeset in a curious way that includes paragraph symbols rather than paragraph breaks, uneven right margins, and heavy use of contractions and the & symbol to stand for “and”. Still, the overall effect is quite interesting.

One of the more enjoyable books I’ve read recently.