Summer 2007

Tschichold review revisited

Letter from Richard B. Doubleday

While it is never enjoyable to see one’s work denigrated in print, the harsh fact is, when you publish your work, you make yourself vulnerable to criticism. Therefore, when I read the first line of Phil Baines’s review (Eye no. 62 vol. 16) of my book, Jan Tschichold, Designer: The Penguin Years, which stated, ‘It gives me no pleasure to say that this is a truly dreadful book’, the only thing to do was to take a deep breath and continue reading the criticisms that were sure to follow.

While some of Baines’s criticisms were certainly justified – for instance, I take responsibility for my too-many typographical errors – several of his comments were misleading and often inaccurate. For the sake of brevity, I will not enumerate every instance. A representative example, however, is Baines’s criticism of my ‘bold claim’ that the book’s design is ‘based on Tschichold’s Penguin Composition Rules.’ Anyone reading this statement would be led to believe that the book’s design looked like an unsuccessful attempt to mirror the look of a Penguin Classic. In actuality, my ‘bold claim’ notes that the book is set in Sabon (a typeface designed by Tschichold) and that ‘most of the formatting and typographical conventions used in this work are those recommended by this master typographer.’ While Baines is free to formulate and share his opinions about the merits of the book and its design, he should refrain from disingenuous claims in support of such opinions.

Baines’s major gripe with my book seems to be my characterisation of the significance of Tschichold’s contribution to Penguin Books and to British publishing. Clearly, Baines believes that Tschichold’s impact was minor. I disagree. Penguin had begun publishing paperbacks in 1935, and until Tschichold’s arrival in 1947, it had yet to mandate high-quality design standards for its books. His demand for consistency and superior design, and his successful management of the varied departments involved in the production process brought about significant change to the mass-market publishing industry. The Penguin Composition Rules, as well as Tschichold’s many other efforts at Penguin, were more than a mere ‘rediscovery’ of design standards. The fact that a designer of his calibre involved himself in and took seriously the tasks usually reserved for printers and production assistants was revolutionary.

Tschichold’s task at Penguin was not a romantic one, and his refinements were subtle in many ways, but they were nonetheless revolutionary. As the tone and substance of his writing clearly indicate, Baines fails to appreciate this kind of subtlety.

Jamaica Plain, Mass., US

First published in Eye no. 64 vol. 16 2007

EYE64

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