Winter 2006

The wrong browsers [extract]

Jan Tschichold, Designer: The Penguin Years

Richard B. Doubleday
Oak Knoll Press & Lund Humphries, £25

It gives me no pleasure to say that this is a truly dreadful book which leaves none of those involved with any credit whatsoever. It fails to give any new insight into Jan Tschichold’s time at Penguin Books; it shows no evidence of having been proof-read; it is riddled with factual errors; the colour photography, balance and reproduction is poor; and the design – despite bold claims to be based on Tschichold’s Penguin’s Composition Rules – bears no relationship to his work.

In terms of scholarship, reading the first paragraph of the blurb on the inside of the front dustjacket sets the tone for everything which follows: ‘Shortly after the Second World War, and following the success of its paperback rebranding, Penguin Books made the bold decision to completely redesign its publications. Their subsequent choice of designer would not only lead to the creation of an iconic brand but also lead to a revolution in typographic conventions.’

But there was no rebranding after the Second World War, simply the realisation that standards had slipped and the desire to improve them; ‘completely redesign’ is too strong; Penguin was already an iconic brand; and ‘rediscovery’ or ‘reevaluation’ would be more precise than ‘revolution’. And so it goes on. On every page a similar over-simplification of the facts which only results in ambiguity or inaccuracy.

The book has been published using what looks more like a first draft rather than a final manuscript. It is marred by misspellings, a curious use of capitalisation (monotype with lowercase ‘m’ in nearly all typeface names for instance), and flowery adjectives where keen observation would be better. Typefaces are ‘classic vintage’ (Scotch Roman fig.57); Perpetua is ‘expressive’ (fig.62) and ‘lyrical’ (fig.108), Bembo is ‘discrete’ (fig.65); Bell ‘dainty’ (fig.75); Poliphilus ‘adaptable’ (figs.82-83); Incorrect attributions include Bembo fig.61 & 108 (should be Perpetua); Caslon figs 76-77 (Caslon & Garamond); and the calligraphic logo from 1950 was by Elizabeth Friedlander not Schmoller . . .

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