Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

How principles became practice

The New Typography

Jan Tschichold<br>Translated by Ruari McLean<br>Introduction by Robin Kinross<br>University of California Press

This is the first publication in English of Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie, which appeared in German in 1928. Twenty-eight years ago, translator Ruari McLean was responsible for the first English edition of another Tschichold volume, Asymmetric Typography. In his foreword, he stated that Tschichold’s principles were ‘still true and sound’, while in the introduction the publisher called Tschichold the ‘Rosetta Stone of our field’. The suggestion was that the serious professional practice of typography had its origins in the work and words of Jan Tschichold.

It has taken twice as long for The New Typography to be published in English. In the foreword to this book, McLean reiterates his confidence in Tschichold’s relevance to contemporary typographic practice. ‘Its fundamental tenets are absolutely valid: the book is as worth reading as it ever was,’ he argues. But the style and circumstances of this book’s release imply a different agenda on the part of the publisher. The New Typography appears in the series ‘Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism’ alongside translations of theoretical works and several recent histories of that period. In this context Tschichold’s work seems to be aimed primarily at historians rather than practitioners of typography.

This editon of The New Typography is McLean’s second translation of Tschichold’s text. Unlike the first, made while the author was still alive and including substantial corrections to the original to bring it into line with Tschichold’s later thoughts on the subject, this version remains faithful to the text of the 1928 book. Included at the end is a comprehensive list of sources, including the addresses of significant practitioners of the New Typography, faithfully reproduced from the original. Tschichold’s thoughts on typography are thus presented to us here as an archival document rather than as an application of Modernist principles to the diverse practice of designing for print that holds lessons for typographers today.

As well as revising his original text, Tschichold intended to alter the format of the 1928 book for the publication of McLean’s first translation. Had it made it into print, paragraphs would have been indented, titles of books and journals italicised and illustrations changed. The process of approximating Tschichold’s original layout using contemporary typesetting technology for this book is documented at the end. A few compromises were made, for instance in the choice of text face, but the overall result is a book that speaks in the visual language of the time when it was written.

While Tschichold’s words reach us as directly as is possible within a translation, Robin Kinross’ detailed introduction offers useful insights into the text. Kinross clarifies Tscichold’s position among the group of designers and artists who are associated with the movement for New Typography. This serves to present his book as the voice of an individual, a representative but not definitive exposition of a school of thought. Design histories have tended towards a schematic division between the Modern and the post-modern, seeing the first as a singular, monolithic credo and the second as the espousal of a plurality of viewpoints. Kinross offers a corrective to the temptation to view Tschichold’s text as the expression of a uniform Modernist voice. For instance, he reminds us that at the time of its first publication The New Typography was criticised in bauhaus for offering no more than an alternative formalism rather than an embodiment of the new conception of the world to which the reviewer aspired.

Comparing The New Typography with present-day books on the subject, it is striking how much technical knowledge Tschichold could assume on the part of his readers. Tschichold was writing chiefly for an audience of printers like those who attended his classes at the Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker, whereas typography handbooks of the last decade, with their extensive glossaries explaining event the most commonly used terms, are aimed at the diverse group of people who have found themselves in charge of a page-layout program. Written by professionals with a non-professional audience in mind, these manuals often aim no higher than damage limitation. But it is patronising to assume that those in need of a practical manual are not interested in experimentation. Tschichold’s ambition to combine principled thinking with practical action remains a worthy goal for even the newest practitioner of typography.

The ideology which informs The New Typography and the forms of practice espoused by the book might not seem immediately relevant to those currently working with type and Tschichold himself may no longer be accepted as the single authority on the professional practice of typography. But just as the Rosetta Stone was only one of a number of sources which enabled us to decipher hieroglyphics, so Tschichold’s contribution becomes more valuable when his ideas are put into context, as they have been here.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996