German-Swiss typographer, 1902-74.

Tschichold was a talented artist in early childhood, and, according to legend, redesigned an ugly schoolbook at the age of 12. His father, a sign-painter, warned him against the life of the artist, so Jan studied to teach draftsmanship; he made assistant professor of lettering at the Leipzig Academy when he was nineteen. In 1923, he was quite taken with the first Bauhaus exhibition, and two years later published the first manifestos of The New Typography, a radical modernist school. His ideas were nearly as radical as those of Gropius, but a little more coherent. Where the Bauhaus tried to integrate text more tightly with the manufacturing technology and design fashions of the day, Tschichold wanted to put it outside design; to make it stand on its own. More than the Bauhaus designers themselves, he had a realistic idea of how the new minimalism might apply well to everyday books and papers – not just to avant-garde posters. From Die Neue Typographie, published in 1928:

Instead of recognizing and designing for the laws of mechanical production, the previous generation contented itself with anxiously trying to follow a tradition that was imaginary in the first place. Before them stand the works of today, untainted by the past; primary shapes that form our time: car, airplane, telephone, radio, factory, neon advertising, New York! These objects, designed without reference to the esthetics of the past, are creations of a new kind of man: the engineer!

If this is a bit strident, it's a fair reaction to the turgid and recondite Latin-alphabet typography between the wars. Europe's nationalism and artistic elitism through the 1800s had left formal graphic design stagnant; despite the relatively advanced press technology, nearly all printed matter other than advertising still aspired to stilted, pompous, gothically ornate dullness. The Industrial Revolution had changed all the mechanics of printing – each new press allowed larger and more varied runs, each new ink provided colors never before seen on paper, each new tycoon had a more efficient scheme for distributing books and news – but the designers couldn't be troubled to take advantage of them. Instead, as each new industrial development (though a net benefit) forced various compromises of form and quality, the typographers and illustrators would habitually maintain these compromises even after they had been made obsolete by the next mechanical breakthrough. Thus, by the turn of the century, books were depressing in their homogeneity and the principles of bookmaking were bewildering in their heterogeneity: misremembered commandments and arbitrary superstitions of only the most abstract connexion with legibility, good proportion, or beauty. It was a very rare Victorian designer who pushed any figurative envelope; William Morris, Stanley Morrison, the Art Nouveau, and the Great War had begun to clean things up, but the New Typography was the first movement to really take advantage of consistent paper, reliably sharp letterforms, aligned multiple colors, diagonal setting, full-page plates, and other wonders of the newer presses. It was an artistic revolution at a time of extremely political art.

Tschichold also called New Typography asymmetrical typography, because it did away with the center axis of conventional graphic design: in asymmetrical typography, pages do not reflect each other, centered and flush text is mixed indiscriminately, and no special effort is made to keep everything smooth-looking. Heavy lines divide sections, important phrases are in a contrasting font and weight, page numbers could be anywhere, notes invade the main textblock, proportions are loose – but it's not quite chaos, or at least not ugly chaos. This very web page, though designed for screen reading and constrained by your browser's incomplete support of CSS, uses many of the saner innovations of asymmetric design: a sidebar, multiply aligned lines (e.g., this writeup's header), color behind titles, paragraphing by double-breaking, et cetera. Most of these ideas were not even considered before the Bauhaus, and first used well by the New Typography.

In 1933, the National Socialists, in the process of utterly flipping out, decided that modernism was Kultur-Bolschewismus: cultural Boshevism. Tschichold was found to be "threatening the German morality" with the New Typography, and stripped of a prestigious professorship – granted by Paul Renner – at the German Master Printers' School. After six weeks in protective custody and a thorough examination of his genealogy (Aryan) and associates (non-deviant), he was allowed to emigrate with his wife and young boy to Switzerland. He spent most of the rest of his life in Basle, Berzona, and Locarno, loyally Swiss. In 1935, while working for a minor press in Basle, he published Typographische Gestaltung, which expanded the New Typography and related it to the other modern and abstract arts. It was a seminal, definitive book for at least two generations of graphic designers; Tschichold must have thought it was exhaustive, because he abandoned its ideas therewith.

So, like Stravinsky, he led two divergent schools in succession: from 1935 on, his designs were symmetrical, revivalist, and neoclassical. He politely censured the New Typography as dehumanizing (and eventually likened its industrial absolutism to the Nazi social dogma) while diligently reviving the half-forgotten medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment philosophies of design. This new work was less brilliant but more intelligent; less creative, but better. It too was dependent on the modern presses, but did not form itself to their whims. Rather than an attack on the bloated conventional typography, it was a reform, starting at the roots of monastic calligraphy and methodically pruning away all the cruft. His research in literary archives found several forgotten design formulae which became very successful – particularly the Golden Canon, the 2:3 instance of Villard's Canon of page proportions:

  • text height equal to page width
  • line from top inside of page to bottom outside of page crosses text's top-inner and bottom-outer corners
  • line from outside top of page to facing page's outside bottom crosses text's top-outside corner

Thus the margins are inside:top:outside:bottom::2:3:4:6 for a 2:3 page, but would be 1:1:2:2 for a square page. This is also expressible, more conveniently for those with a lattice and a textbox rather than a ruler and a pencil, in grid form:

in an x:y rectangle divided into 9*9 = 81 equal (=x:y) rectangles, the text fills the 6*6 (=x:y) rectangle 1 from the top and 1 from the facing page (i.e., for the right (x>0) page, (1,8), (7,8), (7,2), (1,2))

Elegant inventions and discoveries like this redeemed Tschichold for the less entrenched of the traditional typographers.1 The New Typography was alive and well on its own, however, and by the 1950s it had spread and mutated and could be found in Soviet propaganda, the covers of American paperback novels, and into advertising everywhere. After leading the mucking-out of symmetrical typography, Tschichold ended up defending it against his own memes, or at least corruptions and descendants of them: the indiscriminate use of sans fonts, squares, arbitrary margins, letterspacing, and so on. His revolution had, and still has, more and louder fans than his reform. Many of his asymmetric essays were not even translated from German into any other major language until the Sixties, when they became faddish once again and a whole second wave of modern design washed in. We are in the middle of the third surge, with HTML/CSS the main medium – hybridized and evolved, but recognizably Bauhaus-ish.

Tschichold arrived at Penguin Books as design czar in March 1947, after returning by mail corrected versions of every single book and internal form printed by the company. He worked there through late 1949, and in those three years established the most stable and versatile typographical standards since the Renaissance. The Penguin Composition Rules give in four pages the one true style of typographic usage – what to use, how to space it, and when to wing it. (If desktop publishers read it, desktop publishing would be easier to take seriously.) With thorough explanations to the in-house designers, he redrew the Penguin icons, gave the classic orange fiction cover some self-respect, tweaked the stationary, made new business cards, and micromanaged every book's every detail. Despite the fastidious consistency of internals, he set only examples for cover and title-page design, and treated each book separately. The executives, editors, and compositors went through shock, denial, numbness, and grief, but eventually accepted the rules. Penguins became elegant as well as inexpensive. (Over the decades, they drifted to a rather inferior sort of New Typography, then partially re-reformed, and today are as hashed as the next brand.)

The redesign at Penguin was influential and admired, and soon our hero could pick any design job. He spent the rest of his life teaching while working on bus schedules and medicine-bottle labels, posters and books (many of which he wrote, translated, or revived himself), and what we now call corporate identity. The designs for each were distinctively simple: simple but limber. Most typographers in middle age either mince off into the airy-fairy land of hyperdelicate slim volumes of poetry or resign themselves to soul-eating bourgeoius ephemera, but Tschichold hewed to moderation and beautiful forms for useful things. He kept a broad collection of half-art – packages, posters, and business-cards – as well as Renaissance notebooks, samples of fine paper, and working woodblock printing equipment (including excellent Japanese and Chinese specimens, which were almost unknown in the West until he wrote about their history and use). Certainly the mainstream liked him again; he was given Leipzig's Gutenberg Prize and elected an honorary RDI in England. In 1954, he was asked to direct the Munich Academy of Graphic Arts, which had expelled him in 1933, but refused because he would have had to live in Germany.

In 1964, a consortium of European printers commissioned Tschichold to cut a complete general-purpose font, preferably based on those of Garamond, to print identically whether used set cold, hot, or photographically. This was an extraordinarily difficult project, something like making a recipe for bread to come out identically whether cooked by oven, microwave, or blowtorch. Lead type has to be tuned for various inks, Monotype sorts have to be narrow, Linotype fonts have strictly limited kerning tables, et cetera; desiging a font for any one of them was a headache, and doing all three at once was a headace cubed. Tschichold did it. He named it Sabon, after Jakob Sabon, one of Garamond's cutters, and it was immediate successful on its release in 1967. (See 2) It fit all the constraints (plus the later ones of screen display and laser and inkjet printing) without apparent effort; it's a very comfortable and dignified reading face. Sabon's combination of open texture and high density make it an ideal replacement for Times, though few desktop publishers have caught on yet. It is also one of the best-documented standard fonts: the drafts and their commentaries are fully archived.

Tschichold died in Locarno, of cancer, in August 1974. Lay people like to say that things like typography are best when you don't notice them at all, but if you have a sense of design, Tschichold's work can't be transparent. It is beautiful but comfortable, quiet but engaging. He is as recognizable as a great conductor or photographer: not just as a medium but as an interpreter.

1. If this formula doesn't seem elegant, try parsing out some Victorian book designs. They seemed to figure that if you threw enough golden rectangles and squares in, they would all add up the something decent. They were wrong. Non-arbitary page design doesn't get much simpler or more beautiful than the Golden Canon.

2. Why yes, the text there is vaguely like my text here, but I hadn't even read it when I wrote this. If by some chance Dean Allen happened to use this node as research, I'm flattered, and assure him I will not press charges. Short biographies of eventful lives are bound to overlap.

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