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An essay on typography (Eric Gill, 1936)

Written by Oliver Tomas, 7 years ago, 3 Comments
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Eric Gill An Essay on Typography

A selection of excerpts from the second edition of Eric Gill’s An Essay on Typography (1936). Gill’s frequent use of the ampersand (&) retained throughout.

The Theme
Even if a man’s whole day be spent as a servant of an industrial concern, in his spare time he will make something, if only a window box flower garden. (i)

The application of these principles [i.e., the the industrial and the ‘humane’] to the making of letters and the making of books is the special business of this book. (ii)

Composition of Time & Place
The abnormality of our time, that which makes it contrary to nature, is its deliberate and stated determination to make the working life of men & the product of their working hours mechanically perfect, and to relegate all the humanities, all that is of its nature humane, to their spare time, to the time when they are not at work. (1f.)

The world is not yet clothed in garments that befit it; in architecture, furniture, clothes, we are still using and wearing things which have no real relation to the spirit which moves our life. (6)

Now the chief and, though we betray our personal predilection by saying so, the most monstrous characteristic of our time is that the methods of manufacture which we employ and of which we are proud are such as make it impossible for the ordinary workman to be an artist, that is to say a responsible workman, a man responsible not merely for doing what he is told but responsible also for the intellectual quality of what his deeds effect. (7)

When I say no ordinary workman is an artist, no one will say I am lying; on the contrary, everyone will say: Of course not. (ibid.)

It is now clearly understood that modern building must not rely upon ornament, it must rely simply upon grandeur, that is integrity and size. (8f.)

Of beauty there need be no lack, for the beautiful is that which pleases being seen, and those things are pleasing when seen which are as nearly perfect as may be in their adaptation to function. Such is the beauty of bones, of beetles, of well-built railway arches, of factory chimneys (when they have the sense to leave out the ornamental frills at the top), of the new concrete bridge across the Rhine at Cologne, of plain brick walls. (9)

…the ordinary workman has been reduced to the level of a mere tool used by someone else. (10)

…our business is now to design things which are suitable for machines to make. (14)

…how far we are yet from a complete expression of our belief in mechanical perfection and its functional beauty. (15)

There is nothing ugly about an operating-theatre strictly designed for its purpose, and a house or flat designed on the same lines need be neither ugly nor uncomfortable. (18)

…and plain lettering, when properly chosen and rationally proportioned, has all the nobility of plain words. (19)

…the only justification for human work is an intrinsic sanctity. (22)

The mind is the arbiter in letter forms, not the tool or the material. (25)

The point that chiefly concerns me is that, with whatever tools or materials or economic circumstance (that is hurry & expense), the artist, the letter-maker, has always thought of himself as making existing forms, & not inventing new ones. (30)

Letters are letters. A is A, and B is B. The letter-maker of the twentieth century has not got to be an inventor of letter forms but simply a man of intelligence & good will. (40)

The printed letter is lettering for us. (41)

One of the commonest forms of unsatisfactoriness is due to the unnecessary and therefore unreasonable mixing of many different sorts of letters on the same page or in the same book. It is a safe rule not to mix different styles of letters on the same page, or different faces of type in the same book. A book printed in an inferior type will be better if that inferior type be strictly kept to than if other and even better types be mixed with it. (ibid.)

When is an A not an A? Or when is an R not an R? (46)

…seeing the whirl of eccentricity into which modern advertising is driving us, it seems good and reasonable to return to some idea of normality, without denying ourselves the pleasure and amusement of designing all sorts of fancy letters whenever the occasion for such arises. (48)

…a good clear training in the making of normal letters will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence. (50)

…in considering what forms constitute this or that letter the mind, not the tool, is the arbiter; and the mind, as regards lettering, is informed by the printed page. (56)

Lettering, Figs. 12 & 13

Lettering, Fig. 17

Lettering, Fig. 19

Lettering, Fig. 22

Typography, Fig. 23

The slope of italics and their cursivness has been much overdone. (64)

A serious book is one which is good in itself according to standards of goodness set by infallible authority, and a wide appeal is one made to intelligent people of all times and nations. (65)

A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent. (67)

Our quarrel is […] only with the thing that is neither the one nor the other – neither really mechanically perfect and physically serviceable, nor really a work of art, i.e. a thing made by a man who, however laughable it may seem to men of business, loves God and does what he likes, who serves his fellow men because he is wrapped up in serving God – to whom the service of God is so commonplace that it is as much bad form to mention it as among men of business it is bad form to mention profits. (69)

…it is instructive to note that in early days of printing, when humane exuberance had full scope, printing was characterized by simplicity and decency. (71)

Our argument here is not that industrialism has made things worse, but that it has inevitably made them different; and that whereas before industrialism there was one world, now there are two. (74)

The beauty that industrialism properly produces is the beauty of bones; the beauty that radiates from the work of men is the beauty of holiness. (ibid.)

…an absolute simplicity is the only legitimate, because the only respectable, quality to be looked for in the products of industrialism. (80)

Of Paper and Ink

And machine made paper is perfectly good material so long as it is not made to imitate the appearance of the hand made. (82)

To be patient is to suffer. By their fruits men know one another, but by their sufferings they are what they are. (84)

There is possibly only one sort of paper, one fount of type and, as he [i.e., the craftsman] makes his ink himself, there is only one sort of ink & two or three different colours. And, paradoxical though it may seem, his legitimate personal fancy has therefore even greater scope than is the case with those who are surrounded to the point of bewilderment by a complicated variety of possible choices. (85)

The good man is the reasonable man, and the good work is a reasonable work. In typography the use of colour is a reasonable and not a fancy matter, & as every extra colour involves an extra printing, the expense alone places a curb upon the exuberance of the craftsman. (86)

The Procrustean Bed
…even spacing is of more importance typographically than equal length. (89)

A book is primarily a thing to be read, and the merely neat appearance of a page of type of which all the lines are equal in length is a thing of no very great value in itself; it partakes too much of the ideas of those who regard books as things to be looked at rather than read. (90f.)

To discover the ‘pleasantly readable’… (94)

The Instrument
It is most important that the workman should not have to watch his instrument, that his whole attention should be given to his work. (97)

…industrialism demands different men and produces different things. (99)

The industrialist makes no claim to produce works of art; he does so nevertheless – when he is not imitating the art works of the past. The artist makes no claim to serve his fellow men; nevertheless he does so – when he is not wholly led astray by the notion that art is self-expression or the expression of emotion. (ibid.)

Those are in error, accordingly, who suppose that when the craftsman strives after technical excellence he is emulating the machine standard. And those are even more grievously mistaken who suppose that if the craftsman neglect his responsibility to exercise good judgment and skill in the actual performance of his work, the consequent lack of uniformity (in the colour of his pages or the weight of his impression) will give to his work the vitality or liveliness which is characteristic of hand work. (100)

The Book
Good book-making, good living – that is to say not what you or I fancy, but what the nature of books and the nature of life really demand. (103)

A book is a thing to be read – we all start with that – and we will assume that the reader is a sensitive as well as a sensible person. (105)

In planning a book the first questions are: who is going to read this, and under what circumstances? (106)

…we may say that the things which should form the shape & proportions of the page are the hand and the eye. (108)

We may say then that the general rule should be: a narrow inner margin, a slightly wider top margin, an outer margin at least double the inner, and a bottom slightly wider than the others; the exact proportions being left to the judgment of the printer. (110)

Books have got to be handled as well as read, and they have got to stand on shelves. (113)

…for the more the human race is degraded by industrialism, the larger is the market for inferior articles; in order to reach a larger and still larger number of buyers you produce a lower and still lower quality of goods. (115f.)

…for ultimately there is no happiness in a world in which things are not as good as they can be. (116)

…the printer whose first concern is quality is not a man of business. (ibid.)

For the present we hold simply to the conviction that the two principles and the two worlds can exist side by side, industrialism becoming more strictly and nobly utilitarian as it recognizes its inherent limitations, and the world of human labour, ceasing any longer to compete with it, becoming more strictly and soberly humane. (117f.)

But Why Lettering?
…it is simply stupid to make pretense any longer that our letters are a reasonable means for rendering our speech in writing or printing. (120)

We need a system in which there is a real correspondence between speech, that is to say the sounds of language, & the means of communication. (123)

…think the words, speak the sounds and write something which reasonably presents those sounds. (125)

What I want therefore is, first, some enterprising minister of education who will institute phonography as a compulsory subject in all elementary schools; and, second, some enterprising type founder who will commission me to design a fount of phonographic symbols. (129)

There are now about as many different varieties of letters as there are different kinds of fools. (132)

Lettering has had its day, Spelling, and philology, and all such pedantries have no place in our world. The only way to reform modern lettering is to abolish it. (133)

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About Oliver Tomas

Oliver Tomas is a designer and academic currently living and working in Vancouver.

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