The Visible Word (Herbert Spencer, 1968)

The Visible Word
Classic Work on the Problems of Legibility


Guest submission by Bobby Tannam
(plus 2 pictures from a copy sold via ebay)

The Visible Word
Herbert Spencer
First edition in 1968, Lund Humphries in association with the Royal College of Arts, London
Second edition in 1969, New York: Visual Communications Books
11.5 x 8.5 hardcover book
107 pages b/w
Herbert Spencer (1924-2002) is an innovator of modern typography. In the late 1940’s he was editor of Typographica, a typography and visual arts journal spanning two series and thirty two issues with input from Paul Rand, Max Bill, Max Huber and Herbert Bayer.
This rare first edition was the result of his work as a senior research worker at the Royal College of Art. It is a major contribution to legibility studies and presents a summary of over one hundred years’ worth of investigations by one of the  UK’s most influential typographers. Spencers extraordinarily detailed 24 page bibliography is testimony to his investigation. The visible word is part of a programme of research into the readability of print in information publishing. In this book legibility is explored with equal thoroughness and objectivity. Resulting in the fact that people read most easily the kind of lettering they are used to. Although this may seem obvious in todays comprehensive documentation of the topic, much was learned from his lucid demonstration.
  1. Introduction
  2. Investigating Legibility
  3. Some results of research
  4. The relationship between content and form
  5. Capitals versus lower case
  6. Bold face types
  7. Italics
  8. Numerals
  9. Punctuation marks
  10. Type size, line length and leading
  11. Unjustified setting
  12. Paragraphs and indention
  13. Margins’
  14. Page size
  15. Non-horizontal alignment
  16. Paper and Ink
  17. Summary
  18. Towards a new alphabet
  19. Glossary
  20. Bibliography
Spencer was an aesthete with a connoisseur’s eye for modernist typographic innovations with letterforms and layout. This is evident throughout the visible word as it boasts a strict underlying grid system. He features several examples of his own work alongside pioneering work from designers such as Jan Tschichold, Kurt Schwitters, Herbert Bayer, the late Brian Coe, Reginald Piggott and Wim Crouwel. Herbert Spencer soon after released his most sought after book ‘pioneers of modern typography’. So excellent a recent edition is still being published today.
A year after the visible words first publication a second was released sponsored by the International Publishing Corporation. The second edition of this book is not so hard to find, I was lucky enough to find this first edition copy for only $25 in an antique book store in California. A steal – in my opinion.
Composed on the IBM 72
Text in 11pt Press Roman Medium, 2 point leaded
Bibliography in 8pt Univers Light and Medium
Restricted Book Club Edition printed in the U.S.
Order number 539

JasonGodfrey, author of Laurence King’s Bibliographic, had listed this book as the 101th classic graphic design book. Here’s what he said to Etienne Hervy for french magazine Etapes:

The sucess of this book is not only due to the rigorousness of the text, but also to a rich selection of illustration s, rarely found in most of the historical graphic design books. These samples are experiences between graphic design and typography. For example, the studies by J. Millington in 1883 about vertical layout and boustrophédon (text changing sens line after line) seems to be quite subversives, even today. But they were designed only for sake of legibility.

After a very quick search, I found only 3 copies, from 150 to 600 €.
Send a message if you want more information about this book.

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  4. With computers, printers, texting phones etc I wonder when humanity will lose the art of hand writing. No one writes letters to each other any more. Some great looking fonts there.

  5. Pingback: Herbert Spencer (1924-2002) – designers books