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This topic was imported from the Typophile platform

That's the title of a “sharply critical” Gerrit Noordzij essay Robin Kinross has recently put up on his Hyphen Press site to accompany its recent realease of the Christopher Burke book on Jan Tschichold. You can find the essay here

As Kinross says, it “tells a large truth about how teaching can happen, and how learning can happen.” It probably also has something important to say about what typophiles might strive for.

Peter Enneson

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That's fascinating. Conjectural laws, rather than authoritarian rules--very nice.

In the related interview with Noordzij that is linked, he says,

"When he gave a lecture, Tschichold - the old Tschichold, as well as the new Tschichold - always said on the invitation card: 'no discussion afterwards'."

The interesting thing about Tschichold is that his extreme dogmatism did not prevent him from doing brilliant work, nor from changing his mind. It just made him on occassion very annoying :)

I really look forward to reading the new Christopher Burke book on Tschichold.

ps. on the 'law' of maximum line length for legibility, Bill Hill of Microsoft mentioned a basis for the law in his Typecon talk: At normal reading distances, if a line is longer, the reader has to turn his or her head, instead of just the eyes, which slows down the process.

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Interesting link.

I wonder, when type criticism doesn't explicitly state the laws guiding it, whether it would constitute another example of this rule-based presumptuousness from Noordzij's (or anybody else's) perspective.

Take for example this sentence: "There are wayward details in some letters: the shortened bar in f, the inadequate ear on r, the cropped head of a..." What is the basis for asserting that an r's ear is inadequate—an unspoken law? an obnoxious rule? or is this sort of criticism understood to be acceptable as a matter of taste, different from something like Tschichold's rules about line length?

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I think basis for judging those details are largely a matter of aesthetic taste, but practical rules set the boundaries of the ball park we deem a tasteful, or comfortable place to be in.

Aesthetic and design rules inform taste.

Does that make sense?

j a m e s

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>basis for judging those details are largely a matter of aesthetic taste, but practical rules set the boundaries

As you say there are two factors: One is aesthetics. The other is the set constraints put on by our perceptual apparatus as to what is more readable. This is a matter of physiology and psychology, and includes things like line length. Actually, I think that details can also affect readability, so text type can be critiqued from that point of view.

Gerrit Noordzij claims in this essay that if "If we ask for the intentions of the type designers, we find that their work reflected their attitude to writing with little regard for previous solutions."

I think this very wide of the mark. After Jenson, all type designers that I know of were very influenced by previous *type* designs. Griffo had and worked with Jenson's type IIRC, and his efforts take Jenson's ideas and push them in a more typographic direction, for example, *not* a direction more influenced by writing.

Caslon was directly interpreting Dutch typeface models in his own way. And that Baskerville was heavily influenced by Caslon's work, as well as by the steel pen. In turn Bodoni and Didot were influenced by what Baskerville did, not only the pen. And today an original work like Scala I don't think was influenced by changes in writing, but by other concerns relating to digital production, and the need for sans and serif designs that go together.

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It's a task of writers and scientists to explain what artists and designers do, and perhaps offer them guidelines.
(And Guide is a word I prefer to Rule or Law.)
But ultimately art, design, language and maths have different ways of thought, and in as much as language and science continually attempt to define and proscribe art and design, art and design are always evolving their territory to render the map obsolete.

I find it strange that there is an expectation that typography should be subject to simple objective rules or laws about such things as line length. So while I agree with Noordzij's notion of "conjectural laws" of typography, I'd have to say that any "law" I have come across has nevertheless only ever been a generalization or best practice, and exceptions which disprove such theories are not difficult to produce in number.

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Nick: So while I agree with Noordzij’s notion of “conjectural laws” of typography, I’d have to say that any “law” I have come across has nevertheless only ever been a generalization or best practice, and exceptions which disprove such theories are not difficult to produce in number.

There are no exceptions to laws, in the nicely precise sense that Noordzij uses the term, there are only exceptions to rules. Something that disproves a law -- i.e. the circumstance that renders a law false --, is not an exception, it is the basis on which you reformulate the law so that it is no longer false. This is the very heart of the distinction that Noordzij is making between rules and laws. As soon as you say

And Guide is a word I prefer to Rule or Law.

you are missing the whole point of what Noorzij is saying. He is not looking for guides or offering laws as guides, he is offering laws to prompt creative antagonism and discussion. Fundamentally, it is a scientific approach, based on putting things to the test. His objection to rules is that they cannot be put to the test, they can only be obeyed or broken.

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There are no exceptions to laws

Yes, I was opining that the notion of law is not applicable to typography, and that any laws I have come across are not really laws, but as I noted, "laws".

you are missing the whole point of what Noorzij is saying.

No, I'm saying in typography I'd rather by guided (or guide) than have hard-and-fast conditions.

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Bill: I think this very wide of the mark. After Jenson, all type designers that I know of were very influenced by previous *type* designs. Griffo had and worked with Jenson’s type IIRC, and his efforts take Jenson’s ideas and push them in a more typographic direction, for example, *not* a direction more influenced by writing.

I used to think this too, but then I spent a lot more time looking at contemporary manuscript books, and Griffo's innovations are pretty minor and well within the influence of the formal humanist book hand. Between Jenson and Griffo, not a lot happens in terms of that book hand, so we should not expect any significant evolution in type styles. As typographers, we have established a history in which something like making the bar of the lowercase e horizontal instead of slanted is suddenly significant, but in the overall context of renaissance text manufacture -- both chirographic and typographic -- it is not significant at all. Griffo's types, like Jensons, are thoroughly wedded to the humanist book hand.

What Noordzij has drawn our attention to is the phenomenon of very significant changes in type styles over the following centuries that correspond to and trail changes in writing. There is a tendency to think of a pre-Gutenberg scribal culture and a post-Gutenberg print culture, a kind of revolutionary media rupture of the kind that excites modern cultural theorists. But the fact is that the scribal culture persisted in various ways well into the 19th century, until the invention of mechanical typesetting, and in some areas of life until the popularisation of the typewriter. The production of manuscript books gradually dwindled to almost nothing in the 150 or so years after Gutenberg, but formal writing continued to be the means of producing many other kinds of documents, and it continued to provide the aesthetic and cultural context for the design of new typefaces. This does not imply that typographic letterforms simple copied written letterforms: obviously they did not. But they did import the characteristics of the popular written forms, most notably in stroke contrast and axis, i.e. the two characteristics by which we most often classify types.

Regarding your final points, of course designers of type are responding to other types as well as to writing, but for most of the history of type they have been doing so in a context in which a large amount of the text that readers encounter everyday is written by hand. Writing is more dynamic than type, so evolves more quickly and shows more immediately changes in tools and taste.

I really don't see any influence of Caslon in Baskerville's types. Baskerville is responding to neo-classicism and looking for a form that reflects the aesthetics of his culture. His models are not writing directly, but the increasingly important engraved image of writing, which itself is importing characteristics from writing as informed by the larger movement in architecture and art. These forms are a hybrid of written and constructed forms. In Bodoni's case, the direct influence of writing is explicitly acknowledged. Most of the 'history' of type design has been written without reference to a larger business of manufacturing texts, and so presents a purely typographical narrative in which the only possible influence on the development of new types is old types, or occasionally inscriptional lettering. This leads to fantastical notions such as the 'Transitional' classification of type, as if Baskerville were somehow anticipating Bodoni and designing his own as an interpolation between the 'Oldstyle' and the as-yet-non-existent 'Modern'.

And today an original work like Scala I don’t think was influenced by changes in writing, but by other concerns relating to digital production, and the need for sans and serif designs that go together.

Today, all bets are off on the influence of writing because there simply isn't any. Formal writing in the west is dead, and I don't consider 'calligraphers' significant. Calligraphers produce calligraphy, not texts. Type design has therefore lost its historical context. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in terms of what may be produced as we look for new contexts to respond to and new paradigms for typography, but I think it makes it all the more important to understand that historical context and the relationship that has existed between writing and type in periods and places where formal writing and a scribal culture persisted alongside typography. Apart from anything else, it will make us sensitive to the perceptions of typography in those few places in the world where a scribal culture still exists and still influences taste and opinion of typographic forms.

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When I was teaching, I tried to avoid the kind of creative antagonism where the teacher says "this is how it's done", preferring the approach of "there are many ways to do this, let's find what works for you".

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Nick: Yes, I was opining that the notion of law is not applicable to typography, and that any laws I have come across are not really laws, but as I noted, “laws”.

But you still seem to be conflating 'laws' with 'rules'. Indeed, you wrote

I find it strange that there is an expectation that typography should be subject to simple objective rules or laws about such things as line length

which may indeed be an expectation that some people have, and they may share your lack of distinction between rules and laws, but that is not what Noordzij is saying and to him the distinction is very important. Why is it important? Because he is using 'law' in the scientific sense, i.e. an analytic statement of fact that, by definition, may be disproved by contradictory evidence, forcing a reformulation of the law.

You are using 'law' as a synonym for 'rule', which, as I say, is to completely miss Noordzij's point. You can't say that 'any laws I have come across are not really laws', in the scientific sense, on the grounds that you can come up with exceptions to them, because it is a given of scientific laws that they are disprovable.

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By setting a Law and pointing to it, we set up the challenge to find something false in its logic. By doing this, we do more to kindle debate and get at what might be truth than if we never have a Law to ponder. Rules are meant to be broken and Laws are meant to be debated by the supreme court.
It has been a number of years since I taught but I used to throw out a "Law" or even a rule just to see what it prompted from my students. It was a worthwhile exercise.

ChrisL

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Nick: When I was teaching, I tried to avoid the kind of creative antagonism where the teacher says “this is how it’s done”, preferring the approach of “there are many ways to do this, let’s find what works for you”.

Sheesh. Did you actually read the Noordzij article, Nick? He doesn't walk into a classroom and say 'This is how it's done', and his criticism of Tschichold is that the latter did indeed take that approach. Noordzij walks in and says 'Here is a law, is it true?'

If I were a student whose teacher walked in and said 'There are many ways to do this, let’s find what works for you', I would walk out. I can find out for myself what works for me.

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Here is my version of a law:

When interletter spacing is not rhythmic and in synch with the whites inside the letters, the 'optical word' or word image or 'bouma shape' is disrupted or falls apart, and visual wordform resolution suffers.

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You are using ’law’ as a synonym for ’rule’

John, you are completely misinterpreting me.
Since when does grouping two things together make them synonyms?!
I'm saying, like, I prefer bicycles to trucks and cars. That doesn't mean I think trucks and cars are the same.

it is a given of scientific laws that they are disprovable

Um, isn't it usually the other way round?

Noordzij walks in and says ’Here is a law, is it true?’

I would avoid that kind of creative antagonism also. Design is a practical process of problem solving, not one of dealing with abstract rules and laws. The problem is that there is not a law of line length for instance, but different ways of dealing with it. So the idea that there can be "a" law is spurious.

If I were a student whose teacher walked in and said ’There are many ways to do this, let’s find what works for you’, I would walk out. I can find out for myself what works for me

That was my approach. I didn't actually say that. Finding a personal solution to a design challenge happens differently in different environments. You, working on your own, would do it differently than someone in a class, interacting with the teacher and other students tackling the same problem. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, so it's the teacher's responsibility to address the weaknesses.

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Bill, you wrote “Griffo had — and worked with — Jenson’s type IIRC, and his efforts take Jenson’s ideas and push them in a more typographic direction, for example, *not* a direction more influenced by writing.” [my insertion of em dashes for clarity]

What might push them in a more typographic direction mean? (I don't know what a typographic direction is.)

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Nick, doesn't “practical problem solving” benefit from knowing the consequenses of irregular or too wide spacing or how effective sense-following — in the case of prose and in the case of poetry — is affected by variations in line length, in both directions beyond a certain normative range (that it should be our business to try and find)?

It might be an interesting challenge to a group of students to find this range without having the benefit of Tschichold's rule or presumably scientific papers on the subject. In a sense Emigré was a playground for this type of exploration (on multiple fronts!).

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doesn’t “practical problem solving” benefit from knowing the consequenses of irregular or too wide spacing

Of course, and it's good for students to learn general principles. No need for laws or rules, though.

The general principle is, "don't have too few or too many characters in a line". But that begs the question, as among the factors which effect this are:
-type style
-type size
-type weight
-leading
-number of lines in a paragraph

In this example from a shipping brochure, long line length is not a problem, because of the copious leading, few lines per paragraph, and the amply-sized bold typeface (14 pt. on 32 pt. Corvinus Medium).


.
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Nick, the import of my question was: doesn't practical problem solving benefit from knowing laws: laws of vision, laws of perceptual processing in reading, 'laws of the letter,' that is, how letters behave, and how effortlessly they are processed as a unit when placed beside each other in words, or when formed in certain ways.

I distinguish between "laws of" that, in our attempts to encapsulate them in words, have conjectural validity, and the dictates of expert practitioners that institutionalize personal ways of working with or around those laws.

Line length might not be a problem in your example, but I think the word spacing, relative to letter-spacing, in the justifed block of text is.

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Nick: Um, isn’t it usually the other way round?

No. A scientific law is by its nature disprovable. It is taken to be true until disproved, but if it a priori could not be disproved it would not be a scientific law. Science only deals with that which can be disproven.

Design is a practical process of problem solving.

Is that a law? It looks like one. I hope it isn't a rule.

I regard it as an ideological statement, and one that is uncritically repeated by thousands of designers and design teachers. Perhaps the most refreshing statement I have heard in 13 years in type design was something Peter Biľak said during his presentation at TypeCon in Minneapolis: he explicitly rejected the view of 'design as problem solving' and suggested instead a view of 'design as a kind of reading'. And he showed a short film he had made imposing punctuation on a cityscape seen from a moving train, to make clear that what he was reading, as a designer, was the world around him. This is very much where my 'affections' -- to use Noordzij's term -- lie, with design as a process of engagement and response, understanding and interpretation. Within this process there is definitely a place for laws, i.e. for analytical formulations that enable a critical engagement.

Most design is banal and predictable precisely because it is undertaken as problem solving.

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Science only deals with that which can be disproven.

You're putting the emphasis in the wrong place.
The body of science is that which can not be disproven.
That's why I said "usually".

Is that a law? It looks like one. I hope it isn’t a rule.
I regard it as an ideological statement

Make up your mind!

a process of engagement and response, understanding and interpretation.

You could say that about many things, including problem solving.

A metaphorical reading of the world is certainly a prerequisiste to design, part of problem definition (which is understood to be part of the problem solving process).

Banality results from merely going through the motions, which is just as possible with "engagement and response, etc."

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This is an interesting discussion to me, if slightly esoteric. I've ranted, on and off, for a few months now—not in these environs—about, for want of a better term, Tschichold to excess.

One thing I want to point out concerns the sample brochure above. In a lot of ways, it's an attractive piece, judging from the small amount of it we see. But as enne_son rightly points out, the word-spacing is a problem. That first line had word-spacing you can drive a truck thru.

Granted, working in as many books as often as I do, that's a particularly annoying issue for me. And I don't care which software I use—Quark, InDy, formerly PageMaker, vaguely remembering FrameMaker—I need to go thru line-by-line of every page to make sure I like the looks of all lines and their word-spacing. (Letter-spacing isn't even an issue; just goes without saying.)

So what I'm saying is, this is a nice theoretical discussion, but it still comes down to how type on the page looks. Each and every time.

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From Gerrit Noordzij's essay: The rule promises paradise, but in obedient submission. The law promises the wilderness, but in freedom.

To my mind he means rules are akin to formulas which offer a guaranteed result by stipulating how a thing is to be done, without deviation from the given formula (rule). Rules are orthodox in their nature. By contrast, laws are more akin to principles upon which (in this discussion typographic) design rests---by and large---but which are subject to ongoing testing by practitioners to prove or disprove their validity.

Also from Noordzij's essay: Students are frightened by freedom as soon as they understand that freedom leaves them alone with their own judgement.

That's so true, not only of design students; the majority of practising designers seem almost terrified of taking risks. Realistic practitioners accept that there can be no art or new design without risk.

"Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it" ---from the song Statue of Liberty, on Laurie Anderson's recent album Life on a String.

The body of science is that which can not be disproven.

The body of science is that which is destined to be disproven. The whole history of science is a succession of theories or laws disproven by experiment and observation, and supplanted by new theories which in turn are disproven and replaced by subsequent laws or theories, on and on.

The Day the Universe Changed, by Professor Sir James Burke, narrates this history of science and scientific revolution with immense clarity and insight. Nothing is what it seems. Not even laws are what we think they are. Each view attained by each phase of culture and society is just another view---a reading of the world that attempts to make sense of it.

Some psychologists view human consciousness as a kind of dreaming, in the sense that we dream in an illusory fashion in order to percieve the world around is.

Most design is banal and predictable precisely because it is undertaken as problem solving.

I couldn't agree more John.

j a m e s

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