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The New Typography

by Jan Tschichold; translated from German by Ruari McLean, Introduction by Robin Kinross, with a New Foreword by Richard Hendel
California University Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2006
286 pp., illus. 110 b/w, 38 three-col. Paper, $32.50/ 21.50
ISBN: 978-0-520-25012-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven, Faculty of Arts
Leuven, Belgium


Published for the first time in 1928, sold out a few years later, out of print in German for many decades, available for the Anglophone readership in 1995 (in a facsimile edition by California UP), and now reprinted with a new foreword, Tschichold’s The New Typography is a book of almost mythic dimensions. Considered the definitive treatise of typographic design of the modernist era, it offers not only an overview of the principles of commercial and book design, but also a historical——and ideologically far from neutral——discussion of "old" (1450-1914) and "new" (since 1914) typography. The book’s exceptional fame is due to its own typographic achievement as well as to its commitment to the politics of modern typography, defined as both the mirror and the condition of a modern social-democracy in the machine age. Representing the aesthetic credo of certain aspects of the Bauhaus at a certain moment in its evolution, Tschichold——who had personal but no formal links with the Bauhaus——explains in a very didactic way and relying upon numerous speaking examples the necessity of a complete rejection of almost every traditional rule of typography, defending the sans serif against the serif, the asymmetry in page lay-out against symmetry, the use of photography and its equality with the text against a merely illustrative use of engravings, the valorization of white space against its classic reduction to the margins of the print-block, the diminution of capitals against the ancient orthography, the imperative of standardization against the disarray of artistic freedom, etc. Moreover, all these fundamental shifts, which we do not longer notice for in many cases the revolutionary proposals of the Central-European modernists that have been widely adopted all over the world and are still taught in many schools of typography and design, are motivated by a series of ideological justifications, which foreground democracy and efficiency, establishing a clear relationship between the former and the latter. In modern society, there is no room left for the divide between the happy few of individual artists and the unhappy crowd of consumers. Instead, freedom for all is seen as the logic result of the intervention of the engineer who brings order into chaos and enables all members of society to enjoy a fuller life (the analogy between Tschichold and Le Corbusier is more than symbolic).

The particular status of Tschichold’s book, marvellously printed in this edition and a joy of seeing, reading and holding and keeping in one’s hand, is quite strange, for there are as many reasons to continue to read The New Typography than to consider it a dusty museum piece. In a certain sense, the modernist revolution didactically exposed by Tschichold (who was as much a teacher as a real inventor, despite the great quality of his own work as a designer), has become the victim of its success and what appeared to be highly innovative in 1928 has become mainstream and formulaic today. Moreover, Tschichold himself has gradually turned away from the convictions of his youth, to the extent that at the end of his life he had become a strong supporter of the age-old traditions in book typography, a technological and cultural form that in his eyes had achieved its definitive closure since various centuries. And The New Typography is not deprived of serious flaws: as a handbook, it has proven extremely useful for the reinvention of commercial typography, but on book design it remained almost completely silent, for example. Finally, Tschichold’s ideological plea for rationalization is no longer acceptable by contemporary readers, who have other ideas on the merits of bureaucracy and streamlining.

Yet despite all these problems, The New Typography is a book that can and should keep a strong appeal to a 21st Century readership. First, by cross-cutting between technology and culture, politics and theory, artwork and social issues, Tschichold remains a wonderful example of an artist’s contribution to the field of critical thinking. Second, the basic typographical stance of the book has nothing left of its utility and correctness: Tschichold’s craving for a simple typography that would be at the service of the text and offer the reader a maximal transparency is in fact a classic conviction in modernist cloths that still holds today. Third, many of the examples given by The New Typography are unrivalled in their intelligence and beauty. In comparison with the work by two of Tschichold’s friends, El Lissitzky and Moholoy-Nagy, the typographical compositions of this book may seem less visionary or poetic, yet this default is more than compensated by the clarity of the design and the didactic framing of the works. Fourth, one can only thank the University of California Press for reediting this new edition on such a timely moment. Since the first English edition, the possibilities of typographic and multimedia design on the Internet have been enlarged to such an extent that many users of the screen would be delighted if Tschichold’s "ars poetica" could help to bring some order in the creative chaos we are experiencing today.




Updated 1st March 2007

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