Print Picks: The Elements of Typographic Style
by Taylor Slattery | July 1, 2021
Typography is a difficult subject to master. It’s a tradition steeped in history, and full of terminology that makes it tricky to navigate. Equal parts practical and preference, typographic choices straddle the line between objective and subjective, and it can be hard to tell where each starts and ends. On top of that, type design is a discipline in and of itself, so parsing through information intended for this more hardcore crowd to find gems useful to those just looking to better understand how to use type poses an additional challenge. Type is an essential part of design and it’s a powerful tool for more nuanced communication, so understanding how to use it effectively is a critical skill to obtain.
When you’re just getting started with typography, the hardest part is dealing with the uncertainty of the correctness of your decisions. It seems as though those who know what they’re doing are tapping into some sort of intuitive sense for what is correct, and for the beginner, this knowledge feels elusive. Navigating things like kerning, font pairings, and other optic-centric issues feels abstract, like learning a foreign language.
If you’re looking for more of a practical approach to typography and just want to understand the best practices for its use, I’ve got a recommendation for where you can start. The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst, was intended to be the typographic equivalent to the highly regarded writing manual, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. While the former isn’t nearly as succinct as the latter (the author is a poet, after all), The Elements of Typographic Style is the most complete text I’ve been able to find for a nuts and bolts approach to typography.
I’ve often found with books about typography, the authors tend to treat the reader with kid-gloves. Aware of the mysterious subject matter about which they write and its power to intimidate readers, they go to great lengths to make the material as approachable and digestible as possible. For those looking for any real insights that couldn’t be found from a cursory reading of a Wikipedia page, there is little to be gained. These books offer more of an introduction to the various elements of typography but little in the way of how to actually effectively wield the type itself.
In contrast, The Elements of Typographic Style offers the reader real answers to the how and why of their typographic questions, and not just the what. Guiding principles from the book are immediately applicable in one’s own work, equipping readers with the tools they need to be able to create great-looking type.
Typographic best practices and standards are covered for everything from the basics, like building a page, establishing hierarchy, and choosing type combinations, to more artistic and specific skills like using decorative elements and working with different languages. For those so inclined, the book also offers a thorough look at the history of type, its various families, and its evolution.
There is one area in which this book is lacking, though, and for some, this will be a major detractor. While Bringhurt brings a wealth of information regarding typography for print, the lack of information for screen-based typography prevents it from being your one-stop source for today’s designer.
Despite this, I can wholly recommend this book. By the end, you’ll have all the tools you need to confidently tackle a variety of typesetting projects, whether designing a book, poster, brochure, or any other print-based project. When it comes to setting type for the web, however, you’ll need to do some supplementary reading to translate this print-based knowledge to the screen.
While no single source is the be-all and end-all of typography, or anything for that matter, The Elements of Typographic Style offers practical information pruned from Bringhurt’s decades of experience in the field, making it an invaluable resource and a great place to start for beginners.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.