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An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill

An Essay on Typography (1931)

by Eric Gill

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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A lovely little book about Gill's views on typography, written in the 1930's, so with asides regarding capitalism and handicrafts and also a strange final chapter about replacing letters with shorthand. ( )
  CarltonC | May 4, 2014 |
This is a 1988 reprint of the 1936 second edition, printed by Eric Gill and his son-in-law René Hague, published by Sheed and Ward, and set in Joanna, a typeface Gill designed in 1930. Gill condemns the machine age’s attempt to drive human artistic activity out of working hours into “spare time.” There is in Gill’s dated socialism an echo of the style of Forster’s and Orwell’s essays, but also this note of Puritanism. Gill thinks machine production is the only way to go with things it does well, but he thinks we should design for machine production in a spare and utilitarian style.
Gill has some ordinary and some odd ideas about “Lettering.” Letters should be legible and not depart too much from their essential form. But “Most italic type faces are too sloping and too cursive.” He doesn’t want to use italics for emphasis within a line (spaced letters instead) but for captions and sometimes by themselves as a book face.
“Typography” developed as more accurately cast type, but also smoother papers and better presses, so that print no longer presses into the paper. “The nineteenth century attempt to combine industrialism with the Humane was necessarily doomed”; we should glory in industrialism but keep its products plain and serviceable, and glory in the world outside of industrialism, where we make one thing at a time. He writes about punch-cutting letters, by hand and by machine, about paper and about ink (“the hand press printer should make his own ink”).
“The Procrustean Bed” starts out with two pages that are right-justified before reverting to the usual unjustified line of the rest of the book. The tendentious assertions are that uneven spacing between letters or words is “objectionable.” Wide lines are also objectionable—the ideal seems to be about a dozen words.
In “The Instrument” Gill argues for an essential difference between a hand-operated press and one that’s motor-run. One of his themes (here in”The Book”) is that industrial or machine production “not curbed by the strictest utilitarianism is . . . materialist triumph tempered by fancifulness and sloppiness . . . altogether without grace.” Reading (of a pocket-size book, or in the hand, or on a table, or on a lectern) should determine a book’s size, and the book size the type size. Width matters, since a line of more than 12 words is awkward to read and one loses one’s place. On margins, he says all you need on the inside is separation from the binding, but on the top you need “to isolate the type from the surrounding landscape of furniture and carpets.” The bottom needs more space for holding: so narrow inner, slightly wider top, outer at least double the inner, and a bottom slightly wider than that.
Another theme is that “ultimately there is no happiness in a world in which things are not as good as they can be.” In the first edition, the book ended with “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.” In the 1936 edition Gill added a chapter, “But Why Lettering?” He illustrates the crazy non-correspondence of letters to sounds with a sentence, “Though the tough cough and hiccough plough me through, my thought remains clear,” illustrating seven different sounds represented by the letters OUGH. He suggests revolution—I notice that there is a dated and similar style in the socialist essays of Forster, Orwell, and Gill—that abolishes letters and establishes phonography or shorthand, where each symbol represents one sound. ( )
  michaelm42071 | Sep 4, 2009 |
Gill writes about so much more than typography. This is one of my favorite books. It's not very long, but packs quite a bit of punch. He was a devout and original Christian, and his humane spirituality is bursting throughout his work. This is a treatise on what it means to be human in an industrial world, and I wonder if it might not be even more apt today than it was when it was originally published.

Favorite quote (from memory, so may not be 100% accurate in the wording):
"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 and the product of their working hours mechanically perfect, and to relegate the humanities—all that is of its nature humane—to their spare time, to the time when they are not at work." ( )
  spoko | Dec 18, 2005 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Eric Gillprimary authorall editionscalculated
Skelton, ChristopherIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The theme of this book is Typography, and Typography as it is affected by the conditions of the year 1931.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0879239506, Paperback)

An Essay on Typography was first published in 1931, instantly recognized as a classic, and has long been unavailable. It represents Gill at his best opinionated, fustian, and consistently humane. It is his only major work on typography and remains indispensable for anyone interested in the art of letter forms and the presentation of graphic information.

This manifesto, however, is not only about letters their form, fit, and function but also about man's role in an industrial society. As Gill wrote later, it was his chief object "to describe two worlds that of industrialism and that of the human workman & to define their limits."

His thinking about type is still provocative. Here are the seeds of modern advertising unjustified lines, tight word and letter spacing, ample leading. Here, too, is vintage Gill, as polemical as he is practical, as much concerned about the soul of man as the work of man; as much obsessed by the ends as by the means.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:24 -0400)

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