FORM versus CONTENT

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Leiden Uninersity
Faculty of Arts
English Department
Book and Digital Media Studies

FORM versus CONTENT

Comment on Robert Bringhurst’ s The Elements of Typographic Style (Vancouver, 1999)
CHAP 1 ‘The Grand Design’

Olivier Nyirubugara
13 October 2005

Olivier Nyirubugara, June 2005

Olivier Nyirubugara
Graduate in Publishing and Digital Media Studies
Graduate in American Literature.

Before starting my comment, I would like first to admit that Bringhurst has drawn my attention on the importance of design and typography and the influence they have on the understanding of the text’s meaning. Not only has the simple style with which he wrote this chapter captivated me but also the arguments were to some extent convincing.

In this short comment I would like to discuss the FORM-CONTENT issue and the influence they have on each other. Obviously, Bringhurst is concentrating on the form, that is the appearance of the text, rather than on the content, which is understandable since the subject is typography not content.

I totally agree with him when he writes that “well-chosen words deserve well-chosen letters”(P18, para 2). If my understanding is good, Bringhurst wants to say that when the content is good, perfect, original, exciting,…the designer should take his time to think about the best appropriate way to present the text. Can one imagine the book like Lucien Febvre and HJ Martin’s The Coming of the Book with hardly legible small characters, condensed lines, no spaces, no margins,…? It would be a betrayal to the remarkable content of this unique book.

Very unfortunately, Bringhurst did not provide any example of a text he thought the typography fitted the content. That way, we would have seen by ourselves what he means with a palpable example before our eyes.

The other point is the interpretation of letter types by the reader. Bringhurst makes us believe, and he might be right, that letters are not just the endless chains of ink signs that we see on paper. He says “letterforms have tone, timbre, character, just as words and sentences do”(p. 22, para5). I would have been satisfied if I had found somewhere in the text how the different letterforms, just “like music” can “be used to manipulate behaviour and emotions”(p. 19, last para).

I can see declarations but no demonstrations. It would have been better to read for instance that if you use “Times New Roman”, the reader will deduce, even before reading it, that the text is a scholarly work, or a literary one. In the case of music, because he compares typography with music, a sad song will be easily distinguished from a joyful one. A Gregorian song will always be distinguished from Jazz music and each will always provoke a particular and different behaviour and emotions on the part of the listener. How does this apply to the letterforms?

However, I do agree that “the typographer’s one essential task is to interpret and communicate the text, its tone, its tempo, its logical structure, its physical size and determine the possibilities of its typographic form”(p. 20, para 2). Will it be pleasant to read De Telegraaf if its texts were not in columns? Will it be normal and logical to see the text of “The Coming of the Book” in columns? Perhaps people can argue that “Bibliopolis”, which is comparable to “The Coming of the Book” (in terms of content and value) was written in columns. I say ‘yes’ because of the many illustrations which fit better the columns than the plain text. So, to paraphrase Bringhurst, the text has to illustrate itself (p. 21, para 2).

To conclude, I would like to point out the fact that Bringhurst has created a kind of suspense. I find now myself in a situation where I wonder, for each text I write (because, with the PC, we are the typographers/designers of our own texts), whether I have chosen the best design (letterforms, margins, ..) to present this essay for instance. Therefore, since Bringhurst has not provided any demonstration (perhaps in other chapters that I have not yet read), I still consider this as a subjective matter where everyone will choose to use Roman or Arial types without any particular reason, but just because they like it.

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