Tschichold, democratic design and the politics of typefaces

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Penguin founder Allen Lane hired Jan Tschichold to design the publisher’s book covers in 1947. Tschichold made an immediate impact:

“…nothing compared to storm when Jan Tschichold arrived. Mild-mannered man with an inflexible character. Screams heard from Edinburgh to Ipswich and from Aylesbury to Bungay.” This was the result of Tschichold’s immediate effort to raise the standard of undisciplined English typesetting; to his frustration, Tschichold found himself obliged to treat the compositor not as a craftsman but as a machine, by specifying precise measurements for the spaces between each combination of letters in a title. It was the only way to get the results he desired. Jan Tschichold: A titan of typography

So there you have it; the Ipswich Jan Tschichold link.

I guess this is an example of what iA refer to as Fingerspitzengefühl; the fine knowledge of detail that helps produce good design. (Go ahead and read Learning to See—you won’t be disappointed.)

Design plans for the Highland Dress book cover

Tschichold's book cover designs were precise

When we talk about design it’s very easy to adopt a reverential, exclusive tone. Design can be used as a means to up the price of a product. But it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the things we think of as examples of great design serve a democratic purpose. Tschischold invented a template for cheap, massproduced books that sold millions of copies.

Tschischold is an interesting man. He escaped the Nazis in 1933 having published Die neue Typographie, where he claimed sans serifs were the “basic form from which the typeface of the future will grow”. By 1952 he’d performed a volte face:

The sanserif only seems to be the simpler script. It is a form that was violently reduced for little children. For adults it is more difficult to read than serifed roman type, whose serifs were never meant to be ornamental. On Typography (via Jason Santa Maria’s article Change of Heart).

Apparently, Tschichold became disillusioned with sans serifs after the Nazis adopted typefaces such as Futura (interestingly enough Ikea’s chosen typeface, until it switched to Verdana). While state typeface choice might not seem particularly important, you could argue that some sans serifs reflect a desire for purity and abstract cleanliness that appeal to totalitarian systems. More obviously, we associate hard to read, heavy, relatively ancient blackletters with the Nazis.

Anyway, there’s politics in the letterforms.