“Good typography can never be humorous. It is precisely the opposite of adventure.” — Jan Tschichold.
One belief rampaged through the early 20th century: to change culture, you must impose order. This is true of the left and right wing, played out in fascist and communist governments alike. From order, so the thinking went, people will realize the truth of your beliefs (or at least succumb to them). But in order to get them to experience those righteous feelings, one needs a framework to teach those who haven’t seen the light yet (or at least keep the non-believers in line).
In 1914 when Jan Tschichold was twelve, a poorly laid-out book with terrible typography so upset his sensibilities that he took scissors to it. He cut it up and redrew the title pages, re-assembling a book more aesthetically tuned to his impeccable standards. That Tschichold has an origin story—usually reserved for patriots, presidents, saints and other super heroes—should tell you what an esteemed place he holds in the annals of twentieth century typography. That the story is true should tell you something about the man himself. In the building of taste, Tschichold would hold the door for us if we wanted to join him at the top of the stairs, but he certainly wouldn’t waste time in our pedestrian basement.
In 1928 Tschichold published a book audaciously titled Die neue Typographie, or “The New Typography.” He advocated for systems of typographic layout and printing that would align with the new thinking brought to culture through the Dada, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Futurist movements. The belief was that society was on the verge of a primal step of evolution, born of the machine age. An optimism and excitement parallel to that some seventy years later at the dawn of the Internet. Everyday objects—the train, the automobile, the light bulb—were fetishes signifying the great cultural movements that would liberalize society and free everyday people from the shackles of oppression and individual statehood, with its requisite wars and dogmas. “These objects, designed without reference to the aesthetics of the past, have been created by a new kind of man: the engineer!” he wrote.
With this new excitement a new companion method of typographic expression was required and Tschichold drew the map. "None of the typefaces whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added meet our requirements for clarity and purity… Among all of the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif)… is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time."
Sans-serif type, literally “without serifs”, was not new, but before this time it was primarily relegated to signage and advertising. Headlines you might see, but rarely long text passages. That it was relegated to a classification of “Grotesque” by typographers in the 19th century should give you a clue to the general feeling about those type forms.
Serifs evolved from the pen-strokes scribes used when forming a letter. If you were to blow your computer screen up 200% or so and focus on a lower-case ‘r’, you’d see a small stroke at the top left end of the stem and on either sides of the bottom of the stem, making a modest foot for the letter to stand on. These are serifs. Serifs are generally believed to aid in legibility, but Tschichold wanted to strip all forms down to their base, looking at ornamentation the way that Charles and Ray Eames probably looked at Rococo.
By ending ornamentation and creating a more pure communication, Tschichold thought that cultural differences could be eradicated through typography. The traditional typeface for Germany was Fraktur, a blackletter not dissimilar to the Textura Gutenberg used nearly 500 years before. Tschichold railed against it. “The emphatically national, exclusivist character of Fraktur… contradicts present-day transnational bonds between people and forces their inevitable elimination.”
In Germany, Fraktur had been in battle with roman letterforms, generally called Antiqua, since Germany had lost its monopoly on printing towards the end of the 15th century. Fraktur was generally accepted as the common face, and here was this young punk typographer advocating for doing away with tradition during the most violent and oppressive nationalist uprising of the 20th century.
Indeed, the Nazis declared Fraktur the typeface of the party, and, by extension, of Germany, citing tradition and national pride. They printed it on their stationary and used it in their propaganda. The Nazi party had its own ideas about typography, and needless to say, they did not align with our hero’s. They did, however, share that one constant: to change culture, you must impose order.
In 1933 Tschichold was living in Munich with his wife Edith. They had been in the city for seven years, having moved so that Jan could take a teaching post at the Meisterschule für Deutschland Buchdrucker (the Master School for German Book Printing) at the bequest of Paul Renner, whose typeface Futura you’ve no doubt seen in good use—the titles of most Wes Anderson movies, for example.
The Tschicholds were home with their young son one evening early in March when armed Nazis came to the door. They declared that they were doing a house-to-house search and demanded entrance. They found Soviet posters, and arrested Jan and Edith. Edith they released after two days. Jan they kept locked up, accused of “Cultural Bolshevism.” Reader, if you feel that perhaps typography is trivial in the history of culture, look no further than this minor incident in Nazi lore as refutation. The Nazis were willing to imprison people not because of their beliefs in religion or politics per se, but because of their beliefs about typography.
Tschichold was released after six weeks, after the Reichstag passed the “Law for Removing the Distress of the People and the Reich,” which voted democracy out and dictator Hitler in. Just like in the great novels (or, at least, the Sound of Music) Tschichold secreted his family out of Germany and moved to Switzerland, where he settled near Basel.
Eventually, the Nazis had a break with their beloved Fraktur. In 1941 Martin Borman, on behalf of Hitler, banned it under the mistaken paranoia that it was of Jewish origin. The letterhead on which the decree was typed was printed in Fraktur.
In 1946 Tschichold wrote: "The Third Reich was second to none in pursuing technical “progress” through its preparations for war, which were hypocritically concealed behind the propaganda for medieval forms of society and expression. Deception lay at its root, and that is why it could not abide the honest modernists who were its political opponents." With a note of caution no doubt directed at himself, he continued: “yet they themselves, without knowing it, stood very close to the mania for ‘order’ that ruled the Third Reich…”
Tschichold mellowed on his beliefs in a brand new typography. “I am the most severe critic of the young Tschichold,” he wrote later in his life. He backed away from sans-serif typography as a salvation as he became better educated in the history of type and why older designers made some of the choices that they did.
He continued as a book designer and typographer in Switzerland during the war, and through his work he gained a reputation as one of the finest designers in Europe. A few years after the Allied victory, he received a call from a British gentleman named Allen Lane, who asked him to come to London and help redesign his line of books.
Legend has it (another origin story!) that Lane was standing on the platform at Exeter station after visiting Agatha Christie. He had nothing good to read, and the newsstand carried only popular and tired historic fare. He lamented the lack of good modern literature available cheaply and readily. He imagined great writing being available everywhere, maybe in a vending machine, for about the price of a pack of cigarettes.
He wanted a moniker that was both ‘dignified and flippant.’ His secretary recommended the penguin as a mascot, and in 1935 Penguin published its first editions, including the work of Hemingway, Maurois and Christie. Their iconic color-coding—fiction was orange, crime was green and biography was blue—and graphic covers made them easy to spot and identify. The books were hugely successful.
The brand became legendarily seated in the hearts of the British when soldiers carried the books during the war, trading them at far points around the world. A small bit of home and solace that slips easily into a soldier’s pocket. On the home front, Penguin published popular titles on cooking under rationing, and the bestselling What’s That Plane: How to Identify American and Jap Airplanes.
During the war, publishing was difficult. Materials were rationed, and Penguin had to make due with what it could, and schedule its runs around presses which were often used for the war effort. Editions were smaller. But after the war there were newfound riches for the publisher who chose to exploit them. Lane knew that he had an opportunity to redo the Penguin line with higher quality and better standards. He was introduced to Tschichold, and hired the German designer to come to London.
On arrival at Penguin, Tschichold found chaos. There were no rules in place to govern design. No specs for paper and layout of covers, interiors or anything else. Each book, despite their general graphical uniformity, was prone to the quirks of the designer, or worse, the printer, who might dispose of Penguin’s brand in trade for easing the production process.
At first, Tschichold’s attempts to draw order from the chaos were met with resentment from the individualistic British for his Germanic, orderly approach. Ruari McLean, in his biography of Tschichold, pointed out that when somebody was appreciative of his efforts, Tschichold spoke fluent English. When they were reproachful that he was not doing it the British way, suddenly he had great trouble with the language barrier, asking people to repeat themselves until they simply gave up.
Tschichold spent two years at Penguin writing exacting standards that specified everything from the paragraph indent (1 em—an em being a unit of typographic measurement equal to the width of a letter ‘m’ of any given typeface size. An em dash, then, is a dash the width of one em.), to the location and size of the Penguin logo on the front book cover, which he redrew multiple times. He wrote explicit composition rules for the printers to follow, unifying all of the plants that printed Penguin books (most presses in England in that day did, to one degree or another), and thus giving them a baseline standard that they applied to other clients as well. It is alleged by more than one biographer that Tschichold was singularly responsible for creating higher printing standards in post-war England.
He also managed to design over 500 books, transforming Penguin from a publishing house beloved for the quality of their writers to one also well respected for their impeccable design quality. He did it through a refined framework, imposing strict order on the work that Penguin produced.
But in all of Tschichold’s specs, precise to the millimeter in so many ways, there is one glaring omission: he never spelled out what typeface a designer was to use. That choice, we can imagine, he thought was better left with the designer. It would be one choice that lived best outside of order. One small influence in a job whose greatest reward consists of disappearing.
“To remain nameless and without specific appreciation, yet to have been of service to a valuable work and to the small number of visually sensitive readers—this, as a rule, is the only compensation for the long, and indeed never-ending, indenture of the typographer.”
1. Martin Bormann’s 1941 decree banning the use of Fraktur: http://german.about.com/library/gallery/blfoto_fraktur06.htm
2. Richard Hollis on Jan Tschichold, in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/dec/05/jan-tschichold-typography
3. Linotype’s celebration of Tschichold’s 100th birthday: http://www.linotype.com/794/inhonorofthe100thbirthdayofjantschichold.html