Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

If there is nothing for dinner but beans, one may hunt for an onion, some pepper, salt, cilantro and sour cream to enliven the dish, but it is generally no help to pretend that the beans are really prawns or chanterelles. When the only font available is Cheltenham or Times Roman, the typographer must make the most of its virtues, limited though they may be.

-Robert Bringhurst

Is it possible for a book about typography–not a biography of its heroes or a politically connotated manifesto–to be a page-turner that the reader is loathe to set down? Apparently so. Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Tyopgraphic Style, Version 3.2, is so full of colorful analogies and eloquent phrasing that it’s easy to forget that the subject matter is one that is typically considered nit-picky and disproportionately impassioned.

Bringhurt’s book was recommended to me by a friend who is a copy editor. When I decided to become a technical writer, I asked his advice on copy editing. Since I already write for magazines, branching out into copy editing seemed a logical counterpart to learning technical writing for me. This book was among his recommendation, but it was nearly a year before I broke into its plastic wrapping. I was busy reading more pressing books for school, and this one was more “fun” (I know I have a different idea of “fun” than most people), so for a workaholic like me, it took back burner.

As evidenced in the quote above, this text is a specimen of creative writing, not in the sense that it is fiction, but that it is full of colorful description and poetic metaphor. After reading it, it is hardly a surprise to learn that Bringhurt is literally a poet, author of many books of poetry as well as prose. While the book is structured like a reference book–sort of a thorough style guide plus encyclopedic listings–it reads like an intricate and heartfelt story. Technical specs collide with unmitigated opinions collide with every ancient art, from mathematics to music to philosophy. Details are so dense (as they must be with this art), that the under-initiated has the feeling of drowning, but in a pleasantly temperatured river on a hot sunny day so that one hardly even minds; it just seems like the perfect day to drown.

It sounds like I’m about to give this book a rave review, but I must hold back some praise. It ended up being a little boring. Probably this is due to my overzealous determination to read it from cover to cover; it was probably not meant to be read so. As interesting as it is, it is 350 pages about typography, including names of designers and typefoundries which can be meaningful only to a few of us.

So as a reference book, then? Well, for all its pages, this book is not complete enough to be a pure reference. Fonts are examined in detail, but only the fonts which the author felt like talking about. The most remedial, such as Helvetica and Times New Roman, are passive-aggressively ignored. Fonts are organized by serif and sans serif, but a list of more detailed specs for each (aperture, axis, modulation) would have been helpful.

Alternately, the book contains too much information, not just too little. There are so many appendices it can be confusing to know which to open when. Few people will be interested in the short paragraph bios of 13 pages’ worth of designers, let alone typefoundries. And while the linguaphile in me enjoyed the “Working Alphabet” reference of every relevant character across many languages, I wonder how many people felt the same.

As with any book about design, this book is and should be a thing of beauty. It actually makes me a little sad to see how worn it is after a month or two in my messenger bag, though I know that’s supposed to be a sign of use and “love.” The inside is so crisp, however, that I still hold the pages up to my nose, expecting it to have that “new book” smell. I think this must be an effect of the paper, layout, and type combined, as all these topics are covered between its pages.

A common complaint among my classmates was that our books about design were all black and white. Bringhurst’s book breaks the cost taboo by adding a splash of red to the title and referential opening pages. The effect is striking. Kudos to the author for requesting (demanding?) this of his publisher.

Another highlight that is both design and content is the inclusion of interesting, beautifully set poetry sprinkled throughout the book to show examples of the fonts in use. It’s a delight to come across a gorgeous Yeats quote that shows the power of good typography.

Neither fully reference nor ornate prose, you get the feeling that Robert Bringhurst wrote the book he wanted to write. Through both explanation and example, he ties typography to all the classic arts. Even for someone like me who only knows the basics, it was a bright, contoured, enjoyable read. Maybe don’t go the cover-to-cover route. Just pick what looks interesting to you. There should be plenty.


One of the classes I’m taking is Reading Theory and Document Design, and the first book I’ve finished reading for that class is Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions by Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett.

The title can be taken quite literally: the book really is about conventions in visual communication. Traditions, habits, our “default settings,” and how they change, evolve, get stuck, and get unstuck.

Despite its black and white status–an odd choice for a book about design, especially one that costs $50–this is a beautiful book, with fascinating diagrams from throughout the ages splashed on nearly every page. If I took nothing else away from this book, it sparked my enthrallment with information design as a creative visual art. There are representations of information in here that are so far from anything I’d imagined, it’s like finding out for the first time that there are other religions, or other languages, in the world.

If you see my Mind Map about this book that I shared in a previous post, you’ll get an idea of the way Kostelnick and Hassett categorize these conventions: by discourse community, by currency, and by longevity, to name a few. One idea that was enlightening to me was the idea of “currency” as it applies to a convention–that is, how widespread it is. Some symbols are understood across cultures, such as a triangle for a warning sign (38). Others, such as company logos, might only be recognized by a few. (Then again if the logo in question is Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, I’d bet those have the highest currency of all.)

One important theme of this book is how much flexibility we have when working with design conventions. When do we have to toe the line? When can we rock the boat? What are the consequences of flouting tradition, and how can the world change if we don’t? These are all topics that deserve much discussion among the technical writing and information design community, and Kostelnick and Hassett do a fabulous job of getting the ball rolling, with solid examples and relatable hypotheticals. Although, as a small complaint, some of their categories needed fresh examples by the later chapters in the book. If I heard about the extinction of handwriting cultures or the reemergence of oversized initial letters one more time, I was going to scream.

I enjoyed this book for its thorough examination of visual conventions, its discussion of their place in rhetorical communication, and its pretty pictures. I will never look at an exploded diagram the same way again.