The Elements of Typographic Style
All modern typography books stand tall on the shoulders of this slim, sleek giant
The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst is largely considered the best book on typography available today. Its detailed and beautifully formatted pages lay out the foundation that any designer needs to build a career on. Many of the key concepts of vertical rhythm, type selection, font types and structures, and typographic history are introduced and explained plainly and without complication.
The Elements of Typographic Style
Robert Bringhurst himself is a poet with over twenty published books. He is also an accomplished typographer and layout artist, doing the work for his own books over the years. My personal favorite is The Raven Steals the Light.
The Elements of Typographic Style was originally his way of organizing a career’s worth of thoughts on typography into one central book. The success of it came as a surprise to him, and he has built upon it with four subsequent revisions. The first edition, released in 1992, was from before modern digital technologies complicated the typographic space. The Elements of Typographic Style as a flash-freeze of that era at times feels a little staid in that it doesn’t address these new use-cases. In 2013, Robert Bringhurst released his 20th edition (version 4.0) which included some minimal updates. The core of the book goes unchanged, largely leaving modern technologies unmentioned.
There is a reason it is referred to as “The Typographer’s Bible”
It sounds hyperbolic, but if I could only buy one book on typography (and perhaps take it to an island — I think that’s how this is supposed to go), this would be the one. The succinct form of the book lends to a quick read through and belies its incredible depth. The quality of Bringhurst’s writing is worth stating: it has an amazingly even rhythm for a reference book, never becoming dry and always building up to the next section. The author’s passion for type is obvious and it makes the content shine.
The book’s most powerful feature is its scope. It distills centuries of concepts which are necessary for anyone who deals with typography daily to understand. Concepts covered range from ligatures to type anatomy, the use of diacritics and other analphabetic symbols, glyphs and terminologies, etc. There are annotated lists of type designers and foundries included, which are hugely useful if you are new to the craft and want to go and see what is out there.
The Elements of Typographic Style is not an exhaustive resource (I can’t imagine one being anything less than 20 volumes of encyclopedic doldrums), but rather a highlighting of the best ideas and recommended methodologies for typography.
Classic, and classical — sometimes at the expense of the reader
While up to now I’ve poured much praise upon the book, there are absolutely a few caveats which I have to address.
The obvious lack of attention given to modern methods of reading and setting type are first and foremost. Because Robert Bringhurst is an obvious traditionalist, this is a forgivable oversight. For a modern designer, who might be solely focused on web design, they may open the book and be dismayed to find that it lacks information directed solely at their chosen medium. It is important to take The Elements of Typographic Style at face value and pick and choose its useful content, disregarding the rest. Much of the content is relevant. That which isn’t is easily left on the table of history; interesting tidbits perhaps to be poured over on a rainy day.
- Typographic anatomy is timeless, and so is most of the content included.
- Robert Bringhurst’s beautiful prose brings his love of type to life as he dissects his subject with care.
- Monitors? What’s a monitor? Aside from brief asides mentioning modern type-setting, this is a very book and print oriented reference.
- How frayed your copy will get over the years.
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