Typography Must Honor Content

Steve Schoeffel, Former Designer

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

"The typographer's one essential task is to interpret and communicate the text" (20).

I recently had the pleasure of reading The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, a book which Hermann Zapf endorsed by saying he wished to see it become the Typographer's Bible. From my humble and limited perspective, I'd give a similarly enthusiastic recommendation. I found it to be thought-provoking, comprehensive, and extremely practical. Furthermore, it was written with a real understated eloquence that makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

In the beginning pages of the book, Bringhurst speaks more generally about the purposes and foundational principles of typography. One of the things that struck me is the significant relationship between typography and text. One of the first rules Bringhurst quickly establishes is that "typography exists to honor content" (17). As much as I'd like to believe that typography is actually the end in itself, it is much more that our role as typographers and designers is to accurately and truthfully communicate the original intent of the author. Bringhurst uses a helpful metaphor to explain this further: "the typographer must analyze and reveal the inner order of the text, as a musician must reveal the inner order of the music he performs" (21). There is an interpretation that occurs as the text is set, one in which the idea is not to replace the content itself, but to reveal it. Seeing that this is the goal, it seems then that as typographers and designers, our ability to succeed hinges on our understanding of the content.

As anyone who has worked in the web industry will attest, there is very frequently a struggle to get all the content written (or at least planned) before major design and typographic decisions need to be made. Just recently, a co-worker of mine expressed his frustration about a project in which the final content didn't come through until almost the very end of the engagement. Imagine for a minute a musician who must perform a musical score with only the early thoughts and vision of the composer. More than likely it will not sound like a finished work. More importantly, it will not sound like the finished work – it will reflect the musician's predictions and assumptions of its inner order, rather than the truthful content of the piece. You simply can't interpret and communicate content that doesn't yet exist.

Now, assuming that the content is there at the beginning of the design process, the first thing Bringhurst urges typographers and designers to do is read it. We will not be able to clarify information that we ourselves do not understand. We must first make sense of the creator's idea before we can perform it. Once we have done this, however, the real work begins. Bringhurst uses a similar metaphor here that describes this work very well in saying that "typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunities for insight or obtuseness" (19). If a musical score is made beautiful by the manner in which its notes are performed, our goal as typographers should be to choose our type and set it in a manner that truly honors the text.

All quotes in this blog post are taken from The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.


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