Books, Blogs, and Dialectics

Over the Easter holidays I read the little book Tschichold – na und? (‘Tschichold—so what?’) by Gerd Fleischmann (Wallstein, 2013).

According to the introduction, it’s a collection of 24 “miniatures” reflecting on the relevance of Jan Tschichold and his rules of typography in the context of today’s book design and book market. Some of the “miniatures” are less than a page long, and they’re only loosely connected (if at all, but this is not a book review). After reading a few of them I thought, “man, if there’s a book that should have rather been published as a series of blog posts, this is it!”1

It turns out that the author does indeed maintain a blog, something which I would not have expected of a typographer born in 1939, and from what I understand, the posts that make up the book were first published in print, with an embargo period of one year—so what we have here is the reverse of the by now familiar situation, of blog posts that are published in print after their online publication. This makes the book an interesting hybrid: it’s written in the informal style of a blog, but has a full subject index; it’s chock-full with URLs, which appear as endnotes, and all of it is typeset in Scala, complete with old-style figures and small caps.


The author is fully aware of the anachronism, which obviously extends to the whole topic of “esthetics of the book” (the name of the series)—the title hints at it. It wasn’t actually so much the content of the book (but again, this is not a review), but rather this multi-level anachronism (and the associated irony) that got me thinking.

If you’re not familiar with Jan Tschichold and the history of 20th-century typography, here are a few words of context, if you don’t want to read the full Wikipedia article. Jan Tschichold (1902–1974) is certainly one of the most important and most revered German typographers and typographic theoreticans. He’s especially well known for his rules of typography and book design, published in several books. Interestingly, Tschichold was first (in the mid-1920s) a fervent advocate of the modernist New Typography, and his two groundbreaking publications, the special issue elementare typographie of the Typographische Monatsblätter (1925) and the book Die Neue Typographie (1928) were crucial in establishing it. Modernist typography is (among other things) characterized by the exclusive use of sans-serif typefaces, asymmetric layouts, and the absence of decorative elements. However, after Tschichold was forced to emigrate to Switzerland in 1933, he dismissed New Typography as only suitable for advertising and became a staunch advocate of “traditional typography” with seriffed typefaces, symmetric layouts, and (moderate) ornaments. This radical change of beliefs puzzeled many, and his return to the “old ways” was understood by many modernists as a betrayal of modernist ideals.2 Indeed, Tschichold’s change of course continues to puzzle many to this day, and no discussion of Tschichold is complete without a reference to this fact.

Now, I haven’t read everything published on this subject, but what struck me while reading Fleischmann’s book, was that Tschichold’s change of direction seems to be always described as a return to traditional typography. While Tschichold’s later work does indeed make reference to Garamond, Bodoni, and the like (which may, in a sense, be considered “traditional typography”), I’ve come to think that this view—even if Tschichold himself and his contemporaries may understood it in this way—could be too simple and static. I wonder whether this change of beliefs is more adequately described in dialectical terms.

Modernist typography explicitly understood itself as negation of everything associated with (late) 19th century typography: central axis, ornament, blackletter typefaces, and—in particular—its eclecticism and historicism, which were perceived as anachronistic. Modernist typography can thus be described as antithesis to 19th century typography. Tschichold generally describes his later work as “traditional typography,” but the formulation “neuerstandene traditionelle Typographie” (‘resurrected traditional typography’), which he uses in “Glaube und Wirklichkeit” (his 1946 response to Max Bill’s “über typographie”), hints to the fact that it is not identical to Didot’s or Bodoni’s typography. Even if it is heavily influenced by classicist typography, Tschichold developed his “traditional typography” as antithesis to modernist typography—thus, in my opinion, Tschichold’s work from the mid-1930s onwards should not be be understood as a “return” to traditional typography3 but rather as the negation of the antithesis. However, Max Bill’s typography at that point wasn’t the same New Typography as 20 years before either, but rather another negation of the antithesis, which had led to different results. Thus, Tschichold and Bill were really attacking straw men.

As usual, I’m in want of a good conclusion for this post. Here is an attempt: I have the feeling that many discussions surrounding the digital humanities are prone to similar fallacies. Too often we hear absurd arguments discussed “deeply in earnest, with passions that approximate those of civil war.” Two examples from the top of my head are the assumption (or insinuation) that the humanities today are still the same as they were a hundred years ago (can be used both in the negative and the positive sense), or that computer science wants to or should (depending on your viewpoint) take over (or rescue) the humanities. Like when discussing typography, a little dialectics may be in order.



See my previous post Books vs. Blogs.


Most famously Max Bill. On this topic I recommend Hans Rudolf Bosshard’s book Max Bill kontra Jan Tschichold. Der Typographiestreit der Moderne (Niggli 2012).


Whatever this actually is. In “Glaube und Wirklichkeit” Tschichold explicitly states that the “traditional typography” he defends has nothing to do with what he calls the “Heimatstil” of Rudolf Koch and his disciples.

Author: Michael Piotrowski

Computational linguist, computer scientist, professor of digital humanities at the University of Lausanne.

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