on June 8, 2000
As a designer, I am always looking to hone my skills. I thought I was adept at setting type until I found this gem. Bringhurst's study of type covers the obvious to the arcane. Beautifully designed, it illustrates type and their families, page geometry, philosophies of design, and typesetting rules. Master Craftsman, Hermann Zapf (you know -- his faces are in your computer) said himself that "he wishes to see this book become the Typographers Bible". This book is a must for the writer, publisher, designer, and editor because it covers a multitude of topics and rules vital and common to each sector. This is the "Manual of Style" for typesetting. It requires us to think more carefully about the setting of words and its impact on writing: "Typography is to literature what musical performance is to composition -- full of endless opportunity for insight OR obtuseness." I recommend this for anyone even remotely interested in the artform of letters. I highly recommend it for writers considering designing their own books.
on December 6, 2005
The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.1) is certainly a very well written book that contains not only a great deal of useful information but also interesting insights of a more subjective nature. However, it is not as perfect as practically every other review posted here suggests, and I would like to point out a few aspects in which it could be improved.
Little more than half of the 382-page book is filled with what I would call the actual "core" of the work. The other half is dedicated to analyses of the author's favourite typefaces (about 80 pages) and several appendices. There is nothing inherently bad about this distribution, but unfortunately some of the core parts were only given a cursory mention, when in my opinion they deserved more in-depth discussions.
So, for example:
(a) In chapter 8, Shaping the Page, the author lists countless page and textblock proportions and provides a large number of geometric figures representing page formats, but does little more than give each proportion a name ("Full Cross Octagon page", "Turned Hexagon" etc). He then gives a few examples, but not nearly enough, and leaves the reader wanting for more details on which proportions or formats would, in the author's analysis, be more appropriate for this or that type of text. And most of the numbers and diagrams merely take up space in the book, since just knowing about their existence does not help much.
(b) Two diagrams on page 6 (just before the table of contents) are supposed to show the reader how the author came up with the proportions for the book's pages and textblocks. Unfortunately, the hexagons, circles and intersecting lines are not accompanied by any kind of explanation (and reading chapter 8 is not enough to decipher them), so instead of serving as a useful practical example they do little more than decorate the front matter.
(c) In chapter 10, Grooming the Font, Bringhurst advises readers to mend defective glyphs and make glyphs that are missing from a font, but does not suggest ways in which these tasks might be accomplished. One can more or less guess how he went about making the corrections to Photina shown as an example, but it would be useful to be given a little more detailed information. Someone who needs to be told to fix a font certainly needs to be told how to fix it.
(d) On pages 204 and 205, the author shows "part of a text file designed to test for missing or dislocated glyphs". Why not give the reader the full file, as an appendix perhaps? Why not save the reader the trouble of trying to reproduce the full test text (after googling in vain for it), which probably will not be nearly as good as the one Bringhurst, a master typographer, has produced over the years?
(e) The author's suggestions for further reading are not annotated in any way, and many, if not most, of the books mentioned are out of print. The reader will seldom find information about the contents of the out-of-print books (which are often not made clear by the title) on Amazon.com, so comments by the author would have been extremely useful.
Another slightly disappointing feature of a book that has a section on page design is the fact that, at least in my humble opinion, the textblock is a little too close to the spine for comfortable reading - but maybe there wasn't much the author could have done to anticipate the way the binding would work.
In the end, anyone serious about typography will want to get this book anyway: not only because it is probably the best in its class, but also because Bringhurst is a master from whom a lot can be learned. Having said that, until the issues mentioned above are addressed (perhaps in a future edition?), I would not consider this book worthy of "bible status".
I wrote the above review several years ago and originally gave the book four stars. In a recent comment on my review, fellow reader Steve McFarland wrote: "I only wanted to say, half-seriously: the Bible has a lot more flaws than this, but it's still the Bible - I say Bringhurst wrote the definitive text, warts and all!" And he's right: expecting absolute perfection is unrealistic and unreasonable. Five stars it is.
on December 8, 1999
This book should be required reading for every graphic designer, book designer, typographer and certainly anyone directly or indirectly responsible for unleashing the current wave of awful typography on an unsuspecting public. Bringhurst covers everything from the basics of type styles to advanced kerning principles to the finer points of page proportions, all in a succint yet engaging way.
Bringhurst does an excellent job of laying out a series of rules and guidelines, while making it clear that these are a starting point, a foundation for good type design, not a set of limitations. He is a poet as well as a typographer, and his eloquence pays tribute to the field as no one else has.
The book features a good deal on the evolution of typography and includes great side-by-side comparisons of typefaces to illustrate specific points. He also deals extensively with punctuation marks, diacritics and the duty/joy of designing type with languages other than English in mind. I find myself returning again and again to the section on the subtleties of page proportions. He also achieves the nearly impossible balance of singing the praises of the old masters while not being afraid of the best of what's new and experimental.
If you were allowed only one book on typography, it should be this one. Bringhurst is a poet. He loves language, written language, and all its parts. That love comes through in the text and the visual presentation of every page.
Bringhurst advocates a subdued typographic style. This makes good sense in the vast majority of cases, since typography is the servant of the text that it carries. Like any good servant, it should be unobtrusive, well dressed, and competent to handle every task it is given, quietly and promptly. Bringhurst demonstrates nearly everything he says, starting first with this book itself.
The book is a beautiful artifact, with an elegant and informative page layout. Body text, side- and foot-notes, references, running titles, and more - they all fit together well on the page. Each kind of information is set off only slightly, but clearly and predictably. The content is well organized: prose in the early chapters, reference material in the later chapters and appendices, and all the intermediates in the middle of the book. Diagrams and tables are minimalist and communicative.
The text spans centuries, from ancient Egyptian page layouts to the rationale behind Unicode. Bringhurst is passionate about typography's history, and insists that it inform every modern decision about print and printing. He embraces the new just as much, and is careful to note the strengths and weaknesses of each typographic technology.
Bringhurst discusses far too many topics to touch on here. In every case, though, he brings his poet's sense to all of the writing, using witty, descriptive language for even the most mundane of technical issues. The one weakness I saw was in the geometry of page layouts. I like his mathematical rigor and esthetic practicality. Still, I think that the number of different constructions was more a tribute to what can be done than to what serves a real need.
This is the best, most complete text I know on book design. As Bringhurst points out, there are lots of other uses for type than books, but he chose books as his subject - I have no problem with that limitation. The only problem I saw, and not really a problem with the book itself, is its subtlety. The nuances (well, most of the nuances) he discusses are important. Beginners, however, may not see the significance of small matters. Once a reader's eye it tuned to the fine detail, however, this book is the most helpful I know.
on April 5, 2001
Good craft teachers are able to teach their students all the skills it takes for their professional life. Great teachers go beyond that: they try to make their students Understand the craft. By telling them about its historical development, by developing their taste instead of just giving good recipes, by showing the inside. In The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst puts the why before the how. His work is a mix of a very elaborate history of typography, a wealth of discussions on all kinds of big and little subjects any typographer wants or forgets to consider - and yes, also practical advice. For instance, Bringhurst first makes clear why with some fonts, it is inappropriate to use bold - and then he goes on showing how to create up to six visually different levels of subheads without using bold once. Even in such cases, Bringhurst stays far away from soothing his readers with quick and dirty advices. As he explained after finishing the book, he wanted nothing more or less than simply to write a book about typography as good as he could - a truly genuine approach in an age where customer orientation is often taken to the extremes. No wonder Bringhurst values timeless typographical virtues higher than the fashions of the day. Some readers may find the result of this approach a bit too academical or lyrical. For them, other excellent books on typography are waiting on the shelf. For me, Bringhurst is a great teacher.
on November 5, 2005
This book is the Ferrari of typography books. Anyone seriously into typography should read it.
It is less useful, however, for beginners and self publishers, to whom it is often recommended. They will be less conscious that some of Bringhurst's advice is simply his opinion -- not an absolute rule or even standard practice.
Certainly read Bringhurst for advanced study. But if you're just learning about typography, there are better introductions. (My own favorite is James Felici's The Complete Manual of Typography).
on October 24, 2010
The book is excellent, but Amazon is selling an old edition; v 3.0, 2004. The latest edition is v 3.2 published in 2008. I was only able to order it by contacting the publisher directly.
on July 19, 2011
In his Foreword Bringhurst declares his admiration for Strunk and White's
rightly acclaimed guide to good writing, whose title differs by just one
word from this book's. But a considerable distance separates the contents
of these two works: Elements of Style is clear, no-nonsense guide full of
wise advice, plainly expressed; the book embodies its principles perfectly.
Bringhurst says he set himself "to compile simple list of working principles"
but that idea seems to have been completely submerged in the book he wrote.
What principles are in play in Chapter 11, Prowling the Specimen Book, where
he explores more than 100 typefaces with historical asides? His answer (p 211):
"Call the type by its honest name if you can." Practical advice.
Self-indulgent excess is the rule here, not disciplined, focused writing.
In a book about essentials (Elements), what is the purpose of a complete
catalog of every possible accent and decoration of the roman alphabet,
some used only in languages like Sahaptin, Lillooet and Arika?
And while I described Strunk and White as no-nonsense, there is plenty of
nonsense to be found in Bringhurst. Chapter 8, Shaping the Page, concerns an
important practical matter. But the author gives us musical metaphors and a
collection of fanciful geometrical constructions with no logical or esthetic
foundation that I could fathom. Page layouts based on pairs of circles,
pentagons, hexagons with diagonals and some that look like illustrations
of Desargues' Theorem. The truth is that any proportion can be derived
from a geometrical construction. I was able to find a figure to explain
the text-block of this book based on a regular heptagon, but I place no
significance on this fact, the same amount Bringhurst's examples deserve.
A book about typography, just as one on writing, offers itself as a specimen
of good practice. The typeface and the even density (called "color" in the
trade) are exemplary. But on the large scale there are problems: the text
is set too close to the fold, making it difficult to read since the book
cannot be laid flat without cracking the spine. On the whole I found the
narrow proportions of the page and the text unappealing. There is no list of
contents, and no running head to indicate the chapter. Instead the chapter
title sometimes appears in the margin, if that space has not been used for
a note. These deficiencies mean navigation, vital in a work of reference,
is thwarted. Bringhurst organizes his material into three numbered levels,
as in "5.2.7 Use ellipses that fit the font". Yet he never refers to these
numbers, or the headings, which are just ornaments.
As Bringhurst himself hints, typesetting a novel is pretty easy: it's
uniform text with occasional interruptions for chapters. The challenges
are in getting a satisfactory layout for material with figures, tables,
graphics or mathematics. On the last issue Bringhurst is silent: the index
item "mathematics and typesetting" refers to a little essay on why a bit of
arithmetic and elementary geometry are useful and the reader should not be
dismayed at them, not, as I had hoped, on how to set mathematical material.
In north America today, almost all technical books containing substantial
amounts of mathematics, and most scientific journals, rely on Donald Knuth's
system TEX. Surely this realm of publishing is more important than how to
set Sanskrit or polytonal Greek. Not a word. However distasteful he may find
this topic, and abhor the barbaric practices now in use, Bringhurst should
have given the reader some guidance, and exercised his refined critical
apparatus on this subject. It is a massive, unforgivable oversight.
Much as Bringhurst may admire Strunk and White, he has failed by a wide
margin (no pun intended) to emulate their example. There is a great deal of
interesting and useful material here, but there is an equal, and maybe even
greater quantity of historical commentary, literary excursion and needless
cataloging, which often obscures the simple principles the writer
hopes to expose.
on May 8, 2012
So much has been said about this excellent book, but I wanted to comment on the difference between the hardback and paperback versions. As some other reviewers have noted, this is a narrow book with a slim inner margin. With the paperback version, you can't lay the book open without cracking the binding. I think it was obvious the design was made with the hardback version in mind; the paperback seems an afterthought. The hardback also has a ribbon for bookmarking your page, which is very handy in a book like this. This is the sort of book you'll use as a reference for years, and it only costs a few dollars more for a much sturdier version.
Don't buy this book if you don't like to read. It isn't a quick guide that will cram the basics of typography into your skull before tomorrow's midterm exam. This is the sort of book you curl up with when you have a long rainy afternoon to yourself. It is long-winded, goes off on tangents, and the author, while immensely knowledgeable, is set in opinions that will not be shared by everyone. An opinionated typographer (and aren't we all?) will read some passages in twitchy annoyance, wishing one could call up that Mr. Bringhurst and tell him a thing or two. But whether you agree or disagree, you will be thinking of your reasons, evaluating your conceptions and becoming better for it. Reading this book is like having a deep conversation with your favorite friend who is keen to discuss the nuances of typography with you hour after hour. Except probably your friends are like mine and wouldn't recognize a ligature if it bit them on the serif, which is why this book inspires so much devotion. It's personal, poetic, and speaks to your heart - if your heart happens to be full of glyphs.
on March 17, 2001
I work at a typesetting house where we do annual reports for several major corporations- and gosh, it's amazing to see how much Bringhurst's rules apply (or don't) when the too-trendy-for-words designs come in to us.
I bought this book and realized that Bringhurst had put into words what I had vaguely perceived about the drawbacks of putting typographical tools in the hands of people with no training- thus the onslaught of terribly designed self-published books and magazines, poorly kerned commercial signage, and common typographical mistakes ending up in daily newspapers. While some of these are ephemeral, some, like signs, stay around for years, and become part of the visual clutter we have to put up with in our cities.
If I have one complaint about the book, it's that the section on'Shaping The Page' is long on theory and math but short on practical examples. I realize he doesn't want to date the book by pointing out real-world examples (as layouts change with art directors) - but instead of mathematical formulas, perhaps a tutorial CD-ROM, with Quark / InDesign templates and examples, would help designers by giving them something 'real' to dissect and experiment with.