From Metaphor to Maturity

This is a piece I orig­i­nally wrote for my Achtung col­umn in Blue­print mag­a­zine. When John Board­ley asked me to con­tribute to his forth­com­ing mag­a­zine Codex, I was too busy to write any­thing from scratch. As, how­ever, I con­sid­ered the over­lap between Blueprint’s and Codex’s read­er­ship to be neg­li­gi­ble, I offered this arti­cle. John sug­gested send­ing him a pho­tog­ra­phy of my infa­mous book­shelf that runs over two floors in our house in Berlin, where the top shelves can only be reached by strap­ping one­self into a climber’s har­ness which is moved up and down by an elec­tri­cally oper­ated winch.

I don’t think John edited my piece very much, but I did notice that he changed my British alu­minium to the US alu­minum. As you can see below, I would have insisted on my orig­i­nal spelling. No idea why one would ever change that word in the first place – in Ger­man word we also write (and say) Alu­minium. John did me a favour though: he found the source for the Ovink quote below. Thank you, John, for that and for Codex.

“A typog­ra­pher who hasn’t found the appro­pri­ate type­face may not have decreased the infor­ma­tional value of a text, but gave up the oppor­tu­nity to con­sid­er­ably increase its effec­tive­ness.”* So wrote G. W. Ovink, Dutch typog­ra­pher and his­to­rian, way back before he knew any other media besides paper.

Every medium has always had con­straints for the type that goes with it. Whether you design a news­pa­per, a poster, a stamp or a web­site: you have to con­sider the tech­ni­cal envi­ron­ment, the reader, the client, the con­tent. As the sur­faces of sub­strates used for print­ing got smoother, the res­o­lu­tion of type went up along with it. If you look at a Guten­berg Bible through a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, you’d never believe the craters, bumps and blotches that look like gor­geous let­ters from a safe read­ing dis­tance. Bright and shiny, smoothly coated paper for high-quality off­set print­ing requires the let­ters to be sharp and well-defined, even though the human eye doesn’t like too much con­trast. Tech­nol­ogy, being what it is – a means to pro­mote itself if not mankind – kept pro­vid­ing more res­o­lu­tion and thus invis­i­ble detail than we ever needed. Once print­ing could hardly be more refined, along came the Cath­ode Ray Tube, and all the high def­i­n­i­tion that the sup­pli­ers of type­set­ting and print­ing equip­ment had declared not only inevitable but vital, was bro­ken down into crude bits of colour, red, green and blue only. Type sud­denly looked like Lego bricks when com­pared to the refine­ment a printer like Bodoni had been capa­ble of at the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, long before pho­to­set­ting and off­set print­ing, let alone coated stock.

The web has always just been bad paper. Now it’s start­ing to look like good paper and design­ers will have to treat it as such. But as always at the begin­ning of a new par­a­digm, we have to imi­tate the old one while we get used to the new pos­si­bil­i­ties that those over a cer­tain age always con­sider a chal­lenge. Apart from what tech­nol­ogy will allow us to do, there are phys­i­cal laws — our eyes, our brain, light, con­trast; we can­not ignore those if we want to com­mu­ni­cate. Cul­tural para­me­ters like read­ing habits, lit­er­ary cul­ture (or lack of) – our deeply embed­ded fear of change, all these give an excuse to imi­tate the old even though there are no tech­ni­cal rea­sons to do so. But we read best what we read most.

Every new medium raises the same ques­tions. Things which were thought mature in one media will take a while to mature in a new one. Look at the new elec­tronic books, par­tic­u­larly those on Apple’s amaz­ing iPad: a book is pre­sented as a repro­duc­tion of the tra­di­tional stack of bound pieces of paper. Going from one page to the next is accom­pa­nied by an ani­ma­tion of it being turned, even with the sound of paper being rus­tled. While you keep thumb­ing pages, how­ever, the stack stays equally thick on either side, turn­ing the metaphor into a lie, into dig­i­tal kitsch. It feels wrong and it is wrong. Metaphors are use­ful because we do not really want to know what goes on in the dig­i­tal maze under the bon­net that the oper­at­ing sys­tem hides. Super­flu­ous visual noise doesn’t make the read­ing any eas­ier, it just pre­sumes that we’re too stu­pid to notice the dif­fer­ence between a stack of glued paper and a battery-driven piece of plas­tic. If peo­ple really wanted to emu­late the whole phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence, why not give us the musty smell of old books, the scent of print­ing ink?

Worse than those mis­guided and patron­iz­ing metaphors is the fact that pub­lish­ers can no longe decide which type­face their text is set in. Apple pro­vides just five (Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times, Ver­dana), and only one of them (Palatino) can be con­sid­ered a book face suit­able for read­ing on a screen. Some­how, the dichotomy seems weird between cool alu­minium shapes, high-tech dis­plays and amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy on the one hand and wooden book­shelves on the other, as a metaphor for an online book­shop which pro­vides books that look older on screen than they do in the real world. Per­haps the indi­vid­ual design depart­ments respon­si­ble should talk to each other? Or does Steve Jobs not have such great taste after all?

Still, while elec­tronic books have a way to go (the Kin­dle is actu­ally a lit­tle fur­ther ahead in typo­graphic mat­ters), there are signs that the web will soon allow the same degree of typo­graphic refine­ments that we’re used to on tra­di­tional paper. Not only can we use every exist­ing type­face to be dis­played in a browser, but new mark-up lan­guages will give us typo­graphic treats like lig­a­tures, small caps and old style fig­ures that print­ers in the 15th cen­tury devel­oped for their books that we still con­sider bench­marks today. If only some­body could invent a bat­tery that lasted as long as paper does.

* Ovink, G. W. Leg­i­bil­ity, atmosphere-value and forms of print­ing types. Lei­den: A. W. Sijthoff, 1938, p. 177.


  1. John Hudson

    My incli­na­tion would be to erect a metal frame in front of the book­case, so that one could climb to the upper reaches. What hap­pens if you want to refer to a book on the top shelf but there is a power outage?

  2. Matu­rity makes us real­ize what really mat­ters in life. You got a great book­shelf right there man!

  3. If only some­body could invent a bat­tery that lasted as long as paper does.”…How true. Thanks for another fine article…

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