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. “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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