Book Review: Jan Tschichold’s Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design

Posted June 20, 2012 by Kathy Davie in

by Kathy Davie

Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good DesignForm of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design by Jan Tschichold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Non-fictional collection of essays that discuss typography and book layout.

My Take
Oh my god, what a pretentious twit! Albeit one with a lovely gift for words, so flowery in his discourse on the beauty of book layouts. I couldn’t decide if I was reading a critique on book construction or wine.

Harmony is determined by relationships or proportions. Proportions are hidden everywhere: in the capaciousness of the margins, in the reciprocal relationships to each other of all four margins on the page of a book, in the relationship between leading of the type area and dimensions of the margins,n the placement of the page number relative to the…and on and on

Tschichold’s use of the word “morality” as part of the title is a good tip-off as to his feelings on tradition and the rightness of continuing to lay out as has been done in the past. Part of me wants to strangle him for his obdurate, close-minded nature while the other half applauds his attention to detail. I completely understand his frustration with the poor quality of so many books today. The worst of which is the need so many publishers seem to have to jam words right into the spine of the book so the reader has to practically crack the book open to be able to read the entire line.

Where does he get off stating that “The work of a book designer differs essentially from that of a graphic artist”? The graphic artist has to be (or should be!) as devoted to the written word as the book designer. It’s the whole point of the cover—to convey a scene, mood, or summary of the book.

As for what Tischchold has to say about book jackets! Hmmmph…one of my favorite things about a book jacket on a hardcover is being able to use the flap as a book marker. And I like seeing those colorful spines pointing out towards me on the shelves. Now, if the cover underneath were in a beautiful leather or well-done cloth…

His comments about Fraktur were certainly interesting and I went exploring on the font manager in my computer…it looks as though I’ll have to explore on the Internet instead. I find myself wishing I could hear his pronouncements on all the font possibilities we have on the computer today. I’m sure he’d keel over in horror! Although, he has made me much more aware of fonts. As well as the horror of not indenting my paragraphs!

I certainly do agree with his comments on readability. It’s not just legibility that one must be concerned with, but the need to make the text easily read. Much like web designers should be taking into account when choosing fonts, font-sizes, and colors for a website. One thing I can definitely say in Tschichold’s favor, he is quite certain of what is proper and what is not.

The Form of the Book was first published in 1975 in Germany and translated and published in English in 1991. Well before desktop publishing and computers. I think even before PostScript printers. So some of Tschichold’s information needs to be taken with a grain of salt, some should be drunk down with a good glass of wine, and the rest are some excellent considerations which authors, editors, and publishers should take into account.

The Cover
The cover is black with white text. I did enjoy the layout of the title with the subtitle alternating line by line.

The title is very appropriate as The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design is all about its visible shape or configuration. And Tschichold is definitely on his moral high horse about the proper techniques to use!