Sam Potts' takedown of Bringhurst

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Eric Doctor's picture
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Sam Potts' takedown of Bringhurst
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https://medium.com/re-form/a-refutation-of-the-elements-of-typographic-s...

Sam Potts wrote a (pretty excellent) takedown of The Elements of Typographic Style, which attacks, among other things, the book's polemical nature, outdated conventions, and confused sense of purpose.

Here's a key paragraph:

ETS’s position on typography after all isn’t so different from saying the best movies were made in the 40s in Hollywood and so we, today, should be making black and white movies to uphold the tradition. Imagine a filmmaking manual that argued for this. Should we emulate Renaissance typography any more than we emulate its forms of dress or cuisine, its painting or music or speech?

I'm inclined to agree. I read Bringhurst before going to design school, and I spent design school unlearning it. Typography is necessarily an evolving medium — just as painting and language are. The first chapter speaks about typography in broad, almost romantic terms — "Letters have a life and dignity of their own", "There is a style beyond style" — but the rest of the book tells us exactly how to interpret those broader ideas, and ends up restricting the expressive potential of typography.

What are your thoughts?

K.C. Thompson's picture
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Mark Simonson referenced the same article in a similar discussion here:
http://typophile.com/node/119680

Craig Eliason's picture
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I think Maurice Meilleur's Typographica review from last year is fairer and more incisive.

John Savard's picture
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Hrant Papazian has commented here that the calligraphic tradition has too strong a hold on type design, so he may have some sympathies with the viewpoint.

My view is that we should not dismiss alternate ways of designing type out of hand, but we also should not disparage the living tradition from Jenson onwards, as it is a fruitful source of type designs that are effective and appealing.

Also, it is demonstrably false that the exploration of the non-calligraphic in type design has not yet begun. Bifur, Neuland, Peignot, Eurostile... it is true that the design of text typefaces is very conservative, but that is to be expected. And even there, we have Optima as one example of a design that is non-calligraphic in its strokes, even if its proportions are modelled on classic letterforms.

Bob Evans's picture
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The first rule of graphic design is "Graphic design has no rules" - this then also applies to typography - that said the, Bringhurst is not stating hard and fast rules but pointing up what is "accepted and standard", Beyond that if you do not have your own eye for what works, good luck, creating good typographic work is not following the "rules" but following a good eye.

James Montalbano's picture
Joined: 18 Jun 2003 - 11:00am
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TEoTS is a flawed book that comments on a very small piece of the typographic universe and believes it extrapolates its commentary to the entire field. I have never seen any advice on advertising or editorial typography in this tome. I've heard the author speak several times, and remain unimpressed. His lectures contain lots of complaining about this and that and as someone once described him, "My, he seems to be impressed with the sound of his own voice."

Once the the holidays are passed I'm sure Bill Berkson will come to the author's defense. He always does. Is typographic bible the correct term Bill? Or perhaps the typographic Torah.

John Savard's picture
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Sounds like The Elements of Typographic Style is the masterwork it was acknowledged to be, but one that has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is a rich mine of information, but it does not set the bounds for all that can be done in typography.

A lot of classic reference works are like that, because time marches on.

So, instead of criticizing the book itself, I would criticize its misuse, I would criticize professors who teach from it presenting it as dogma.

Theunis de Jong's picture
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Typography is necessarily an evolving medium — just as painting and language are. ...

I disagree.

As in other fields, there are standards and conventions for generally accepted "good" typography, evolving or not. Web typography, for example, should be 'evolved' out of book design; yet, it is still (2014) decidedly sub-standard.

Also, as in other fields, there are accepted ways to "break the rules" as well as a plethora of reasons not to. Sticking religiously to Bringhurst's rules will not make you a bad typographer; subverting or inverting as many as you can will -- unless you are an exceptionally gifted artist.

Bert Vanderveen's picture
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There are lots of ways to saw a piece of wood. And for every tool there is a ‘correct’ way. I prefer Japanese saws, but also use a Festool TS55. So sue me…

PJay's picture
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Have 'The Elements of Typographic Style' 2.4 and 3.0, hadn't kept up with the incremental releases beyond that point (though I suppose I could binge-read them ). I will get 4.0 because I do enjoy reading Robert Bringhurst, and besides, have to see what happens in the latest episode.

Joshua Langman's picture
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I’ll take up Potts’s points in order.

Bringhurst serves as author, editor, and designer, and the work suffers from lack of oversight from a real editor as well as a copyeditor. Potts does not mention this, but the book is full of typos. Things that spell-check would catch. Bringhurst apparently compiles his own index, and in some cases has failed to update it to reflect changes to the text in the newest version. (The index tells you you'll find W.B. Yeats on 189, which is no longer true.) And of course the editorial structure of the book is, and always has been, a little strange. I do agree that a trained nonfiction editor could do wonders for the structure and general clarify of the book.

I also agree that Bringhurst wrongly puts authorial and editorial decisions in the typographer's hands. Certainly no book designer in the real world (as opposed to Bringhurst's pleasantly self-sufficient one-man operation) ever got away with changing all the dialogue markers from quotes to em dashes. If he is going to argue for a specific editorial style, he might at least point out that he is discussing editorial, not strictly typographic, matters.

I would also like to note that Potts’s discussion of the complexity of choosing type is largely spot-on. Of course this journey depends on more than static historical and cultural associations. And of course designers can redefine the connotation of a face by using it in a new way. But this idea is not foreign to Bringhurst. “Books that leap historical boundaries and mix historical subjects can pose complex and exciting typographic problems” (6.3.2, p 99).

Now to where I diverge with Potts, which frankly is on most of his very well written essay. I’ll address a few points in Potts’s order:

I don't know where Potts gets the idea that ETS is a book that "everyone owns but few have read." Prove it! I have read the book straight through, including all the appendixes and the daunting chapter on page proportions, many times, in at least three editions. It's hard to imagine that the many typographers who love this book and continually recommend it are not, in fact, extremely familiar with its contents. I have several bookshelves full of works on typography, recent and not so recent. I return to none of them as often as I do ETS, simply because as far as I know there is no other book that is up to Bringhurst’s standards of scholarship, discernment, and sophistication.

Potts asks if ETS is meant to be “a proper style guide somewhere on the Elements of Style – Chicago Manual spectrum.” The Elements of Style is not a style guide at all in the sense that CMS is. Strunk & White is a book of guidelines for writers — journalists, actually. CMS is a true editorial style guide, and better compared with the New York Times or Oxford style guides. CMS, however, certainly has its moments of typographic stupidity and ignorance. The editors of CMS know a lot less about typography than Bringhurst does.

I do not disagree with Potts’s categorization of Bringhursts’s editorial advice as non-standard and ill-advised. Actually I found it amusingly accurate. However, Potts says, “ETS promotes nonstandard, antiquated, and otherwise ill-advised techniques that are out of place […] in mainstream American book and magazine publishing.” Bringhurst isn’t American. It’s not at all clear to me that he even intends to be writing for a primarily American audience. Much of his advice that seems bizarre to us — spaced en dashes; dashes for dialogue; etc — is the standard style in Canada, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe and beyond. The long em dashes are an American thing (a Chicago thing, actually). We’re the odd ones out, and since the book isn’t for us specifically, accusing Bringhurst of being ignorant of American style kind of misses the point.

One more note: no typographer would use “Find & Replace” to implement Bringhurst’s advice about borrowing characters from other fonts. The standard way in InDesign would be with GREP styles, or by copying the characters into the actual font file.

And now, the “purple prose.” Let’s get one thing straight: Bringhurst is first and foremost a poet. His poetry has received many awards and honors. Check his Wikipedia page and see the list of previous publications at the front of ETS. He is a tremendously skilled writer, a wonderful counterexample (sadly, one of very few) to the stereotype that designers can’t write. Does he overdo it sometimes? Yes. However, there are sections of ETS that beg to be reread simply for the subtle beauty with which Bringhurst expresses an uncommon idea. E.g.:

“Some observers are dismayed and some excited by the complexity of the equipment most typographers now use. Some are excited and others unnerved by the power of that equipment and its evident ease of operation. Yet inside of that complexity, typography persist as what it is: the making of meaningful, durable, abstract, visible signs. When the system crashes, the craft, its purposes, its values and all its possibilities remain” (9.6.2, p 197). This passage is made all the more poignant by its placement at the close of a chapter about technology. What he leaves us with is a reminder that it’s not about the technology.

(As a side note, the discussion of font formats in ETS 4.0 got decidedly more muddled compared to previous editions. Bringhurst seems to be making an attempt to be more pedantically precise, at the expense of conceptual clarity.)

“Typography doesn’t need this kind of dressing up,” says Potts, referring to Bringhurst’s prose style. “Typography is already an inherently noble pursuit.” Um, sure, but Bringhurst’s readers, for whom this may be their first introduction to typography, will not know that yet. If he is aiming to teach (and I do believe he is; I find the book to be very generous and warm, not in the least a “polemic”), then why shouldn’t he point out what is already obvious to the experts? His readers are not experts yet.

“I certainly recognize that Robert Bringhurst may assert whatever taste he prefers” says Potts. And he is in good company. The original Elements of Style was largely a collection of William Strunk’s personal bugbears and highly questionable advice — much of which he ignores himself. As discussed above, neither book is meant to be a “style guide” the way that CMS is. Which is to say, neither book was ever meant to be neutral. If the author had no point of view, what would the book be contributing to the field? (And Bringhurst’s sometimes questionable outbreaks of opinion are nothing compared to those in, say, anything by Gerrit Noordzij. They remind us that we’re learning from a real human being.)

At this point I’d like to ask Sam Potts what book he would recommend as an introduction to typography.

Because there are topics that Bringhurst covers that no other contemporary introductory typography text even touches on:

1. Bringhurst’s brilliant argument for the importance of diacritics as a gesture of cross-cultural acceptance and diversity (5.5.1). And the corresponding index of characters — a tremendously useful reference unlike anything in any other typography book (short of The Unicode Standard, which is obviously [a] not an introductory text and [b] devoid of any useful information on the characters contained therein).

2. The exhaustively researched second half of the book, including the type specimens and appendixes of type designers and foundries.

3. Chapter 8. Isn’t it amazing the number of typography textbooks that don’t even mention this most important aspect of laying out any work of typography? (And if, as Bringhurst acknowledges, budget often prevents designers from being able to choose arbitrary page sizes, so what? Isn’t it nice to be reminded of what we could be striving for, rather than having the less-than-satisfactory limits on our creativity enforced by a style book?)

4. The many discussions of multilingual typography. Again, find me another basic typography text that addresses concerns associated with mixing alphabets on the same line. Chicago in particular does nothing to help, mixing completely incompatible typefaces in its samples of multilingual typography.

5. Bringhurst’s type classifications by art movements is the only system for understanding typographic history that makes any sense to me, and is at all compatible with broader understandings of art and craft history. I cannot take any book seriously that calls Jenson “old style” and stops there. Old compared to what? It’s not old compared to Trajan. The oft-used taxonomy is too coarse, and the names too arbitrary, to be useful. Bringhurst manages to shed some much-needed light here.

Lastly, Mr. Potts objects to Bringhurst presenting typography as a moral concern. Go Bringhurst. If you don’t care about your craft, if you don’t think that you’re making the world a little better, a little more beautiful, by doing what you do, then why are you doing it? Wouldn't we all like to be so confident in the morality of our craft.

(A note on a note: Bringhurst would not object to the abbreviation ETS. He uses it himself, on the spine of the paperback edition.)

Maurice Meilleur's picture
Joined: 3 Nov 2004 - 8:13pm
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With thanks to Craig for mentioning my review, I'll admit my views have shifted closer to Potts's since I wrote it. That's not to say I wouldn't still recommend reading ETS, just that I'm seeing more parallels between Bringhurst's book and, to pick a notable example, Jan Tschichold's views on typography than I did in the past. It's not so much that ETS is a polemic, but rather that, on further reflection, I think Bringhurst doesn't distinguish between recognizing the moral/ethical significance of good design, on the one hand, and moralizing, on the other. Noordzij, whatever else you want to say about him, doesn't demand to be believed, only taken seriously (as he said in the first issue of Letterletter, the Hartley & Marks anthology of which is coincidentally introduced by none other than Bringhurst). Bringhurst, like Tschichold, is less generous a critic. And the arguments you can have with him are less illuminating than the ones you can have with Noordzij. Wouldn't you rather argue over when the word was invented than over whether you should insert hair spaces around an em dash or not?

On the other hand, I do rather like Bringhurst's metaphor of starving horses milling in a field. And more substantively, it was exciting to read his book when I was getting started as a designer, because it was great to see someone taking something that I loved seriously. But I'm not sure it helped me as much as reading, say, Erik Spiekermann or Jan Middendorp or Hans Peter Willberg & Friedrich Forsmann would have done at the time, and I'm glad I did encounter them after. And I will never assign Bringhurst to my students in an intro type class; better to give them Middendorp's Shaping Text, Spiekermann's Stop Stealing Sheep, Cyrus Highsmith's book on microtypography, and maybe Felici. If I'm ever fortunate enough to teach in a program that offers a typography seminar & practicum--probably for grad students--I'd assign Bringhurst along with Tschichold, Aicher, Schmid, Ruder, Noordzij, and Gerstner. And I'd recommend people read Bringhurst's essays on writing, like The Solid Form of Language, The Tree of Meaning, and Everywhere Being is Dancing.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just mad that four editions in, Bringhurst still doesn't think Arnhem merits inclusion in his favorites list. :)

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Standard style in Britain differs markedly from that in the U.S., and certain other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, likely approximate British style. However, Canada is heavily influenced by the U.S.; while some aspects of British style may still be an option, a publisher here is less likely to raise eyebrows if he follows U.S. rather than British style.

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Oh my, I see above that very accomplished Mr. Montalbano thinks I will defend Elements of Typographic Style as the whole Bible or at least the five books of Moses. Not actually. As I wrote long ago in a review on Typophile.com—I think that feature has been dropped—I think the book is an excellent discussion of classic book typography. (I haven't looked at it since the second edition, so I can't comment on later ones.) However, a lot of typography is not book typography, including magazines and advertising and posters and on line typography etc., signage, etc., and these have different demands and call for different approaches.

Books have distinctive demands. For a start, they stay around for a long time, and stuff that looks fresh and delightful this month may look bad in five years. If it's a magazine, doing something wild and crazy might be very good, depending on its audience. But in a book such fun and games would look forced and tiresome. Also books generally are very text-heavy, with less illustration and display, and that generally calls for a quieter style. Because of these factors—text heavy and long lasting on library and home shelves—book typography tends toward the classic and conservative in style of interior design. My main beef with Elements is that it doesn't make clear that classic book typography is often out of place in other contexts. Also Bringhurst admittedly does take himself too seriously. But he is brilliant, insightful and sensitive. And the elements of making a readable text block and page do transfer to a lot of other contexts. So I suspect it's still a very valuable book—but holy writ, no.

I wrote that review long ago, and have since read Book Typography: A Designer's Manual by Mitchell and Wightman (2005), which I think is even better as a guide to classic book typography. It has the advantage of a clear focus, and goes into issues on books in particular that Bringhurst didn't, at least in earlier editions.

I haven't looked at other recent competing books, such as Lupton's and Mittendorf's and Highsmith's, so I can't comment on those. For an example of something with a completely different approach, I am now reading another classic, Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand. Its emphasis is advertising and corporate identity, and is brilliant, but has almost nothing in common with Elements. But to me they don't contradict as they are about typography with every different purposes. I think Sam Potts' review is marred by not "getting" that Bringhurst is talking about a kind of typography that does have its place, even though its classic taste and approach is misplaced elsewhere.

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I don’t think Potts’ comparison with old Hollywood is apt.

Thing is, if you want to understand why typography is “hard-wired” the way it is—and by that I mean the way that state-of-the-art high-tech font glyphs are designed for OpenType features that are standardized and implemented in the relationship between fonts and layout applications—then you have to understand classic typography, as explained by Bringhurst.

If this old stuff weren’t still relevant, new fonts wouldn’t have all the OpenType bells and whistles they do.
Or are we just providing stuff almost nobody needs?

Peiran Tan's picture
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Potts has obviously missed the point. The moral concern shows how desperate he is to try to find a target to attack. As for the “unleash the power/don’t be restricted by tradition” talk, I think it’s already been resolved from within the “appropriate use” argument.

Thomas Phinney's picture
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“The first rule of graphic design is "Graphic design has no rules" - this then also applies to typography”

Go have fun with that. But I think it is a small minority of typographers who would agree with you.

Mostly, I concur with Joshua, Maurice, William and Nick above.

T

Sam Potts's picture
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Just want to chime in here to thank you all for responding to my piece on Medium. I'm very much obliged and your comments are all of interest. Joshua, you're a heavyweight champ! This is very much the kind of critical reading that I hoped to apply to ETS itself. All fair points made.

I wrote the first draft of this piece about 3 years ago and it was twice as long (bulked out by a lot more citations) and I daresay four times more pedantic. In its current form it still makes the fundamental points about what I see as weaknesses in the book, but perhaps fails to frame fully why these weaknesses work so fundamentally against the whole purpose of the book. Such is the process of punching stuff up.

All I would like to add, without debating any points made above, is that I made every effort to provide textual basis for each critique. The starting point for each critique is there on the page. Which is of course where all this type business begins.

Thanks very much. This is really great.

Peiran Tan's picture
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I disagree with you to the every fibre of this article, but I do appreciate your effort in grounding your arguments in the text.

Thomas Phinney's picture
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Ditto!

Sam, you’ve achieved something pretty notable, provoking a thoughtful discussion about the merits and flaws of one of typography’s most sacred texts.

I don’t agree with all your points, but I think your critique is eminently worthy of discussion. I wouldn't have tweeted a link to it otherwise!

Todd Macfie's picture
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As an aside, I rode my bicycle all over Quadra Island looking for Mr Bringhurst. It’s a beautiful little island between Discovery Passage and Desolation sound. I did not find him.

I asked for him at Smokey’s Bike Shop. I said, “He’s a typographic wizard, likely hiding behind a curtain.” The bike mechanic responded: “But it’s Quadra Island. There are wizards behind every curtain.”

Joshua Langman's picture
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That's a lovely anecdote. (How do you know the bike mechanic wasn't Bringhurst?)

And just to echo others, while clearly I found much to disagree with, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of what is quite a well written article.

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Although not qualified to comment on anything but the simplest level on this controversy, I finally looked at Sam Potts' piece.

The fact that the first edition of Bringhurst's book came out in 1992 (as opposed to, say, 1950) already makes me less indulgent towards its focus on classic book typography - if it didn't inform the reader that it was specialized. A book written when advertising typography was not yet taken seriously might be expected to have such a focus without the author thinking of it as specialized.

The example of "cycling = Italian" sounded funny indeed, but things may not be as bad as all that - if all contemporary Italian type designs, even oldstyle and transitional ones, were somehow influenced by Bodoni, then they might be lean in some sense. No, that's still pretty bad.

But then Sam Potts provides an example of his own to refute Bringhurst.

But here I found his logic flawed. People picking up an English translation of Madame Bovary do so to connect with Flaubert, despite their lack of facility with the French language; they are not trying to connect with the translator, however famous Lydia Davis may be.

(Two books I am familiar with - On the Sensations of Tone, and Intelligent Life in the Universe do add something in their English translations - the first because the translator put in lengthy and very informative footnotes, the second because it combines a translation of Shklovskii's book with entertaining text by Carl Sagan. But this is the exception, not the rule.)

The central point of the essay seems to be that the historical context of typefaces ought to be unlearned - we should see typefaces afresh when seeking to employ them, rather than having their previous historical context as a straitjacket - and Bringhurst advocates the opposite, to a ridiculous degree.

That sounds sensible enough. Most readers do not know or care who Aldus Manutilus was - if a typographer only uses Bembo where the historical associations are right, he is doing so to impress his fellow typographers with his ability to avoid solecisms, rather than serving his clients.

An introductory book about typefaces, of course, though, will teach its readers about all this historical baggage, with photos of pages from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli and Caslon's specimen sheet, and they'll tell us about the historical contexts of Futura and Helvetica as well. The mercantile era that gave rise to Century Expanded and Franklin Gothic, though, may get relatively short shrift, even if, hopefully, Goudy will get a positive mention. So Bringhurst fell victim to the temptation to tell the students that all this information they've been taught, because the teachers could think of nothing else to fill their textbooks with, is actually useful!

At least, that's one way to look at it.

The fact that the book is currently in its fourth edition didn't impress me favorably either. What does he think it is: Computer Architecture: a Quantitative Approach? But I suppose writers of textbooks for Arts subjects have to eat too, so they have to keep the students away from the used book market - and while science and technology march on, fashions change quickly as well, even if typefaces are more conservative than hemlines.

But in his post, Sam Potts says that his original critique was that Bringhurst's book specifically fails at fulfilling its (stated?) purpose.

If, indeed, it's as bad as he says it is - offering no substantive advice for choosing a typeface other than hoary clichés and stereotypes - then it would be hard for me to disagree. I will have to take a look at Bringhurst's book to see how true that is; I suspect that if it were that bad, it would never have acquired the reputation and even mystique that it (apparently) now enjoys.

Where I disagree with the critique, though, is that while one may attempt to view a typeface with fresh eyes, one may fail in that attempt. One may not, upon one's first look, see everything about the typeface that will determine its effect on even the typographically naïve reader. And so what other people with typographical expertise have, through their experience with a given typeface, and their knowledge of its nuances, and of the intent of the typeface's designer and the historical context in which it arose, come to know of the totality of a typeface's mood and impact... is not without value.

So, if Bringhurst's book misused the historicist view of type as claimed, the critique is valid - but to some extent, the critique also appears to claim that the historicist view of type valueless. Even at this point, I can say that this is going too far.