Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style

From The Elements of Typographic Style (third edition):

In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn.— page 17

For the four-and-a-half hours in the bullet train on my trip to see a friend the other day, I brought with me this excellent book by Robert Bringhurst.

When most people read a book (or a sign or the classifieds or a menu or...) they don't give even the slightest thought to the typography – the shapes of letters and punctuation, and their layout relative to each other and to the page as a whole. Yet, since the typography is responsible for 100% of the information you get from the printed word, its clearly extremely important to think about when writing. Even when writing a simple web page like this, the writer makes may typographic decisions: how to distinguish paragraphs, when/if to use italics or bold, etc.

I was enthralled by the first edition of this book while working on the first edition of mine back in the mid 90s, not only because of its information content, but also due to Bringhurst's writing style. He is also a poet, and while I don't have much stomach for poetry (see my thoughts here), that aspect of his nature lends a wonderful lilt to his typographic writing.

It's a completely different kind of great writing than, say, Bill Bryson (about whom I've written here and here), or Light — Science and Magic, the clearly-written book on photographic lighting I've posted about. So, here are some examples of Bringhurst's writing...

While discussing how the design of each letter in a font can visually bond – or not – to other letters, he brings up...

...other unserifed faces, such as Helvetica, in which nothing more than wishful thinking bonds the letters to each other. — page 32

In talking about how to use whitespace, he writes...

Lists, such as contents pages and recipes, are opportunities to build architectural structures in which the space between the elements both separates and binds. The two favorite ways of destroying such an opportunity are setting great chasms of space that the eye cannot leap without help from the hand, and setting unenlightening rows of dots (dot leaders, as they are called) that force the eye to walk the width of the page like a prisoner being escorted back to its cell. — page 35

Of title pages, he says...

It is not enough, when building a title page, merely to unload some big, prefabricated letters into the center of the space, nor to dig a few holes in the silence with typographic heavy machinery and then move on. Big type, even huge type, can be beautiful and useful. But poise is usually far more important than size – and poise consists primarily of emptiness. Typographically, poise is made of white space. Many fine title pages consist of a modest line or two near the top, and a line or two near the bottom, with nothing more than taut, balanced white space in between. — page 61

In talking about the blank pages one often finds before the first page and after the last...

A brief research paper may look its best with no more space at the beginning and end than is provided by the standard page margins. The same is rarely true of a book, whose text should generally be, and should seem to be, a living and breathing entity, not aged and shrink-wrapped meat. [Some short books] can begin directly with the title page. Otherwise, a half-title is customary, preceding the title page. It is equally customary to leave a blank leaf, or at least a blank page, at the end of a book. These blanks provide a place for inscriptions and notes and allow the text to relax in its binding. — page 72

Yet, he goes on to note...

A wad of blank leaves at the end of a book is a sign of carelessness, not of kindliness toward the readers who like to take notes. — page 73

Kerning is the subtle adjustment of space between specific pairs of letters to create a more pleasing result. Compare the letter placement on these three lines:

The first line is unkerned, so each letter takes up its default amount of space. In the others, the letters have been tucked into each other to varying degrees. It might not seem important in this large display of just four characters, but it can make a big difference in the overall feel of a book, for better or for worse...

Computerized typesetting makes extensive kerning easy, but judgment is still required, and the computer does not make good judgment any easier to come by. — page 33

Indeed. Kerning can be particularly important with letter-punctuation and punctuation-punctuation pairs, so I did a lot of detailed hand kerning in my punctuation-heavy book on regular expressions. It's one of the reasons that my book garners an inordinate number of it's beautifully typeset comments. (I mean, really, how often do you ever see comments about a computer book's typesetting, and at that, complimentary comments?)


Most people never notice typesetting in what they read, and that's as it should be because good typesetting is the kind that doesn't get noted consciously, but instead subconsciously guides and sooths the reader. One only needs to see poor typesetting to bring this to mind, such as any page on MySpace, or Wired Magazine. (I read a few issues of Wired back in the mid 90s, but although I enjoyed the content, their typography and page design – such as bright red lettering on bright blue paper – caused me to become physically ill after just a few minutes. I decided that the content wasn't worth a headache, so I quickly stopped reading it.)

As much as I enjoy Bringhurst's book, a few things bother me about it. He uses tall, thin pages and a tight binding, so you have to really work to crack the book and hold open. It's not as bad with this third edition as it was with the first, for which I'm thankful, because I kept getting cramps when reading the first edition until I concocted a way to use a coat-hanger to jam open the book to the page I was on.

About footnotes he says...

Long footnotes are inevitably a distraction: tedious to read and wearying to look at. Footnotes that extend to a second page (as some long footnotes are bound to do) are an abject failure of design. — page 68

I agree completely, but I don't think what he's done is much better. He puts side notes into the generous outer margins he's put on each page. The problem is that there's nothing but vague proximity to tie the note to its text, so I often find myself reading right past until I realize that I haven't looked at any sidenotes recently, and turn back the pages to see whether there were any.

Perhaps even worse, when I do find a sidenote this way, I can't scan the text for what it relates to because he does not use note markers. Thus, I actually have to read and comprehend the text just to find the part related to the note. Ugh.

As I said, I really enjoy his writing style, but sometimes it gets in the way of understanding. For example, I have no idea what this is supposed to really mean:

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages they must occupy, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles. — page 19

It sounds pretty and all, but it seems meaningless in any kind of practical sense.

One final comment in case Mr. Bringhurst is reading. I've seen books with their edition labeled with version (e.g. version 2 instead of second edition). When this is done on a book related to computer science, it's childish and cliché enough to make me cringe. For other types of books, it's only worse. For a book with the style and grace of The Elements of Typographic Style, the version 3.1 on the cover is almost pornographically out of place. What on earth were you thinking?


I don't want to end my post talking about the book's few shortcomings, because it's truly an excellent resource and an enjoyable read. Its target audience is much larger now than when the first edition came out in 1992, because there's a lot in there even for someone whose typesetting is limited to writing web pages.

And I'll end with a shout-out to Ken Lunde, who wrote the most-excellent CJKV Information Processing: Chinese, Japanese, Korean & Vietnamese Computing. It's Ken who first sent me a copy of Elements of Typographic Style back in 1995, and now I notice Ken's name in the Afterword to the Third Edition. Thanks Ken!


All 5 comments so far, oldest first...

I do agree, Mastering Regular Expressions is beautifully typeset. I didn’t realize that you did most of it yourself.

Thanks. Other than the figures, which, gratefully, the pros at O’Reilly did, I positioned every atom of ink between
the title page and the colophon (but not the title page nor the colophon). —Jeffrey

— comment by Michael on December 3rd, 2007 at 5:39am JST (10 years ago) comment permalink

First of all, he is a “poet,” not a “post,” unless you consider it axiomatic that all poets are dumb as posts.

Thanks, typo fixed. A few others made the same comment (and same joke!) privately. —Jeffrey

This is only tangentially related to typography, but as I become more and more grouchy in my old age, I’m less willing to read cheap paperback books printed on brownish, rough paper with thick blocky fonts that are hard to read. And, unfortunately, lots of English language books available in Japan are these editions. Penguin is the worst publisher in this regard: the fonts are ugly, the paper is coarse, the spines fall apart, and the pages yellow before you bring it home.

I will make an exception for a book I really want to read, but more and more often these days I open a book in the bookstore, look at the awful paper and printing, and put it back regardless of content.

— comment by Zak on December 3rd, 2007 at 8:50am JST (10 years ago) comment permalink

This article doesn’t come as much of a surprise since I learned about this stuff through you when I did the first reviews of the first edition of MRE. For that understanding of typography (which lead me to other things), my mind is greatly enriched. Thanks. 🙂

— comment by William on December 3rd, 2007 at 10:42pm JST (10 years ago) comment permalink

Thanks for this article Jeffrey.

I always enjoyed typography too. Did you write your book using LaTex? I did not held it in my hands, but I’m sure I would like it (not only for the typo part 🙂 I have a Perl Cookbook and a Introduction into Perl from O’Reilly here, but I did not use Perl for some years.

Are you aware of The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web? I’m currently reading it. I think it gets the most things right and has nice CSS examples.

— comment by Alexander Kiel on December 5th, 2007 at 6:35am JST (10 years ago) comment permalink

I second what Zak wrote about books he reads or doesn’t read: same here.

— comment by Anne on September 8th, 2012 at 9:37pm JST (5 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink
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