The day was only two hours old. It already felt ancient. I was writing proposals in my little office at home. The snick of the letterbox broke the tedium. A package had arrived!
Inside was an array of delights from Typotheque: Specimen No. 5 of their History project, specimen books for Brioni and Greta, and last but not least, the revised edition of Detail in Typography by renowned book designer, Jost Hochuli. Nice!
Detail in Typography was first published in 1987 in German. The translation was released this year by Hyphen Press. It discusses ‘microtypography’ — the fundamentals of legibility; everything from how we read, to analyses of letters, words, lines, linespacing, texture, and the qualities of type. In the first chapter, Basics, Jost Hochuli writes:
‘These are the components that graphic designers like to neglect, as they fall outside the area that is normally considered as “creative”.’
The writing is beautifully tight. It’s 61 pages long including references and notes. Almost every chapter has rich examples lighting up the prose, which is crisp — a credit to both the author, and the translator, Charles Whitehouse.
What I loved about it was the soft tone. No bombastic dogma, but an insightful discourse into the details of legiblity. The second chapter introduces saccades or saccadic eye motion; the science behind how we read and understand words. From that moment I was hooked. Re-reading it when writing this, I’m hard-pressed to find highlights. Every chapter is a highlight. Perhaps two points that stood out for me are:
- Hochuli explores how research shows that people don’t always need to see the whole letter in order to read the word: ‘the upper half of the letter is sufficient’ — ‘this would put most sanserif faces, and particularly those with the simple form of a, at a dissadvantage against classic book types’.
- He also explores what he terms ‘optical facts’ as opposed to optical illusions. How, when certain mathematically precise forms like circles and squares are components of type, they distort the letterform, and therefore the word, line, and the texture.
I found the typesetting and presentation of the book a little awkward. I found the quality of print discordant with the quality of prose. Some lines are interrupted by a page spread or verso of examples. It’s beautiful in content, but not necessarily in design.
Any minor criticisms I have do not detract from the superb content. The relationship between cognitive science and microtypography is precisely drawn. It inadvertently demonstrates just how far typesetting on the Web has to go before some of the aspects of fine typography can shine. I found myself constantly wondering what it would take to apply the principals on the Web with CSS; for that alone, it was a great read.