robert bringhurst and elements of typographic style

EYE-CATCHING TYPOGRAPHY has always interested me, even before art classes in high school. Recently I did some research in hopes of adding some typographical sparkle to my sites. I pulled several books from the library, each of which was enjoyable to read, educational, but of little assistance: the reason being that both WordPress and the themes that I am using are limited in how many of the ideas could actually be implemented.

The book that I enjoyed reading the most was The Elements Of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (version 3.0, Hartley & Marks Publishers, 2004). The author is a respected poet and his writing is rather extraordinary for so technical a book. Bringhurst assembles history, culture, and the technical details of the former craft into an easy-to-read treatise that reads at times like an extended essay.

His love for the craft and his respect for its craftsman is infectious: it is very easy to see why so many talented people have been attracted to typography through the centuries. So this article by me is just a brief introduction to a book most of us would never think of reading.

I have selected three passages from The Elements Of Typographic Style that captures the passion of Mr. Bringhurst along with the beauty of his prose. Each has a separate title and I have taken liberties with his sentence/paragraph structure to make this page here more appealing and readable.


This is the first edition of The Elements Of Typographic Style published by Hartley & Marks, Canada, in 1992. The title of the book is a nod to William Strunk Jr and E.B. White’s classic The Elements Of Style, which addresses in as few words as possible such writing issues as elementary rules of usage. elementary principles of composition, and even a few matters of form. Regarding this edition: the cover art is far too busy for my taste: the title in white and the author’s name in red, all flushed right, would be more effective.

A kind of statuesque transparency 

“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. Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency.

Its other traditional goal is durability: not immunity to change, but a clear superiority to fashion. Typography at its best is a visual form of language linking timelessness and time.” (p 17)

Winning poster by Beto Janz in the competition for the launching of the book The Elements of Typographic Style of Robert Bringhurst in 2005.

Poise consists primarily of emptiness

“Think of the blank page as alpine meadow, or as the purity of undifferentiated being. The typographer enters this space and must change it. The reader will enter it later, to see what the typographer has done. The underlying truth of the blank page must be infringed, but it must never altogether disappear—and whatever displaces it might well aim to be as lively and peaceful as that original blank page.

It is not enough, when building a title page, to merely 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 little or nothing more than taut, balanced white space in between.” (p 61)


This is the Twentieth Anniversary Edition of The Elements Of Typographic Style (Hartley & Marks, 2012). This is the cover familiar to American readers for the past twenty-three years. It is also the artwork from which I cropped the header image at the top of this page. And, viola!, the cover here looks more like the one I suggested for the Canadian edition above.

The sound as the pages turn

“A book is a flexible mirror of the mind and the body. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all lend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made. If the book appears to be only a paper machine, produced at their own convenience by other machines, only machines will want to read it.” (p 143)