robert bringhurst and elements of typographic style

Es­ti­mated reading time is 3 min­utes.

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)

Bringhurst Elements poster full

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)


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