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Friday Book Design Blog: An Essay on Typography, By Eric Gill

Jonathan Gibbs

gill shady Friday Book Design Blog: An Essay on Typography, By Eric Gill


The book that I was intending to write about today is Shady Characters, by Keith Houston (Particular Books), a set of essays about little known typographical marks such as the pilcrow, ampersand and octothorpe (that’s the hashtag to you and me). It’s an eminently interesting read, if slightly disposable in its chummy prose style. It’s good that it follows typography right up and into the digital age – which has given a new life to so many forsaken marks and squiggles – but there is so ready to drop up-to-the-minute references willy-nilly that you wonder how it will read in ten years’ time, let alone eighty.

That’s the content. As for the form – the design – it’s superbly done, with heavy white paper, seriously impressive binding, and, on the page, a nice use of red ink for the little marks themselves (, , #, &, @, *, , -, , “”) so they stand out in the text, both as subject under discussion and article in use. But still, I was hemming and hawing – it would have fitted quite nicely as a discussion piece in the post on sidenotes and red type from a couple of weeks back. If I wrote a whole post about this book, people would think I was some typography freak. (Well, I am, but hey I’m more than that, too.)

shady characters Friday Book Design Blog: An Essay on Typography, By Eric Gill

From 'Shady Characters' - discussing Gill's An Essay on Typography



Then this morning this turned up on the doormat. A new edition of Eric Gill’s An Essay On Typography, from Penguin, in neat A-format paperback, at the what-must-now-be-considered-pocket-sized price of £7.99.

Gill turns up in Houston’s book in his chapter on the pilcrow, which Gill more or less single-handedly rescued from the dustbin of design history. It was the line break that had put paid to the pilcrow, which had previously been used to divide up running blocks of text, popping up (in red) to show where the next thought began.

Even after regular paragraphing came in, the pilcrow remained, an illuminated absence to match the illuminated capitals at the start of the chapter. Then, as you might guess, it fell out of use. The white space of the indented paragraph is where the pilcrow used to be.

Along came Gill, in 1931, and published this manifesto not so much against industrialisation, as for our attempts to limit the damage it does to humanity, epitomised for Gill by craftsmanship. As Houston says, the text “echoes the Arts and Crafts ideology in its marriage of simplicity of expression and richness of meaning”.

But for all its technical interest, it’s the constant, opinionated, even badgering placing-in-context that makes it so readable today. Sometimes Gill seems sadly hopeful, sometimes woefully on the button. Compare:

The small shopkeeper, for instance, is still with us, and though the time has almost come wherein he will have no apparent place, nevertheless his survival is permanent; for nothing can stop small boys from selling one another marbles, and it is that personal dealing which is the root of all trading.

And:

The world of 1931 reads daily news-sheets like that one called the Daily Mail; it is brought up on them; it both produces them & is formed by them. We mmay take it that the Daily Mail represents the kind of mind that we have got, and in all kinds of subtle ways books are expected to conform to the Daily Mail standard. Legibility is what the Daily Mail reader finds readable; good style is what he finds good; the beautiful is what pleases him.

Wonderful stuff. Though of course small boys don’t need personal interaction to sell marbles, as a quick glance at eBay will remind you.

But wonderful too that this little Penguin Classic retains the design elements that Gill used: the pilcrows, the ‘ragged right’ (i.e. unjustified) margin, and his delicate Joanna font.

gill typography inside Friday Book Design Blog: An Essay on Typography, By Eric Gill

Gill's Essay on Typography, discussing the influence of tools on letter forms



The cover, though, positively revels in Gill Sans, that most iconic of fonts. Is it truly timeless, I wonder, or does it just seem timeless, to us, now? Arial and Helvetica both seem freighted with the ideological baggage of past decades, just at present. Will Gill Sans last? (There’s an interesting takedown on the font, and its ideological underpinnings here)

I get up from my desk to reach for Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, to see what he has to say, but then I catch myself. Just My Type; Shady Characters; Ian Samson’s Paper: An Elegy; This, That and The Other By Design (Ladybird books is next up, and I for one can’t wait)… there is no shortage of good books about design, and how it affects our lives. But I’m glad that An Essay on Typography is getting another chance to grab people’s attention, or at least their lapels. It’s the ranting and raving that grabs and guides, and lasts, not the modish attention to detail.


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