Black Art

Robin Kinross

  • Twentieth-Century Type Designers by Sebastian Carter
    Trefoil, 168 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 86294 076 1
  • Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design by Walter Tracy
    Gordon Fraser, 224 pp, £16.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 86092 085 2

More than five hundred years on from its first practice, some mystery still surrounds the ‘black art’ of printing. And now, when the secure identity of the printing trade is threatened by instant printers, desk-top publishers and women compositors, the mystery has been displaced and further confused. Typographers feel this every time they are asked what exactly it is that they do. ‘Oh, newspapers?’ someone will hazard. ‘No, books, leaflets, that sort of thing.’ ‘You print them?’ ‘No, design them,’ ‘You make the illustrations?’ Then one tries to explain the function of editorial and visual decision-taking that should intervene – or may happen by default-between the writing of a text and its composition and multiplication as printed pages. The other familiar conversation is of insiders talking together: the obsessive discussions of the visual forms of text matter, of line-lengths and letterspacing. Between these two worlds, of the reader and of the designer of text, the gap may sometimes feel impossibly wide, and yet each depends on the other.

This gap can be traced to the essential workings of printing. Although the labour of producing manuscript books may be, and was, divided up, writing is a unitary process. Printing, however, consists of two stages – composing the text and then multiplying it – and those performing these separate tasks may well know nothing of each other. The process of writing with a pen is easily comprehended and practised. The business of assembling the characters to generate printed letters belongs, however, to the realm of the machine, and has never been very easily accessible: this has been ensured by the barriers of cost, religious and political censorship, and the closed shop. Another twist to the mystery is added by the fact that these characters must be mirror images of the letters they engender.

The history of the typographer is a story of emergence. At first the function was performed by the master printer, who oversaw the workshop of compositors and press operators. But with the development of power-driven presses and (from around 1900) the mechanisation of composition, the designing or planning function fell out of the hands of the printer. This role began to be picked up by outsiders to the trade, who came to appropriate the old term of ‘typographer’. Coinciding with and confirming this shift came a reintroduction of the aesthetic element into printing, which was seen to have been squeezed out by the rise of mechanised processes and of merely economic calculation. William Morris’s Kelmscott Press represented this new impulse most forcefully. Its immediate legacy was the diversion (not at all wished for by Morris) of private press printing: unwanted texts, preciously dressed for the investor’s market. But the more important consequence of the Kelmscott books, for those who could get beyond imitation of their appearance, was a new understanding of typography. As against simple ‘printing’, typography now came to be a practice that infused elements of visual and tactile pleasure into the meaning-governed organisation of text. What form this aesthetic element took, and how inseparable and necessary was its place in the whole product, was the great question, to be argued out in the new journals of typography that began to appear alongside the printing-trade press (which was, and is, limited to merely instrumental considerations).

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[*] An Essay on Typography was published in a first, small edition in 1931. A second edition appeared in 1936, a reprint of which is due from Lund Humphries this year (ISBN 0 85331 509 4).