This week I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books about typesetting; Inside Paragraphs by the teacher and type designer Cyrus Highsmith. Unlike many other books on the subject that try to hone in on a specific field, such as book or web design, Cyrus takes a very different approach here: he jumps head first into a paragraph, gets up close to the letters, and tells us how it all works from the inside out.
The book is also beautifully designed with Cyrus’s wacky and crooked illustrating style that makes it feel more like a children’s book than a serious one devoted to the art of typesetting (and it’s designed in such a way that the visuals never feel patronizing either). Each spread has only one or two paragraphs with a big illustration that stretches across the page and yet somehow Cyrus squeezes in more information to this slim volume than most giant graphic design textbooks do.
One of my favorite passages in the book, and one I think about all the time, is where Cyrus talks about space and how it works inside a paragraph. He goes back to the very beginning:
Gutenberg considered the counter space, the letter space, and line space. Every paragraph, whether written or printed, has these white spaces in it. But they don’t have to be thought of in isolation. Gutenberg’s idea was to attach a certain amount of each kind of space to each letter. With this innovation he created a new kind of space: the glyph space. The glyph space forms the box around each letter that makes it easy to move and rearrange.
This is what I love about the stories surrounding Gutenberg and what Cyrus manages to describe so effortlessly here: Gutenberg looks at the text so intensely that he discovers a whole new realm inside it. It’s probably not true, and it’s probably a mishmash of ideas he stole from those he employed, but there’s something wonderful about that idea to me.
On a side note, I think typography is often mistaken for knowing about the right fonts and remembering the names or styles of typefaces. Subsequently typography is often the pedant’s weapon of choice for making people feel dumb. And just as design is not the art of having opinions and tweeting about them, typography is not the art of dunking on people that say “fonts” inside of “type”.
And really that’s the loveliest thing about Cyrus’s book. Beyond the useful typesetting practices and lovely illustrations, he removes all the pedantry from the field and makes typography out to be what it really is: a never-ending and fabulous way to appreciate language.
Anyway, go pick up a copy of Inside Paragraphs as I promise it won’t disappoint.