Bringhurst Types Art

Bringhurst_review_20210427Robert Bringhurst. 2012. The Elements of Typographic Style.  Seattle:  Hartley & Marks [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I attended seminary I acquired a new vocabulary for discussing both my spiritual life and my relationships.  What had been only “churchy” words suddenly became clear and meaningful.  It was like a world that I only saw in black and white suddenly experienced an explosion of color; the banality of chopsticks suddenly became Beethoven; the musty smell of dead leaves became spring daffodils.  Carefully chosen words gave structure to hazy thoughts and openned new passageways in thinking and feeling.


Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, works the same way.  Bringhurst describes typography as idealized writing which functions to record idealized speech (19; 49).  He writes:  Well-chosen words deserve well-chosen letters; these in their turn deserve to be set with affection, intelligence, knowledge, and skill (18).  He observes:  Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition:  an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunity for insight or obtuseness (19).

Design Problem

The question is simply this:  if you could design books anyway that you liked, what design do you select?  What are the colors in the palette; the brushes in the toolkit?  Bringhurst’s book immediately fascinated me.

Bringhurst starts typographic design with reading the text.  He offers these principles:

  • Invite the reader into the text;
  • Reveal the tenor and meaning of the text;
  • Clarify the structure and the order of the text;
  • Link the text with other existing elements; and
  • Induce a state of energetic repose, which is the ideal condition for reading (24).

In other words, the typography selected should reflect the personality of the text.  Underneath these principles is the basic idea that text is itself an art form that can either be ignored by adhering rigidly to convention or practiced with subtly and grace.  How does one provide a helpful context without drawing attention to the typeface, spacing, and page?  Typography has a humble calling.

Definitions matter

The word, text, for example, is taken from the Latin word, Textus, which means cloth.  A storyteller is a weaver.  Thought is a thread which has color.  Color depends on:  type design and spacing between letters, words, and lines (25).

Other definitions also flow from this thread. For example, Kerning is the space between a selected pair of letters (32). And Ligatures are specialized letters to deal with the issue of overlapping kerns (50-52).  My favorite ligature occurs in German where ss is abbreviated as:  β (a kind of sloped beta from the Greek alphabet).


The fonts themselves come in families which may include:  lower and upper case letters, bond, and italic (55).  (Note that many font families include small capital letters used frequently as a substitute for bond or italics fonts and for subtitles). Fleurons (also called wingdings) are typographical ornaments used to flag text openings (63).

Bringhurst spend most of his time discussing roman types, but he also talks about blackletter types (274-277), script types (278-280), Greek types (281-291), and calligraphic capital types (291-299).


Bringhurst writes in 11 chapters introduced with a foreward and historical synopsis and followed by a length set of 5 appendices and other end materials.  The chapter titles are:

  1. The Grand Design
  2. Rhythm and Proportion
  3. Harmony and Counterpoint
  4. Structural Forms and Devices
  5. Analphabetic Symbols
  6. Choosing and Combining Type
  7. Historical Interlude
  8. Shaping the Page
  9. The State of the Art
  10. Grooming the Font and
  11. Prowling the Specimen Books (7).

Especially interesting are Bringhurst’s displays of the different font families.  This is his fourth edition which in and of itself speaks to the reception of the book.

Like any good reads, Bringhurst brings a lot of historical insight to his writing.  I was fascinated to learn, for example, that Gutenberg’s press (1450) was not the first with movable type.  That distinction belongs to Bì Shēng in China (1040).  Bì Shēng has, however, mostly been forgotten, in part, because movable type did not catch on in China the way it did in Germany (119).


Why read a book about typography?  Outside of pure fascination, good communicators need to be aware of design practices. Works of beauty point to the designer.  The more I become aware of design practices, the more the beauty and complexity of creation stand out.



Bringhurst Types Art

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