Is “The Bible for typographers” an outdated relic?

The fourth edition of The Elements of Typographic Style has been under significant criticism from Typographica, one of the major hubs of typographic wisdom globally, especially for its lack of focus on digital and web typography. But is the problem this bad?

The Elements of Typographic Style was originally published in 1992 by Canadian typographer and poet Robert Bringhurst. Its fourth edition, came out 2012, and it has been translated in many languages, updated with specific type treatments for regional alphabets. Jonathan Hoefler, famous for the Hoefler Text font family designed for Apple computers, has touted it as “the finest book ever written on typography”, and Herman Zapf, undoubtedly the most important typemaker of the 20th century has stated his wish “to see this book become the typographer’s Bible”.

So what gives? Why are the opinionmakers of the 21st century bashing this book?

Is it the Typographic Bible it is said to be?

Robert Bringhurst modelled the title of his book on The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr, which is an excellent guidebook on writing and grammar, full of rules, laws and commandments. For Bringhurst, however, this is more of an homage, than anything else – his tone is less absolute and more reflective than assertive. He is exploring with us, and his career as a poet helped him to write this book in a beautiful way, turning this from a technical manual to a precious resource – and a gorgeous artifact too, typeset beautifully and printed with care.

But what is special with this book, is that it is unique in that it provides details about its treatise – you can find suggestions for the right amount of text on a page, for example, and ways to set it on square pages or landscape pages. Sadly, there are no more books about this kind of information out there – you can buy a truckload of typography books that don’t go beyond the point that “Comic Sans is silly, and Times New Roman is serious”.

Reading this book feels like one is using cheat codes for typography – just applying these indiscriminately is going to transform bad work into more than passable. And when these rules become second nature, one can be comfortable breaking them with wise judgment, in a truly experimental way, and not as a substitute for ignorance.

But it’s just for printed books, right?

Well, not really. Critics of the book will say that it neglects digital and web typography, but in earnest, this is just a superficial reading of the text. In truth, most of the pieces of wisdom found in The Elements of Typographic style can (and should) be applied to our web experiences too, like:

  • Length of paragraph lines (a major problem with many, many contemporary digital experiences, including, sadly, Wikipedia.)
  • Spacing and leading (the distances between words and between lines)
  • Using the correct diacritics and analphabetic symbols (Unicode is even more ready to handle these problems than metal movable fonts are)
  • Choosing page formats (responsive type is able to give us many options to make this work).

The way we read The Elements of Typographic Style, it is ready to plug-and-play with the web.

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