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© Greg Devitt Design 2012

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In Design

By Greg Devitt

History Worth Repeating

On 24, Jul 2012 | In Design, Typography | By Greg Devitt

…a book designer has to be the loyal and tactful servant of the written word. It is his job to create a manner of presentation whose form neither overshadows nor patronizes the content.” —Jan Tschichold

I have to admit that when I read the words of the master typographer they warm my heart. I know it sounds silly but I suspect I was born too late. I’m not too proud to admit that I like Little House on the Prairie. There are times when I sit in front of my computer and long to be hewing fresh fallen timbers, racing to finish the homestead before the bleak and frozen winter envelopes my meager landholding and freezes my family to death…

Perhaps I should be careful for what I wish. The truth is, I wouldn’t last five minutes on the prairie nor would I want to hearken back to the hardscrabble days of hot metal type, tech pens, or Letraset. I am, however, a fan of looking back into history. History is famed for repeating itself and there is much to be learned.

While Jan Tschichold (pronounced ‘chih-kold’) wasn’t dealing with Web 2.0, HTML 5, CSS3, PHP, XML, et cetera, he was responding to the change in his craft with the rise of new technology. In his time the graphic designer and the book designer were two distinct professions and he preferred it that way. He once wrote, “The aim of the graphic artist is self-expression, while the responsible book designer, conscious of his obligation, divests himself of this ambition.”

Technology has blurred the lines and removed the distinctions between many crafts. Today’s graphic artist is also the book designer, the typesetter, the prepress operator, the bookkeeper, and the custodian. She is a Joss Whedon sci-fi fantasy—multiple personalities imprinted into one super soldier of visual communication.

With great power comes great responsibility — the Apostle Luke and Voltaire both said it, Stan Lee made it popular, and I think Tschichold would agree. There is little we cannot do in the world of visual communication but it is vital, as a designer of published material—book, web, or otherwise—that we recognize our responsibility is to the content and its communication, not our own self-promotion or self-congratulation.

If Tschichold were alive today I suspect he would be a UX guru clearing a path in visual communication and lifting content to an unobstructed flow for the user. The systems and rules are all changing, but to quote Tschichold, “neither the old style, nor the new style matters; quality does.”

Mads Soegaard writes in The History Of Usability: From Simplicity To Complexity that the first student of usability is perhaps Vitruvius (1st century BC). Vitruvius wrote of three core design principles: 1. Firmitas: The strength and durability of the design; 2: Utilitas: A design’s usefulness and suitability for the needs of its intended users; 3. Venustas: The beauty of the design. The Vitruvian way is to serve the needs of the content and user well with lasting beauty. This is the Tschichold way as well.

As simple book design gives way to complex and broad publication design with its conflagration of user experience and usability issues the unbound designer would do well to heed the words of the prophet Micah, “do what is right and walk humbly.”  Some history is worth repeating.

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