Jan Tschichold and New Typography

Graphic design and typography have gone through a tremendous journey since Guttenberg. Movement after artistic movement have come and gone, some reacting against and others attempting to improve on previous ones. Top among design movements that bear revisiting is New Typography, not only because of the professional manner in which its designers went about business, but for its influence on modern day print industry. One name to which much credit goes in this regard is Jan Tschichold.

With the onset of WWI, typography took a new turn. Focus was riveted on war propaganda and it’s easy to see how and why professional conventions of graphic design often took a backseat. Artists didn’t always adhere to professional code, but employed sensational imagery to sway masses for political expediency. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Germany where blackletter type had for so long been a national political instrument. It’s thus paradoxical that Jan Tschichod, a German emigrant calligrapher, would play a significant role in typography. What’s more, his views on type became the basis of his personal safety forcing this arts educator to flee to Switzerland. This serves to demonstrate how typography, as a melting pot for divergent ideas, has evolved over time.

Tschichold is important because, like his changing views, the evolution of typography reflects a wavering aesthetic value of letterforms. Tschichold’s about-turn on New Typography later in life speaks to the instability of ideas in the face of political threat. Unlike some of his compatriots at Bauhaus, Tschichold had sense enough to discern the inevitability of change. But change is a shift from an established position, and Tschichold is the man credited with codifying of modernist rules of design. He instituted non-centered, flash left designs; he taught effective use of different sizes and weights of type for easy conveyance of information, and his influence led to standardization of paper sizes for all printed materials.

In a 1924 advertisement, Tschichold listed principles of New Typography in a how-to instruction manual approach. He wanted designers to use vertical and horizontal grid, rule bars and boxes, white spaces as elements of design, etc. all of which constituted what he termed ‘dynamic force of designs’. To achieve such required contrasting design elements and specific placements of text and images on a page. Beside these rules, Tschichold rejected the use of embellishments and decoration of type, insisting on san serif. He also rejected symmetry, and had asymmetry in its place. Ironically, while insisting on san serif, Tschichold was opposed to the geometric Architype Bayer which was a favorite of many Bauhaus designers. Thus, in creating rules for typography, rather than suggestions, Tschichold reenacted the unyielding intolerance of most artistic movements.

New Typography was an outgrowth of the Bauhaus, a school designed to marge fine and applied arts to achieve architectural prowess. A conglomeration of ideas, including Russian constructivism, dada, expressionism, De Stijl and other movements informed the Bauhaus. Tschichold, a constant guest at the school, and, himself a significant influence in Bauhaus ideals, was acquainted with the progressive nature of art, but he still created stringent rules for New Typography, which designers were not free to break. Before long, a new movement, the International Style arose and begun to dismantle the rules of New Typography as every movement had done to the one before it.

Standards are great, they provide starting points. Standardized paper sizes and typographic hierarchy help maintain consistency. But rules that cannot be broken are the surest way to kill creativity and prevent advancement, and Tschichold gave us both.

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