Book Review—Jan Tschichold, Designer: The Penguin Years

Jan Tschichold Designer: The Penguin Years. Jacket design by Geoffrey E. Matheson.

The idea for Blue Pencil began with my dissatisfaction with Jan Tschichold, Designer: The Penguin Years by Richard Doubleday. Upon realizing how flawed the book was, I wrote to the publisher to urge them to recall it from bookstores and fix the many grammatical, typographical and factual gaffes. I received no response. So, I reluctantly reviewed it for Print. However, due to space limitations, the review did not say everything I wanted to say about the book. This is my original text.

Jan Tschichold, Designer: The Penguin Years
Richard B. Doubleday
New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press and Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2006

Designed by Geoffrey E. Matheson.

This is a book that needed to be written but one that should not have been published. Jan Tschichold is arguably the most important figure in 20th century typography. His 1925 essay “Elementare Typographie” in the special issue of Typographische Mitteilungen; and 1928 book Die neue Typographie crystallized the typographic trends of the decade. Not only was Tschichold the foremost exponent of “the new typography” but he was also its most brilliant practitioner. Yet, he quickly began to have second thoughts about the dogmatism he had espoused and in Typographische Gestaltung (1935), written after he had fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland, he began to soften his views of typography. By the time he was hired to oversee the redesign of Penguin books in 1947 Tschichold had become a classical typographer in the mold of D.B. Updike and Bruce Rogers. The success of his work for Penguin made him as influential as a traditionalist as he had been as an exponent of asymmetric typography two decades earlier.

The story of Tschichold’s career has been told in several books, most notably in Jan Tschichold: Typographer (1975) and Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography (1997), both by Ruari McLean, and Jan Tschichold: Leben und Werk des Typographen (1977). However, in all of these books—and in other writing about his typography—his work at Penguin takes a back seat to his modernist writings and work. A book focused on Tschichold’s Penguin years has been long overdue. Unfortunately, this is not that book.

Books about design are expected to be well designed; and this is doubly so for those about book design. Doubleday clearly recognized this when he chose to place this notice in the front of the book, prior to the frontmatter: “The typeface, Sabon, used in this text was designed by Jan Tschichold. As an added tribute to this internationally famous book designer, most of the formatting and typographical conventions used in this work are those recommended by this master typographer.” The first thing one notices, however, is that the notice itself violates one of Tschichold’s cardinal rules. In “Penguin Composition Rules” (reproduced on pages 31–34) he says, “They [small capitals] must always be slightly letter-spaced to make words legible.” The notice is set entirely in capitals and small capitals that have not been letter-spaced. This is only the first of several typographic blunders in Jan Tschichold, Designer, some of which explicitly violate the “Penguin Composition Rules” and others The Chicago Manual of Style. The initials that begin each chapter are overly heavy and are left hanging between the first and second line of text; the words in several lines (e.g. see first line of paragraph two, p. xv) run together much too tightly; hyphens, en dashes and em dashes are haphazardly and often incorrectly (hyphens between dates, hyphens without spaces in place of dashes e.g. p. 21, em dashes without spaces in the main text (but not on p. 4 where en dashes with spaces are employed), en dashes with spaces in the appendices, and em dashes with spaces in the bibliographies); titles, foreign words and phrases are not always italicized (e.g. neue typographie and Manuel Pratique de la typographie française); lengthy quotations are set in italics which are sometimes set off (but not indented or reduced in size) and sometimes run in, but which always include double quotation marks; and the text block is nearly centered left and right on each page (10 pica outer margin and 8 pica gutter margin). Doubleday and Geoffrey E. Matheson, the book’s designer, use periods after common abbreviations such as Mr. and double quote marks for quotations, both contrary to Tschichold’s advice (he preferred single quote marks for quotations and double quote marks for quotations within quotations) and current British editorial practice. Undoubtedly, they are following American practice as exemplified by The Chicago Manual of Style, except that quotations are not ony marked by double quote marks but they are also set in italic and usually—though not always—set off (though not in a smaller type size or indented).

In addition to the typographic flaws in Jan Tschichold, Designer—flaws that might normally seem minor except for the fact that Tschichold was a notorious stickler for getting the details right—there are numerous orthographical and grammatical ones. Misspelled words and names abound: san-serif, assymmetric, juxtoposition, essentric, fluerons, aquired, finisheing, equisite, retrained [instead of restrained], unequivaocal, celleresca [cancellaresca], Rauri McLean, and [Schmoller]. Several of these appear more than once. In addition to misspellings, there is confusion among homonyms and similar sounding words such as complimentary instead of complementary, effected instead of affected, and to instead of too. And there are words that are capitalized or not capitalized according to whim rather than grammatical rules. Among those that are capitalized within a sentence when they are not part of a title are black, white, blue, green, red, classic, century, script, calligraphy, published and redrawn. On the other hand, proper nouns are not always capitalized when they should be (e.g. czech, danish, dutch, english, french, german, swedish; renaissance, monotype, and incunabula). Sometimes apostrophes are missing (e.g. “The Nazis German Art Association considered avant-garde artists….) or added when unnecessary. Oak Knoll Press and Lund Humphries, the two co-publishers of the book, are as much to blame for this sorry state of affair as is the author.

Doubleday’s writing—which rarely rises above the pedestrian—is often beset by sentences that are repetitive (sometimes word for word!), that run on, that are fragmented, or that contain awkward locutions (e.g. “defiance to the Nazis”). Thus, on page 20, there is:

Griffo analyzed pre-Caroline scripts (Uncial: from Latin “uncia,” “inch-high.”) A formal, majuscule bookhand used especially in Greek and Latin manuscripts from the fourth to the ninth centuries), to produce a Roman type as a model for the typeface Garamond in the sixteenth century, which serves as the prototype for two centuries of typographic design in Europe.


Aldine Press books were masterpieces of graphic design. Their influence was still felt in the late 19th century by the Kelmscott Press, which led the renaissance of typographical design in the British commercial printing industry and influenced typographic designers on into the 20th Century. The Kelmscott Press treated the book as an art form and influenced a whole new generation of book designers, including Tschichold’s classical approach to the redesign of Penguin books.

The misspellings, typographic infelicities, and poor writing that plague Jan Tschichold, Designer might be overlooked if Doubleday’s analysis of Tschichold’s work for Penguin was of a high caliber. Unfortunately, it is often as numbingly dull as his prose, rarely rising above the level expected of a schoolboy. All of these faults can be found in Doubleday’s discussion of the deluxe edition of Robert Graves’ translation of The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius (1951) and in the caption accompanying its cover design (page 80 and figure 63 respectively). [The spelling, capitalization, italicization and syntax are replicated exactly as they are in the book. Typographic discrepancies between the two are described below.]

page 80

One notable Masterpiece from the series of Penguin Classics is Tschichold’s book design for The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, written by Lucius Apuleius, translated by the poet and novelist Robert Graves. First published as a softback in 1950, Penguin issed their own hardback version, a 298-page, 2,000 limited deluxe edition the following year. The books’ detail included a beige cloth, gilted stamped lettering on a vellum spine, vellum tips, (also referred to as French corners), and finisheing by hand to reinforce the spine and binding in order to avoid damage while handling. For the lettering on the spine, The Golden Ass, Tschichold creates a hand drawn cursive lettering in a decorative and graceful script with vitality and harmony. Two rules of different weights had been added for visual support within the spine. The book was protected with a tan dustwrapper and fitted inside the original two-color card slipcase. Tschichold set th two-color card slipcase in all caps, monotype Perpetua in three distinctive groupings of typography. What made this design unique was the harmony and extreme clarity achieved by Tschichold’s exquisitely centered arrangements, agreeable groupings, and elegant relationship of typography.

These three groupings were comprised of fourteen lines of type, centrally placed and similar point size throughout. However, the point size of the title, The Golden Ass, being the most important, was increased to a larger point and carefully letterspaced to draw attention. Also, the description of the books contents, comprised of five lines of type, was accentuated in an intense red and placed in the center of the cover. In addition, Tschichold included a three ruled frame device running around the edge of the slipcase to complement the typography in order to acheive balanced perfection. Tschichold set the book in monotype Lutetia, a typeface designed by Jan van Krimpen and printed by Silk & Terry on a specially made blue-white woven paper made by Wiggins, Teape & Co.

figure 63

Figure 63
The Transformations of Lucius otherwise known as The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius
(Edition de Luxe), translated by Robert Graves
Cover Design by Jan Tschichold
Penguin Classics, Number Q13, December 1951
4 3/6″ x 7 1/8″

The book’s details included a beige cloth gilted stamped lettering on a vellum spine, Vellum tips, also referred to as French corners, and finished by hand to reinforce the spine and binding to avoid damage while handling. It was protected with a tan dustwrapper and fitted inside the original two-color card slipcase.

What is wrong with this discussion and caption? There are several misspelled words and several wrong ones (e.g. woven instead of wove). Capitalization and italicization are inconsistent (e.g. vellum tips vs. Vellum tips; and the book’s title). Lining figures and fake fractions (composed of lining figures and virgules) are used in the caption. (This is not typical of the majority of captions which are properly set with oldstyle figures and true fractions.) Verb tenses jump about. There is one run-on sentence and several with poor syntax or incorrect punctuation.

More importantly, figure 63 appears to be the slipcase—if Doubleday’s description is accurate—rather than the cover as the caption says. (However, there it has fifteen lines of type not fourteen. The price has been overlooked, though one can be sure that its position between the second and third groupings of text was carefully considered by Tschichold.) Since there is no other illustration of the book—and it does not appear in previous books about Tschichold and Penguin— it is unclear whether figure 63 is mislabeled or the text is confused. However, assuming that the image is of the slipcase of The Golden Ass, Doubleday’s comments provide little assistance in understanding why Tschichold’s design is a “masterpiece” and why he felt it necessary to change the design he made for the 1950 paperback version (Penguin Classics, Number L11) (figure 62). Doubleday is consistently vague in his typographic descriptions. Although he does identify the typefaces used by Tschichold, he does not do the same for ornaments. He never mentions specific point sizes or other typographic measurements (such as measures or leading), nor does he discuss the mathematical relationships between groupings of text, white space and margins. Tschichold’s line breaks on cover designs are similarly ignored as are the reasons he chooses capitals, small capitals, upper-and-lowercase, or italic for various components. Tschichold’s uncanny ability to make the right decisions about these elements is at the heart of his genius and are the basis for his exalted reputation.

It is only in the images of Penguin books before and after Tschichold’s arrival in 1947 that we can see how much better a designer he was than Edward Young and his other predecessors (for example, see figures 25–27). Doubleday does reproduce several examples of Tschichold’s comps and instructions to printers, allowing the reader to see how hard he worked to get the typographic details of a design absolutely right (e.g. figures 21–23 or figures 87–88). Unfortunately, Doubleday does not always comment on these sketches and when he does he often falls short in explicating Tschichold’s thinking during the design process. For instance, he says nothing about Tschichold’s pencil sketch and marked-up proof (figures 87–88) for a chapter opening—incorrectly described as a preliminary page by Doubleday—of Painting in Britain: 1530–1790 by Ellis K. Waterhouse. The former is replete with instructions in red that are difficult to decipher. It would have been useful to either have them quoted in full or, at the very least, summarized. In the captions accompanying figures 21–23—three stages of the title page for King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green (1953)—Doubleday does point out the subtle modification of the border that occurs between the printer’s proof and the final printed page, but he makes no mention of the change in the imprint copy that also occurs, a change that is critical to the success of the design. (Elsewhere, Doubleday explains the apparent discrepancy in the book’s publication date—four years after Tschichold left Penguin to return to Switzerland—by noting that as the first title in The Pelican History of Art its format had been designed in 1948.)

Alan Bartram, in Five Hundred Years of Book Design (2001), criticizes Stanley Morison for claiming that “the history of printing is in large measure the history of the title-page”. Instead, he rightly argues that it is the history of the text page that deserves the most attention. One of the greatest flaws in Jan Tschichold, Designer is its failure to heed Bartram’s advice. There are only nine images (out of 110) that show interior pages of books—fewer than in either Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography (18) or Jan Tschichold: Leben und Werk des Typographen (12) even though these books survey Tschichold’s entire career.

The text of Jan Tschichold, Designer is supplemented by numerous appendices and bibliographies. The twelve appendices are a hodge podge of items, several of which could benefit from editorial notes placing them in context: two articles by Tschichold himself about his time at Penguin; seven letters involving his hiring; a speech by Allen Lane, publisher of Penguin Books; an essay on typography by Tschichold; and correspondence by Erik Ellegaard Frederiksen describing his experience as Tschichold’s assistant. One can learn as much, if not more, about Tschichold’s Penguin designs from these texts as from the rest of Doubleday’s book. The bibliographies—books and articles written, edited or tranlated by Tschichold; books and articles written about Tschichold; and Doubleday’s sources for this book—are riddled with typographical mistakes.

Although Doubleday had access to Penguin archives at the company and at Bristol University he failed to take full advantage of the situation since he does not cite any original documents in his text, his footnotes (which are scarce) or his bibliography. However, the access paid off handsomely from a visual standpoint as Jan Tschichold, Designer is abundantly illustrated. There are more examples of Tschichold’s work for Penguin than can be found in any other single source, including books about the history of Penguin such as the recent Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935–2005 by Phil Baines. Jan Tschichold, Designer is is an embarrassment to anyone who is passionate about well-researched, well-written and well-made books, as Tschichold himself was. However, for those interested in his career or in 20th century book design, the appendices and illustrations alone make it a must-have book.

Print LXI:III May/June 2007