Decriminalizing Typography: Declaring an End to the War on “Type Crimes”

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There seems to be an epidemic of lawlessness in the world of typography. More and more I keep encountering the chilling phrase “type crime.” At a time when crime has been decreasing in American cities, it seems to be on the upswing in the world of design. The website for Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton’s popular book on typography, contains a section entitled “Type Crimes.” Ilene Strizver, author of Type Rules!, posts the “Top Ten Type Crimes” on while Laure Joumier lists the “Top Ten Type Crimes for Science and Mathematics” on the blog “The Incentive.” Amber Alerts are issued by other bloggers, many taking their cues from Lupton and Strizver. One, the grammatically awkward “Most Wanted Type Crimes,” seems to be unintentionally encouraging this rampage of typographic depravity.

When and why did this obsession with “type crimes” arise? In trying to answer this question, I first assumed its roots resided in the rigid pronouncements of a German or Swiss typographer, specifically Jan Tschichold, who, as Robert Bringhurst pointed out, “loved categorical statements and absolute rules.” After all, the English translation of a collection of Tschichold’s writings on typography and book design is entitled The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design. But upon rereading the book, I found no dire warnings against “type crimes” and only a few explicit commandments:

“Paragraphs without indent … are a bad habit and should be eliminated.”“It should be a rule that lowercase is never and under no circumstances to be letterspaced.”

Although Tschichold’s essays often focus on typographic details such as widows and orphans, the thrust of his texts is about the responsibility of the typographer/book designer as a guardian of knowledge, someone entrusted with aiding its transmission from writer to reader, from one moment in time to another. Thus, he proclaims, “Personal typography is defective typography.”

For Tschichold, “perfect typography” depends on harmony between all of its elements and is only achieved through long experience. That experience allows one to ignore absolute statements about typography if they don’t fit the circumstances.

Tschichold’s flexibility is not that surprising once one recalls that the basis of his famous fight with Max Bill in 1946 was over Bill’s Modernist idea that there was only one true path to typographic grace.

Tschichold’s stricture against letterspacing lowercase letters—a peculiarly German practice rooted in the deficiencies of blackletter types—was more colorfully expressed by the American type designer Frederic W. Goudy several decades earlier as, “Anyone who would letterspace lowercase letters would steal sheep.” Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger memorably appropriated Goudy’s phrase as the basis for the title of their popular book on typography, Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works.

But despite the finger-wagging title, their text is blissfully free of “don’ts.” Which is what one would expect from Spiekermann, author of Rhyme and Reason: A Typographic Novel, whose mantra is “Everything interacts.” Like Tschichold, he is concerned with the details of typography only as a means of achieving an optimal reading experience.


Pages from Rhyme and Reason: A Typographic Novel

The absolutism of Swiss typography is more oracular than punitive: Sans serif is the typeface of our time; or, the flush left, rag right setting is natural. In the writings of Emil Ruder, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Karl Gerstner, one can search in vain for a list of proscribed typographic acts.

What is forbidden is implied by what is promulgated as not only right but obvious and inevitable.

Similarly, the proponents of classical typography (the “Crystal Goblet” approach), such as Beatrice Warde, Stanley Morison and Oliver Simon, rarely consider the nitty-gritty of typography and thus don’t inveigh against “type crimes.”

Their tone is gentler. In An Introduction to Typography, Simon writes, “Any display incorporating swash letters should be kept within the bounds of reticence; their too-frequent use becomes tiresome. Only when they are used in moderation can the element of surprise and fancy be maintained.” There is no shrill warning, only reasonable advice.

The “type crime” trend apparently began with Lupton and Strizver over a decade ago. What sparked it? In Strizver’s case she seems fixated on the differences between typewriting and typesetting (aka typography). This is a bit strange today since the current generation of young designers never learned to use a typewriter, and thus never absorbed its rules.

Oddly enough, the authors of typography books in the 1980s and early 1990s—a period when there was legitimate concern over confusion among typewriters, word processors and personal computers (Robin Williams even titled her 1989 book The Mac Is Not a Typewriter)—avoided scolding their readers. For example, James Felici, author of The Desktop Style Guide, simply says, “In typeset pages, never use multiple word spaces.”

Dutch type designer Gerard Unger, author of Typography: Basic Principles and Applications, is even less strict. Regarding proper word spacing, he wisely states, “The gap should only be so large as to ensure that the words are clearly separated, not much more. It is difficult to lay down hard-and-fast guidelines for upper and lower limits, however: Word spacing has an elastic property.”

While the typewriter’s legacy is rightfully castigated as the source of the misuse of double and single primes for quotation marks and apostrophes, and double hyphens for dashes, it is not at fault for the use of double spaces following punctuation.

That practice was common in the 19th century among professional compositors and can be found in the best printing and typography manuals of the day, including some that predated the invention of the typewriter. The British author C.H. Timperley (1838) said that en spaces were normally used after punctuation, but that under some circumstances two-em, three-em and even four-em spaces were required (!).

Thomas MacKellar, one of the partners in the Philadelphia type foundry MacKellar, Smiths and Jordan, and author of The American Printer (1871), had a more variable notion of spacing: “The comma requires only a thick space, but the other points should have a hair space be
fore and en quadrate after them, except the full-point, which should have an em quadrate, as terminating a sentence.” He considered close and wide spacing as “unworkmanlike.”

The question of how much space to place after punctuation is something that has changed over time because notions of what constitutes ease of reading have changed. Timperley et al. thought that extra spaces aided the reader. The gaps did not bother them. But today’s ideas of what constitutes good typography derived from Beatrice Warde’s “Crystal Goblet” essay and the writings of Jan Tschichold, who assumed that ease of reading is best accomplished by an even appearance of the text block. This is the root of the common prohibitions against not only extra word spaces, rivers, rags and widows, but also the source of the debate between American and British typographers over the proper use of dashes and quotation marks.

This brings up another annoying aspect of the current “type crime” attitude: the strict campaign against orphans and widows. The landing page at even has “No sympathy for orphans and widows” as its motto. While it is true that every good typography book of the past 60 years—from Dowding to Bringhurst—has condemned these disruptions of the text block and the experience of reading, their presence is not so dire as to constitute criminal behavior.

In fact, many of the most esteemed typographers of the 20th century—from W.A. Dwiggins to Robin Kinross—have designed books replete with widows. There are 16 or more widows (the exact number depends on one’s definition of a widow) in 36 pages of text in the original Compugraphic edition of Detail in Typography by Jost Hochuli (1987).

When I pointed this out to Hochuli years ago, he simply shrugged in response. Why? Because he believes that the greater “crime” (to use the Strizver/Lupton terminology) is inconsistent line spacing in a justified setting or a poor rag in an unjustified one. His book—recommended by—does not even mention widows and orphans.

These type scolds have encouraged budding typographers to focus on details that are only a small, and nonessential, part of good typography. Thus, we get blogs (claiming to channel Lupton), which ignorantly proclaim, “Good typography grabs attention, bad typography pisses people off.” Bad typography is likened to misspelled words, pulling the “reader/viewer focus from the designer’s intended message.”

No. The bad typography of the type scolds—misuse of primes, dashes, etc.—only pisses off designers. Ordinary readers are oblivious to such “crimes.” The bad typography that frustrates and irritates nondesigners has to do with the basics: choice of typeface, point size, leading, line length, letterspacing. This is what Tschichold, Dowding, Hochuli and Spiekermann all understand. Thinking about type should be thinking about how to optimize these parameters and not about whether or not one is committing a “type crime.”