Graphic Design Theory: The New Typography


The fifth essay in Helen Armstrong’s Graphic Design Theory is an excerpt from Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography.¹ Jan Tschichold was a German typographer who rose to prominence in the 1920s and would be instrumental in shaping the printed page that we say today.

Tschichold believed that clarity, rather than beauty, was the highest form of book arts. By focusing on clear communication the reader’s attention would be refocused to the meaning of the text rather than arbitrary, as he saw it, visual clutter. He had been trained as a traditional calligrapher and understood that classical typesetting was built around a central axis and frequently differed every consideration to a symmetrical layout. After attending the first Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar he quickly began to adopt Constructivist and Bauhaus concepts into his work.

In his essay he explains the reasons that a new clearer system of typography is necessary:

This utmost clarity is necessary today because of the manifold claims for our attention made by the extraordinary amount of print, which demands the greatest economy of expression.

The New Typography encourages finds its clarity through asymmetrical type that is organized by the type of content rather than by strict adherance to formalist typesetting tradition. Any form of ornamentation must be repressed in order to not distract from pure communication.

Every part of a text relates to every other part by a definite, logical relationship of emphasis and value, predetermined by content. It is up to the typographer to express this relationship clearly and visibly through type sizes and weight, arrangement of lines, use of color, photography, etc. …

Working through a text according to these principles will usually result in a rhythm different from that of former symmetrical typography. Asymmetry is the rhythmic expression of function design.…

Today we see in a desire for ornament an ignorant tendency that our century must repress. When in earlier periods ornament was used, often in an extravagant degree, it only showed how little the essence of typography, which is communication, was understood.

Tschichold would eventually come to see this absolutist view as indicative of the fascism that was taking Germany by storm and return to the classic typography of his youth. Although it is easy to understand the aversion that Tschichold, the ideas of The New Typography some particularly needed in our media saturated world. Clear, orderly, organization of written content means that it will actually be read. People ignore the most complicated websites that offer the same services as clear ones simply because they were not clear. I recycle 75% of my mail, with hardly a glance, because a cluttered layout that uses loud type simply tells me that this is not something that will interest me, because it’s trying way harder than it could possibly be worth. Ornamentation is not always evil but The New Typography has a lot to contribute.

  • Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006. page 317–323.
Book Design History Typography