Book Notes: “An Essay on Typography” by Eric Gill

A while ago I read An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill. I copied down a few passages from the book that I always intended to put here on my blog, but you know, life got in the way.

I was recently dusting off the old filesystem and found these notes. So, without further ado, I present: things that stood out years ago when I read this book.

Why the corporate customer service experience is comparable to being one of the damned in the pit of hell:

We have elected to order manufacture upon inhuman lines; why should we ask for humanity in the product?

How so many workplaces view people:

The ordinary workman has been reduced to the level of a mere tool used by someone else.

How you design a tool in relation to the human who operates it is a fascinating thing:

[the best tool for being a printer] is one operated by a hand lever. This tool gives the maximum of control with the minimum of distraction. It is most important that the workman should not have to watch his instrument, that his whole attention should be given to the work. A sculptor does not see his hammer and chisel when he is carving, but only the stone in front of him. Similarly the hand press printer can give his whole attention to inking & printing, and hardly see his press.

This kind of human-powered press stands in contrast to an automated press, which requires no human to work it only to oversee it:

[with an] automatically fed power press…the printer becomes little more than a watcher of his instrument, a machine-minder. If he be conscientious he will from time to time take a print from the accumulating pile and see whether it is up to the standard set by his overseer; but his main attention must be given to the machine to see that it is running smoothly.

What’s the big deal? A machine you operate vs. one you oversee might seem like a squabble of semantics, but being explicit about the tradeoffs is important. Otherwise we conflate the two and don’t understand what’s lost in either.

An interesting observation on the state of England in 1931:

The world is not yet clothed in garments which befit it…we are still using and wearing things which have no real relation to the spirit which moves our life. We are wearing and using them simply because we are accustomed to them…We will wear collars and ties, whether we be kings, clerks or furnace men, though there is no necessity for a collar or a tie in any of these trades. All this is merely intellectual sloth; nobody can be bothered to live according to reason.

A kind of corollary to the tale of the emperor with no clothes, but it does make me pause and ask: how much of what I do is mere “intellectual sloth”?

So much of what we do in software at “scale” today:

the production of cheap literature, whether daily newspapers or books, is without doubt the affair not of those interested in books but of men of business interested in money. They do not ask themselves: how well can this thing be done? but: how large a market can we ‘tap’? And to this end they have brought into existence all manifold powers of machinery & advertisement—a vicious circle; for the more the human race is degraded by industrialism, the larger is the market for inferior articles; in order to reach a larger and still larger number of buyers you produce a lower and still lower quality of goods.

So where does that leave us?

There are, then, two principles, as there are two worlds. There is the principle of best possible quality, and the principle of greatest possible profit. And there is every sort of compromise between the two…[these] two worlds can exist side by side, industrialism becoming more strictly and nobly utilitarian as it recognizes its inherent limitations, and the world of human labour ceasing any longer to compete with it, becoming more strictly and soberly humane.

Drawing this back to the world of design—was the trend towards “flat” design a similar kind of industrial utilitarianism at its heart? “Not even design talent to go around? Let’s change the craft to ensure design can reach scale in the profession of building software.” Skeuomorphism became, then, a kind of manual human craftsmanship preserved by an esoteric group who lauded its humaneness and had the capabilities to produce it.

[justified type] is simply one of those things you get if you can: it satisfies our appetite for neat appearance, a laudable appetite, but has become somewhat of a superstition; and it is generally obtained at too great a sacrifice (rivers of text). A book is primarily a thing to read, and the merely neat appearance of a page of type of which all the lines are equal in length is a thing of no very great value in itself; it partakes too much of the idea of those who regard books as things to be looked at rather than read

Isn’t that the web? Symmetrical layouts, consistency across devices/platforms, etc. These are all nice to have if you can. They satisfy our appetite for balanced appearance, but has become a superstition. A website, an HTML website, a HYPERTEXT document, is primarily a thing to be read. The balance and proportions and reflowing content etc. are of no great value in and of themselves. That partakes too much of the idea that websites are things to be looked at rather than read.

This idea has a corollary in those dribbble designs that don’t exist to be used but merely to be looked at, though that’s a discussion for another day.

a world which desires pleasure more than anything else finds itself surrounded by things that please no one but fools.