Jan Tschichold, born Johannes Tzschichhold in Leipzig in 1902, was the son of a signwriter. He trained as a calligrapher, and started working for type foundries and printing companies. He was influenced by the Bauhaus and transformed his approach to a much more modernist line. His book Die neue Typographie: Ein Handbuch für zeitgemäß Schaffende, 1928, became an influential text in the new typography movement. But note, he didn’t do anything as old-fashioned as using that ß in the subtitle! In 1933 he and his wife were arrested as “cultural Bolshevists” by the Hitler government, but after six weeks they were able to escape to Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in Locarno in 1974.

When I started out in book publishing Jan Tschichold was Design Director of Penguin Books which was situated in Harmonsworth, just across the street from Heathrow: handy for commuting from Switzerland. I did once haul out there for a job interview — not with him though. Tschichold designed the typeface Sabon, a useful, serviceable old-style face: an example can be seen here. He was responsible for the clean uncluttered look of Penguins at that time exceptional among paperback lines. The covers were color coded: green meant mystery and dark blue biography for instance. In the picture the orange ones are all fiction, with the designers original rough at the right. There’s one travel book, red, second from the left. To me this is what Penguin books should look like. 

Tschichold was a notable innovator in book design, while at the same time an upholder of traditional typographical values and also a historian of the craft. He exploreded the means by which medieval scribes would come up with the perfect type area for their work which he thought of as the golden ratio. Here’s a slide from John Barrow’s Gresham College lecture from 2011, The Uses of Irrationality: Paper Sizes and the Golden Ratio.

Barrow’s commentary reads (though it does work better if you view it) “These are the sort of medieval counterparts of the considerations of our paper sizes, and here is a construction that Tschichold had reconstructed. He claimed that this was the way people tended to do this in ancient books, or how easy it would be to do it, if you wanted to do it systematically.

Here is a double page, and suppose the page width and height were each divided into ninths.  Then, by drawing this diagonal across to the corner of the page, and this diagonal here, and then the hypotenuse, okay, you can construct this rectangle over here. The centre of the circle allows you to draw a circle which touches so that its diameter is the page width, and its diameter is therefore a way to work out the text height to make sure it is the same as the page width.  So, the scalings that you have, because this is one-ninth of the height, this is one ninth of the width, this guarantees that you have two-ninths over here, one-ninth here, two-ninths at the bottom, one-ninth at the top.  So it is a simple, rough and ready way, on your double sheet of paper, to make sure that you have the grid size and the text area, rightly laid out. You can work out, rather simply, from these ratios the ratio of the page area to the text area, and it is just (3/2)2, so 9/4. “

Theory is of course one thing, practice another: you can take it that Tschichold’s Penguins did not feature a type area of the same dimension as the page width. Commerce demands compromise.

Tschichold wasn’t the only designer to seek to nail down the theory behind scribal page design. Wikipedia has a page on “Canons of page construction” which will walk you through all the other geometric mazes in this area. I wonder if all this post hoc analysis corresponds to any contemporary reality among medieval scribes. Scribes did draw lines on their parchment to guide their writing, and clearly made decisions as to where these lines began and ended, but I rather doubt that they got out compass and dividers to figure out angles etc. I suspect they just went with what looked good, and what had come to be accepted by the market. Still it’s all good fun to try to work out a master plan behind it all.

In this context The Medieval Helpdesk seems apt.

See also Margins justified, and Medieval page design.