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Like this article? We recommend Expectations Versus Innovations

Expectations Versus Innovations

We're constantly told that fast-paced innovation is the soul of progress, and while I suspect that this is just advertising jive to get us to buy new stuff, there may be something to the idea. But type and typographic practice are notoriously slow to change and highly resistant to innovation. One reason is surely practical: The art of making things readable is highly evolved and highly refined, and it can't be blithely innovated. In important ways, the pages we read are a reflection of the ways in which our brains work. It's not an accident or arbitrary decision that leads to our pages being vertically oriented and of a certain proportion. Efforts to "modernize" our alphabets—from Louis XIV to the Bauhaus—have been failures, and the letterforms we use for reading today vary little from those used by the first book printers in the 15th century. Type sizes and line lengths also have varied little over the centuries.

Tastes in all things change—advertising type bears witness to this rule—but what we're used to seeing is what makes us most comfortable. Once upon a time, for example, italics were the standard for books of all kinds. But typographic styles vary slowly; radical changes are rarely widely accepted, and they almost never become the new norm. When it comes to type, what looks wrong—what catches the eye—will often be judged a mistake, whether or not it was intentional. Innovation, as Tracy's newspaper publisher found out, often runs afoul of the experienced eye, whether it's trained or not.

In the chapter of The Complete Manual of Typography entitled "What Makes Good Type Good (and Bad Type Bad)," the sources of typographic quality are put under the lens. But throughout the book a repeating theme resonates: It's up to the typographer to develop the critical eye that looks for problems, because you can't fix what you can't see. And you can't really see unless you know what you're looking for.

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