The Elements of Typographic Style – Part 1

Bringhurst Elements of Typographic Style

18/05/08 – A selection of excerpts and principles from Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style [Part 1 of 2]:


“But when I set myself to compile a simple list of working principles, one of the benchmarks I first thought of was William Strunk and E.B. White’s small masterpiece, The Elements of Style.” (9)

“But the underlying principles of typography are, at any rate, stable enough to weather any number of human fashions and fads.” (10)

“The essential elements of style have more to do with the goals typographers set for themselves than with the mutable eccentricities of their tools.” (ibid.)


1.1 First Principles

1.1.1 Typography exists to honor content.

“Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency. Its other traditional goal is durability: not immunity to change, but a clear superiority to fashion.” (17)

1.1.2 Letters have a life and dignity of their own.

“Typography is just that: idealized writing.” (19)

“Simple as it may sound, the task of creative non-interference with letters is a rewarding and difficult calling. In ideal conditions, it is all that typographers are really asked to do -and it is enough.” (ibid.)

“Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunities for insight or obtuseness.” (ibid.)

1.2 Tactics

1.2.1 Read the text before designing it.

“The typographer’s one essential task is to interpret and communicate the text. Its tone, its logical structure, its physical size, all determine the possibilities of typographic form.” (20)

1.2.2 Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.

“The first task of the typographer is therefore to read and understand the text; the second task is to analyze and map it. Only then can typographic interpretation begin.” (ibid.)

“Typographers, like other artists and craftsmen -musicians, composers and authors as well- must as a rule do their work and disappear.” (21)

1.2.3 Make the visible relationship between the text and other elements (photographs, captions, tables, diagrams, notes) a reflection of their real relationship.

“The typographic page is a map of the mind; it is frequently also a map of the social order from which it comes. And for better or for worse, minds and social orders change.” (22)

1.2.4 Choose a typeface or a group of faces that will honor and elucidate the character of the text.

“When the type is poorly chosen, what the words say linguistically and what the letters imply visually are disharmonious, dishonest, out of tune.” (23)

1.2.5 Shape the page and frame the textblock so that it honors and reveals every element, every relationship between elements, and every logical nuance of the text.

“Shaping the page goes hand in hand with choosing the type, and both are permanent typographical preoccupations.” (24)

1.2.6 Give full typographic attention even [especially] to incidental details

1.3 Summary

  • invite the reader into the text;
  • reveal the tenor and meaning of the text;
  • clarify the structure and order of the text;
  • link the text with other existing elements;
  • induce a state of energetic repose, which is the ideal condition for reading.

“While serving the reader in this way, typography, like a musical performance or a theatrical production, should serve two other ends. It should honor the text for its own sake -always assuming that the text is worth a typographer’s trouble- and it should honor and contribute to its own tradition: that of typography itself.” (24)


2.1 Horizontal Motion

“Once the demands of legibility and logical order are satisfied, evenness of color is the typographer’s normal aim. And color depends on four things: the design of the type, the spacing between the letters, the spacing between the words, and the spacing between the lines. None is independent of the others.” (25)

“Type is normally measured in picas and points, but horizontal spacing is measured ems, and the em is a sliding measure.” (ibid.)

“For a normal text face in a normal text size, a typical value for the word space is a quarter of an em, which can be written M/4. (A quarter of an em is typically about the same as, or slightly more than, the set-width of the letter t.)” (26)

“The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal. For multiple-column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters.” (ibid.)

2.1.4 Use a single word space between sentences.

“The rule is sometimes altered, however, when setting classical Latin and Greek, romanized Sanskrit, phonetics or other kinds of texts in which sentences begin with lowercase letters. In the absence of a capital, full en space (M/2) between sentences may be welcome.” (30)

2.1.5 Add little or no space within strings of initials.

“A normal word space follows the last period in the string.” (ibid.)

2.1.7 Don’t letterspace the lower case without a reason.

“Where letters function one by one (as in acronyms, web-site and e-mail addresses) letterspacing is likely to help, no matter whether the letters are caps, small caps or lower case.” (32)

2.2 Vertical Motion

2.2.1 Choose a basic leading that suits the typeface, text and measure

“Settings such as 9/11, 10/12, 11/13 and 12/15 are routine.” (37)

2.2.2 Add and delete vertical space at measured intervals

“[...]the total amount of vertical space consumed by each departure from the main text should be an even multiple of the basic leading.” (38)

“Most books now printed in the Latin alphabet carry from 30 to 45 lines per page. The average length of line in most of those books is 60 to 66 characters.” (39)

2.3 Blocks & Paragraphs

2.3.1 Set opening paragraphs flush left.

2.3.2 In continuous text, mark all paragraphs after the first with an indent of at least one en.

“The most common paragraph indent is one em. Another standard value is one lead.” (40)

2.3.3 Add extra lead before and after block quotations.

“But if the leading within the block quotation differs from the leading of the main text, these blanks before and after the quotation must be elastic. They afford the only opportunity for bringing the text back into phase.” (41)

2.4 Etiquette of Hyphenation & Pagination

2.4.1 At hyphenated line-ends, leave at least two characters behind and take at least three forward.

2.4.5 Hyphenate according to the conventions of language.

2.4.9 Balance facing pages by moving single lines.

2.4.11 Abandon any and all rules of hyphenation and pagination that fail to serve the needs of the text.


3.1 Size

3.1.1 Don’t compose without a scale.

“In the sixteenth century, a series of common sizes developed among European typographers, and the series survived with little change and few additions for 400 years.” (45)

Traditional point scale: 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72

“In time, the scales you choose, like the faces you choose, will become recognizable features of personal style.” (ibid.)

3.2 Numeral, Capitals & Small Caps

3.2.1 Using titling figures with full caps, and text figures in all other circumstances.

“It is better to have one good face with all its parts, including text figures and small caps, than fifty faces without.” (47)

“However common it may be, the use of titling figures in running text is illiterate: it spurns the truth of letters.” (48)

3.2.2 For abbreviations and acronyms in the midst of normal text, use spaced small caps.

“This is a good rule for just about everything except two-letter geographical acronyms and acronyms that stand for personal names.”

3.2.3 Refer typographic disputes to the higher courts of speech and thinking.

3.3 Ligatures

3.3.1 Use the ligatures required by the font, and the characters required by the language, in which you are setting type.

Latin ligatures: ff, fi, fl, ffi, ffl

3.3.2 If you wish to avoid ligatures altogether, restrict yourself to faces that don’t require them.

3.4 Tribal Alliances & Families

3.4.1 To the marriage of type and text, both parties bring their cultural presumptions, dreams and family obligations. Accept them.



“The best results come, as a rule, from finding the best type for the work and then guiding it with the gentlest possible hand.” (55)

3.4.2 Don’t use a font you don’t need.

3.4.3 Use sloped romans sparingly and artificially sloped romans more sparingly still.

“It is true that most romans are upright and most itlaics slop to the right -but flow, not slope, is what really differentiates the two.” (56)

“Early italic fonts had only modest slope and were designed to be used with upright roman capitals.” (57)

“Italic and roman lived quite separate lives until the middle of the sixteenth century. Before that date, books were set in either roman or italic, but not in both. In the late Renaissance, typographers began to use the two for different features in the same book. Typically , roman was used for the main text and italic for the preface, headnotes, sidenotes and for verse or block quotations. The custom of combining italic and roman in the same line, using italic to emphasize individual words and mark specific classes of information, developed in the sixteenth century and flowered in the seventeenth.” (ibid.)

“Renaissance italics were designed for continuous reading, and modern italics based on similar principles tend to have similar virtues. Baroque and Neoclassical italics were designed to serve as secondary faces only, and are best left in that role. Sloped romans, as a general rule, are even more devotedly subsidiary faces. They have been with us for ten centuries or more, but have rarely succeeded in rising above the status of calligraphic stunts or short-term perturbations of the upright roman.” (ibid.)

3.5 Contrast

3.5.1 Change one parameter at a time.

“For a balanced page, the weight should decrease slightly, not increase, as the size increases.” (60)

3.5.2 Don’t clutter the foreground.

“When boldface is used to emphasize words, it is usually best to leave the punctuation in the background [...]” (ibid.)

“With italic text, italic punctuation normally gives better letterfit and thus looks less obtrusive.” (ibid.)

Back to top

Comments are closed.

Back to top

Creative Commons License

Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
  • info[at]olivertomas[dot]com