From type design to printed text - the lore of letters

Letters of Credit: A view of type design, by Walter Tracy. Boston: David G. Godine. 222 pp. $27.50. Type - letters and characters and the ways they are designed to be combined - is everywhere.

As Walter Tracy shows in ``Letters of Credit,'' the subject is a complex of technical and aesthetic considerations. The use of computers to design typefaces has recently complicated matters. But the problem remains what it always has been: What goes into designing a page of readable type?

The unity of the subject addressed by Tracy is frequently fractured by those who pursue it out of a mere love of beauty, out of an academic interest in psychology, philosophy, or cultural history, or out of fascination with the possibilities presented by computer programs.

A type designer by profession, Walter Tracy lives up to his grand topic. Unlike some books about type design, ``Letters of Credit'' is neither a manual nor an arts and crafts memoir. A few chapters have appeared in print before; read together, they provide basic information and examples of informed criticism.

Tracy's writing elevates the topic beyond its academic interest. He is able to generalize from the technical facts of his subject. Type becomes drama, a theater for the struggle of means and ends, of tradition and taste versus modern, technique-inspired ``options.''

The book opens with a lexicon of the trade. These brief definitions sometimes have the charm of little essays, as when Tracy notes under ``hot-metal'' that ``anyone who has handled line-cast correction slugs straight from the machine knows that they are certainly hot.''

As the discussion passes through topics like ``the forms of letters,'' ``the making of type,'' ``character spacing,'' and so on, certain facts become clear. However contemporary in use, readable typefaces go back to the earliest designs. Tracy writes that ``the history of printing types is a tale of sophistication in letter design being achieved at quite an early stage, reaching heights of ingenuity in the nineteenth century....''

Designers who work in ignorance of the past, Tracy shows throughout, very often fail.

Early sophistication depended on a grasp of rules. Tracy explains how the design of letters can be said to be governed by universals - ``certain rules of shape and structure which, it might be thought, would severely limit the possibility of new invention and individuality.''

Originality in design comes from varying the shapes, the contrast giving life to the printed page. Tracy defends designers who ``quote'' previous designs, noting Ravel's statement that ``It is by imitating that I innovate.''

The fanciful typefaces used by some small publishers can be distracting. Designing a distinctive, almost styleless typeface that works for books and magazines is a technical, aesthetic, and rare achievement.

After the technical aspects of type design, Tracy gives his own view of major designers and their types. Replete with fascinating biographical detail, these essays are valuable introductions to some of the great modern designers, American and English: Jan van Krimpen, Frederic Goudy, Rudolf Koch, W.A. Dwiggins, and Stanley Morison. The method of trial and error seems typical of even the most gifted designers.

``The mistakes of great men,'' Tracy writes early in the book, ``are as interesting, and often as instructive and valuable, as their achievements.'' Tracy's discussions of Dwiggins's popular book typefaces and Morison's Times Roman (used in newspaper and encyclopedia work) are classics of judicious criticism. Tracy judges each man's work in terms of what he calls ``the crucial distinction between art, visual expression as an end in itself, and design, the creation of something to serve a practical function.'' Sensitive to the vision of the idealist designer, Tracy always comes down on the side of the reader, not the designer.

The whole book reveals the inner beauty of print, which comes from the ratio of means to ends so cogently argued for by Tracy. Wide margins wed fine illustrations to a wise text. The examples, so important for the subject, are handsomely displayed.

In an age devoted to visual images, ``Letters of Credit'' is especially timely.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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