Artist, Printer and Book Designer

A continuing, and probably irresolvable, argument between printers and artists concerns the proper training of a designer. The printer cites the artist’s lack of fundamental knowledge about type and printing procedures, while the artist falls back upon the ineptitude of the printer in drawing straight lines.

There is a certain amount of validity in both of these contentions. In one respect of design, however, it is my belief that the trade printer has the edge over the artist, and that is in the field of book design.

Many of the finest book designers of the century receive their initial training as printers–as compositors in particular. Carl Purington Rollins, T.M. Cleland, Bill Kittredge, and John Henry Nash are just a few of the men who learned to love type, first in its physical aspects and subsequently in the form of words on paper.

The format of the book has many limiting factors which do not ordinarily attract the trained artist, especially those who have been allowed broad freedom of expression as is the case in so many art schools at the present time.

Book and Printing History

For almost four centuries the history of printing was the history of the book, it was not until the Industrial Revolution was well launched that the commercial or jobbing printer began to dominate the craft. Thus the train printer has a solid body of work to emulate in the art of the book, and perhaps most fully appreciate the subtleties imposed by mechanical factors of production.

Daniel Berkeley Updike, the great American printer, examined this aspect of the training of a book typographer, when he stated:

“It seems to me that a right taste is cultivated in printing, as in other forms of endeavor, by knowing what has been done in the past, and what has been so esteemed that it has lived.

If a man examines masterpieces of printing closely, you will begin to see why they were thought masterpieces, and what the mastery lay. He will perceive that all great printing possesses certain qualities in common; that these qualities may be transferable in some slight degree to his own problems. And then he will find himself braced and stimulated, into clearer, simpler use of what he can make out of this task.

“When he sees the books that have delighted all generations, and begins to comprehend why they were great pieces of typography, he is beginning to train his taste. It is a process, which once begun, is fed from a thousand sources, and never need end.”

Craft Standards

Forty years ago a great teacher of printing offer course and book typography following these concepts. Porter Garnett at Carnegie Tech attempted to instill 15th-century craft standards in a group of undergraduates, and was roundly criticized for his efforts.

But his high standards produced positive results, which have influenced typography in our time through the continuing contributions of the students whose lives were enriched by the warmth and breadth of his love for books.

What are the skills desired of a book designer? Theodore Low De Vinne outlined them 70 years ago:

“To make a thoroughly good book, out of a lot of jumbled manuscript; to select the type appropriate to the subject; to determine its size so that it shall be in fit proportion to the margin; to correctly determine by graduated size of type, the relative importance of extracts, letters, poetry, notes . . . ; to use paper, binding, lining papers so that they will be suitable to the print; this baselines neatly; to regulate blanks properly, so that the reader can see at a glance that the whole book is the work of a disciplined hand and an educated taste, and that proper subordination has been maintained in all the little details.”

Integrity and Responsibility

It would appear to me that the integrity of fine bookmaking can be maintained only by those who are conscious of their responsibilities in the continuation of a tradition. Bill Dwiggins recommended to those who want to “play” with type that they can’t do this successfully until they know what has been done sedately through the centuries. The utilitarian function of book typography is served best when its precepts are fully honored.

The publishing industry cannot long remain indifferent to the training of its designers. The economics of production will continue to affect, and even to dominate, the book designer. Certain changes in printing technology have opened up exciting new opportunities for the exercise of the designer’s skill and imagination. Certainly the wide use of offset lithography in bookmaking can be cited in this respect, but there are, increasingly, technological changes which may very well limit the esthetic approach to format. I referred here too high-speed typesetting and its dependence upon computer-oriented techniques.

These technological factors of book production must be thoroughly understood in order to be controlled. This can be accomplished only by well-trained people, but in the world of the book they must also be sympathetic to its traditions.

I am sure that many printers will remember uptight’s famous “Practice of Typography” quotation from Printing Types in which he said: “There are times when we need to bring to it all the history and art and feeling that we can, to make it bearable.”

Design and Production

Perhaps we are approaching the time when the responsibilities of a book designer cannot logically be separated from those of the production man. Designer must be solidly grounded in the printing processes, which are becoming increasingly complex, if he expects to be successful in his craft—a term I choose to employ in preference to art.

It is obvious, then, that while I have not spelled out all the specific attributes of a book designer for these times, I have rather broadly suggested he be typographically oriented.

You must of course also have a love of books and be familiar with the great distort printers and work. He must possess a solid knowledge of printer’s types and how they are used; in addition, he must be thoroughly grounded in modern printing techniques. And he must have artistic talent if he is to develop his resources to the fullest.

This is an age of specialization. Is it too late to expect such broad skills to be readily available?

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the April 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.



  1. Mary MacDonell says:

    This is funny: I am sure that many printers will remember uptight’s famous “Practice of Typography” quotation from Printing Types in which he said: “There are times when we need to bring to it all the history and art and feeling that we can, to make it bearable.”

    I guess the transcriber heard uptight for Updike.

    I’m thoroughly enjoying the words of Alexander S. Lawson. Thank you!

  2. Gosh, this is so great I really want to let it stand. We all need a good laugh nowadays.

    Yep, my fault. Sometimes I get tired of typing all this stuff in so I try some voice recognition software and yeah, it transcribes alright, but I catch only the misspellings, not the misunderstandings.

    I think I’ll let it stand for now seeing as your comment makes it clear. I’ll add a public comment to state just that for the record.

    Glad you like the Archive. It is a labor of love. I don’t pay attention to the stats, just glad to know someone’s out there reading, caring enough to comment.

    You might be interested to know that soon I’ll begin posting a multi-segment video of an interview with Professor Lawson. At the end I’ll post the entire thing as one complete file.

    And if you like the ASLarchive, perhaps you might wander over to another project of mine & check it out: ink If you can’t pledge, perhaps you can spread the word.

    Thanks & be well.


  3. Oh, there are at least a few of us avidly following the late Prof. Lawson and his interesting views on the newest “computer-oriented techniques” and other modern printing technologies. Reading the articles is fascinating, and at least to me, quite educational.

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