Typographic Trends of the Fifty Books

Typographers who are particularly interested in the art of the book look forward each year to that long-lived exhibition though as the Fifty Books of the Year. Since 1923, the American Institute of Graphic Arts as annually appointed a jury and has requested American publishers to submit those books for judging which they believed represented the best work which has been produced over their imprint during the year.

Naturally enough, the selections, and for certain amount of criticism when they announced, but by and large, the show has been successful in one of its stated aims, which is to raise the level of American bookmaking.

The exhibition has frequently been denounced as catering to the whims of the private press movement and to the high-priced limited edition publisher rather than to the more prosaic demands of the trade publisher. While there have been occasions in which such appraisal has been valid, there is rarely a show which does not contain a few first-rate books upon which there is universal agreement.

Books and Soap

The first Fifty Book Show followed by just four years the controversial essay written by W.A. Dwiggins and Laurance Siegfried, entitled An Investigation into the Physical Properties of Books, in which a publisher’s production manager was supposedly interviewed and his remarks presented verbatim. Asked the question, “Would you then consider yourself as happily employed in making soap as in making books?” The PM answered, “Quite as well employed, if making soap paid a dividend.”

Certainly, there have been few books selected for the Fifty which were produced by frustrated soap manufacturers, but it would be relatively simple to find such volumes in the run-of-the-mill output of the trade in any year.

Even when there is little agreement upon the design of a book which received the approval of the panel of jurors, it is always interesting to observe the type in which it is set. The catalogs of the exhibition have served, therefore, as a record of type trends in American bookmaking.

Forgotten Faces

The 1923 show contained books second types which have been long forgotten. Of course, there were many hand-set books selected that year, which accounted for some of the types such as Oxford, Inkunabula, Mountjoye, etc.

The 1967 show contained just four types which had appeared in the original exhibition: Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, and Scotch. It may be noted, however, that Bell, which was used for two of the current selections, is the same as Mountjoye, and that Monticello, which was used for four books this year, is a machine copy of Oxford.

To go back over the entire life of the Fifty Books Show, the ten leading types are as follows:


Baskerville Moves Ahead

Of the above listed types, six were not available for book production in 1922. That old standby, Caslon, just this year took second place the Baskerville. During the first ten years the latter type appeared just 17 times to an overwhelming 182 for Caslon. But during the ensuing years Baskerville has made up the difference. If the typographer considers Janson, another oldstyle of Dutch origin and of similar characteristics as Caslon, then the two types together retain a commanding lead over the transitional Baskerville, by a score of 466 to 296.

Similarly, the French oldstyle types, Granjon, Garamond and Estienne, have a combined total of 301 selections. This year, Garamond used in six books to just one for Caslon. Over the two years, Garamond and Granjon together outdistanced even the popular Baskerville, 16 to 7, indicating the continuing popularity of the French oldstyle form, which is never been absent from the show since 1923.

There are few surprises in the type selection for the current Fifty Books. All of the types in the top ten are included. Times Roman, which made its initial appearance in the listing in 1946, is gradually climbing to meet the leaders, having been selected for 48 books since then.

More Use for Gothic

During the last few years, the gothic types have been showing up, although in most instances they are being used for books which have greater emphasis upon illustration then upon continuous reading. A surprising nod of approval this year to a 320-page book, The Development of Human Resources (McGraw-Hill), set entirely and 8-point News Gothic, 3-point lead. No doubt the jury had a tussle with this selection and included it to shake things up a little and to shock the younger designers into experiments.

It is true that there is too much dependence upon the standard, safe types and upon traditional design. The objective of a show such as this is to inject fresh thinking into the approach to the typography of the book. It is to be hoped, though, that the honoring of a book set in sans serif type does not lead to a trend in that direction. After an all sans serif text there is no place to go to be different but the route of all lowercase composition.

In 1966 show, 26 separate types were used, which is a fairly broad coverage for such a functional thing is a book. Aside from Baskerville and Garamond, four other types reused in more than two books—Monticello, Bembo and Walbaum with four each, Bulmer with three.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking”, and of the August 1967 issue of Printing Impressions.


Further Reading:

Hard Times for Hard Copy by Ernest Beck, which describes how AIGA nearly ended the more than 80 year-old standalone event when they quietly tried to integrate the cherished book cover & design competition into a broader event called 365/Design Effectiveness.

AIGA Design Archives A great visual resource, check for past Fifty Books of the Year winners, etc.



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