Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner are two of the most influential figures of modern book design and typography. Their take on this often esoteric but widely consumed aspect of graphic design influences our practice here at Reidhead & Company Publishers. These designers—through advocating for a more modern and functional style—revolutionized how graphic designers created books and even how the public perceived books. Today, we can witness the impact of their work and ideas in the designs of countless books, marketing, and brands worldwide.
Jan Tschichold, a German typographer and book designer, was a key designer and theorist in the development of modern typography. He emphasized the importance of clear, functional layouts and argued for using grids, sans-serif typefaces, other design tools to achieve this goal. Tschichold’s 1928 book, “The New Typography,” epitomized this new approach to typography and laid out the principles of modern book design.
Paul Renner, another German, also played a pivotal role in the development of the “New Typography,” and his work, “Typographie als Kunst” (Typography as Art), further expanded on the principles laid out by Tschichold. One of Renner’s most significant contributions to book design was the use of proportional geometry, which he used to create a clear and harmonious grid for the book, upon which designers could quickly assemble text and images in a rational yet aesthetic manner. Hyphen Press produced a wonderful book on Renner; here is the link.
Their approaches marked a significant departure from the previous styles of book design, which often relied on ornate and complex layouts, such as Art Nouveau (which is back in vogue, but as a rejection of the long normalized modernism). The new style they advocated for was one of practicality and minimalism. As a parallel development to the Bauhaus movement, the new typography marked a paradigm shift that rejected traditional norms and enthusiastically adapted to the design needs of the machine age and mass production.
Of note, both designers rejected Nazism, were arrested by the German authorities for their political stances at various points, and ultimately emigrated to Switzerland to escape the tyranny of Nazi Germany.
The influence of Renner’s grid on my approach to book layout is significant. I strive to create clean and easy-to-read structures. The design should never interfere with the reader’s relationship with the content. Instead, it should facilitate and nurture the time-delayed conversation between the author and their audience. To achieve this, I often build on Renner’s concept of proportional geometry, realizing it in foundational grids that create simple yet flexible layouts that accommodate all types of content while pleasing the eye.
The work and ideas of these designers and their contemporaries helped establish a new and enduring approach to book design that we still use today. Though Tschichold eventually abandoned his strict adherence to modernist philosophy, the legacy of both designers endures in the world of graphic and book design.