Modern Book Design: The Legacy of Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner

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.

Modern book design is inspired by the use of rational grids.

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.

Elements of Book Design: The Grid

One element of good book design, or page layout for any print or digital application, is the grid. The grid is similar to the rough framing of a building. In the building, the framing determines where the interior finishes will go. Similarly, a grid in graphic and book design determines the interior divisions upon which designers lay out the various elements, from type to illustrations and photographs.

It is important to note that sometimes book designers cast aside the grid in favor of a more expressive approach versus the rationalism of the grid. However, in the instance of a traditional, trade book that presents a strong narrative into which the reader will lose themselves, I favor using a grid to create a predictable and purposeful form that does not distract from the content the reader is after.

Designers can create grids using several approaches. In this post, I am showing a proportional geometric grid that is based on subdivisions of the book dimensions. The German designer Paul Renner described a similar process in his book Die Kunst der Typographie, published in 1948. The grid here is 18 X 18 for each page and 36 X 18 for a spread. Note that the diagonal lines intersect each division.

The document grid with horizontal lines intersecting the diagonal line.

Below is the text box stretched out over the grid. This particular book is over 400 pages long, so I wanted the text box not to get sucked into the gutter. There is also plenty of space at the top and bottom for headers and page numbers, and ample space on the outside edges for thumbs.

The text box with ample room along the margins for the gutter, headers, page numbers, and thumbs.

Next, I estimated the approximate leading and type size that I wanted to use. I then subdivided the grid units until I found the right match. In this instance, 2 units divided by 5 created the ideal leading for the type size. Digital typefaces allow this style of grid to shine because book designers can scale typefaces to any size, into the thousandths if need be. Note that the baselines split every other grid line. This adds a touch of expression to the rigid geometry by aligning to the grid and breaking it at set intervals.

The baselines, where the type will run, are built on the document grid.

Finally, I can set the content into the text block and place headers and page numbers onto the grid.

I indented the first lines of paragraphs 1 em, i.e. the height of the leading. The block quotes I indented two vertical grid units into the text box.

To convey new sections, I used a line break, no indent, and small caps. Having more than just a line break is important for when a new section starts at the top of a page.

Headers have a slight tint applied to fade them from the main text and thus be less distracting.

The final interior book design with the type set in place.
The reader sees the canvas of the typography stretched over the hidden frame of the grid.

Creating a book design this way is very enjoyable. Some might argue that a grid will constrain the typography and other visual elements. But I think that the grid frees the designer to find expression through form.