Brian Feeney

Designer & Front-End Developer

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Resident of Brooklyn, NY. Senior Product Designer at the Wall Street Journal.


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June 21, 2015

Sam Potts vs. Robert Bringhurst

Sam Potts' article on Medium, A Refutation of The Elements of Typographic Style, was confrontational by intent. As a regular reader of TES, I was surprised to find that I agreed with him. Each time I pick up Bringhurst's book, I read it with the same admiration it has earned among my peers. As far as I knew, it had been universally loved and praised. But Potts takes an adversarial stance and makes excellent points about its lessons in typography. I won't paraphrase his refutations here. It's not a long article. If you're interested in this post, you should read his first. Mainly, the issues Potts takes up with Bringhurst have to do with calling out subjective points of view which had been written under the assumption of objectivity. If nothing else, it is worth reading for the new angle on a book most of us have read more than once and will likely read again.

A fact Potts almost alludes to, but never explicitly states, is that Robert Bringhurst is a poet. Bringhurst's writing is floral and full of pretty metaphors, and it takes a near-religious view of his subject. This is one reason type-lovers return to ETS over and over again. Bringhurst clearly sees the beauty in type, which is easy for a designer to sympathize with. No other writer covering typography gets close to the heights of Bringhurst's style.

Potts also shows that as a poet, Bringhurst would have had more editorial control over the appearance of his text than would any other type of writer. Poetry can take liberties with typographic and editorial rules which other forms of writing usually can't. And with poetry, the type treatment itself is often part of the art, whereas with other forms of writing the art is contained within the content of the text. This fact would fall in line with the liberties afforded a graphic designer, perhaps, but not so much the typesetter of a manuscript. It's an issue I happen to understand well. Most projects come with constraints which severely limit type selection, and therefore make it difficult to follow Bringhurst's rules as stated. We can't all be poets.

I'll continue to reread The Elements of Typographic Style. The issues which Potts takes with the book do not reduce it to uselessness. TES remains a beautiful book which shares in spirit my fascination with type and it's history. Not only that, but the many excellent glossaries at the back of the book are worth the price alone. As with any book of instruction or history, the text must be taken with a healthy amount of criticism. And Bringhurst himself gives the reader the right to disagree with him in the Forward, with a passage that has always been one of my favorites in the book:

By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately, and well.