Monday, May 25, 2009


Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) – a world hero of typography – designed the front cover seen above in 1949: A Book of Scripts by Alfred Fairbank. Tschichold lived in London from 1947 to 1949, invited there from Switzerland to redesign and impose visual unity upon several paperback series issued by Penguin Books.

His career began in 1920s Germany, at first as a committed Bauhaus disciple and fan of Russian Constructivism. Below are several posters reflecting Tschichold's youthful style.

In 1933 the Nazis came to power and Tschichold came under suspicion along with all Modernists. A search of his rooms turned up Soviet posters. Tschichold was jailed as an obvious Communist even though he had no political affiliations. After a month in jail he and his family managed to leave the country for Switzerland, his base for the rest of his life.

The Penguin paperbacks of the 1930s and 40s already had a distinctive look created by Edward Young. These featuring horizontal stripes, color coded to the various genres – but proportions and typography were increasingly perceived as discordant and clumsy. The example below is from 1941.

Tschichold's taste had drawn inward and simplified during the years in Switzerland, while the dozen Nazi years raged through their course. Penguin asked him to retain the basic structure for purposes of brand recognition, but to update it. He redesigned the penguin logo itself at the very outset. The example below is a later elaboration of his concept, and is still in use today.

Ultimately he imposed a grid system for organizing the cover elements. He reduced and refined the typefaces, against obdurate resistance on the part of Penguin's typesetters. The mock-up above was drawn by Tschichold in 1947 and was on view in 2005 at the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition called 70 Years of Penguin Design. A clean, streamlined look emerged soon after Tshichold's arrival, as seen below.

When Tschichold returned to Switzerland in 1949 he picked Hans Schmoller as a successor he could trust at Penguin. Consequently the books of the 1950s as seen below essentially remain Tschichold's designs, produced according to the "Penguin Composition Rules" he wrote, a 4-page booklet (copies of which are now highly prized by collectors).

In 1961 Germano Facetti took over design control. Innovations such as those below began to erode Tschichold's grid structure and typographic restraints, while also overriding the pre-Tschichold color-coding.

In 1965 Alan Aldridge took over and altogether threw out Tschichold's Composition Rules, opting instead for full-spread cover illustrations with superimposed typography using the same melange of assorted typefaces and weights that Penguin had painfully banished with Tschichold's help in the 1940s.

Tschichold's most famous typeface is Sabon, as displayed above, designed relatively late in his career. The ultimate fruit of a committed minimalism.

On his 70th birthday in 1972 Tschichold wrote his own tribute in the third person. It began: "Two men stand out as the most powerful influences on 20th century typography. Stanley Morison, who died in 1967, and Jan Tschichold."