JanTsChiHold anD the AvAnT-GaRdE TypoGRAphy

Inspiring and interesting as much as broadly detailed and linked perfectly to historical facts and events of the time in examination. Is incredible Alan Power’ ability to amalgamate smoothly fact of  graphic design- this being part of an artistic movement taking place or an artist or a work or an event, with historical episode and period in such an effective, charming and in a way philosophical way which involve and constantly engage the mind of the audience –or at least mine and the one of whoever passionately love design as an art.






The lecture has started off with citation, images and video related to the time period of the early years of the 20th century with the impending war and the immense excitement for the industrial revolution and discoveries of that time. At this time and through most of the century a movement called Avant-Garde took place, mainly in Europe with Germany playing the role of the king with many great artist, school and movement that flourished up till the second world war, Russia as well as France provided a great contribution to the world of art. Avant-Garde exponent were a restricted group of people that wanted to push boundaries in the search of innovation and development of a specific art this being architecture, graphic design or fine art. A shift from the normal and usual was a must for those artist even if this meant getting inspiration from the past instead of always searching forward, the past was and still nowadays is a great font of ideas.

One of the greatest exponent of the European avant-garde typography was Jan Tschihold, probably the inventor of the elementary typography- the most influential change in the design world of the century from a serif based to a sans-serif culture. Lettering and printing are part of Tschihold’s whole life since he was coming from a family of typographers, at 21 was already teacher of Lettering and calligraphy at Leipzig University. At this point started the first period of his career also defined “The New Typography” where he develop a new radical conception of type, white space orientation in the canvas and forms. In this period he mainly design film and event poster, commercial and personal letterhead. In 1923 he first came across the ultra-modern school of Weimer, the Bahaus, this eye opening approach to lettering, type, colour and form drastically redirected Tschihold’s way of thinking and approaching his works. Being in contact with artist such as Kandinsky and his use of elementary colour and forms, Lazso Moholy Nagy and Peter Beherns fostered a new feeling of innovation and renewal of the design system. He was preaching a typography expressing efficiency and practicality to promote the actual content with its meaning. Reading from “Asymmetric Typography”: “Since the freeing of typography from ornament, every element in a job has taken on a new importance; and the interaction of their visual relationship has a greater importance for the general effect than before. The harmonious relation of the parts, being always different, will give every job an individual, yet pleasing appearance, and one which is integrated with its meaning and purpose; instead of the beautifying if work by the fortuitous addition of ornament and other alien elements.”

Another font of inspiration was the growing Russian movement called Constructivism that took place through the 20s, recalling principles of simplicity and asymmetry in resolving greater problem of communication as well as the introduction of elementary forms able to actively interact with the typographical element and colour- red, off white and black are the most exploited colour by artist such as El Lissitsky, Zdanevich and Alexander Rodchenko.

In 1928 he publish his first book entitled “Die Neue Typography” (The New Typography” book which is a typical example of how time period and belief of a certain period influence and even drive decisions in a designer’s life, many references to socialism and Marxism are easily found in between the lines. Soon afterwards the Nazi party considered his book and typography anti-German and briefly arrested him and his wife, he then took refugee in the neutral Switzerland, this could be considered the end of the first period of his career, the new typography.

In Swiss his job was mainly devoted to book with less time to work on poster and advertising jobs, shifting radically his typography belief. He now was more and more often using classical types as the ever great Bodoni, that is to link to his belief that books needed a more smooth readability which could only be achieved with the use of serif types that eased the eye’s journey through the letters and consequentially the words; as well as this there was also the strict conventionality of Swiss client not very prone to use asymmetrical layouts. This second period in his career is called “The Classical Era”.

Just after the end of the second world war in 1946 he was invited by Oliver Simon to London to reinvent the Penguin Books Company identity. He effectively renewed the look of this publishing agency by introducing small but decisive improvement in the original design without deforming the defining initial design. He then produced a precise manual for later editions with guidelines for orientation and grid system called “Penguin Composition Rules”; this brought the company a unifying look throughout the different books.

Throughout the lecture Alan Power has shown different artwork of the period related to the story of Tschihold and the Avant-Garde movement as well as Constructivism. The overall personal amusement and pleasure that those images caused me is to be related to the continuous mathematical thinking that you can find in all of them and the stark use of elementary geometry with precisely chosen colours.

“The New Typography” Jan Tschihold

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