Space: The Initial Frontier

I have long admired Cyrus Highsmith, both for his type design (Benton Sans, Prensa, Zócalo, & many besides) and his wonderfully unique style of illustration and lettering. In his debut book, Inside Paragraphs: typographic fundamentals, he brings both of these talents to bear on a single topic, the paragraph. The book might alternatively have been titled ‘Space: the initial frontier’ for its principal focus is what goes on inside — not a book, not a page, but — a single paragraph of text — and as what goes on inside is mostly space, white space, or negative space, it is the ideal starting point for an introduction to the craft of setting type, to typography.

Usually I dislike books that are wider than they are tall. I find them uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of reading. However, Inside Paragraphs works despite its backwards proportions: it is light and perfect bound, happily folding back on itself for single-handed reading.

The typography is simple and precise: Ibis Text plus Scout (both by Highsmith), generous margins, white space aplenty, beautiful and practical illustrations. The writing is informal, incisive, and fluid; the tone never condescending. Inside Paragraphs is a TARDIS of a book, its 100 pages peppered with gems like,

‘Setting type can be thought of as a collaboration between the typographer and the typeface.’

phrases like ‘hierarchy of white space’, plus practical advice about everything from optimal and optimum parameters for H&J, and why all-caps settings require more space.

Too often introductory texts fail the reader by trying to cover too many topics superficially — like a whistle-stop tour of some great city, where you’ll be sure to see all the sites, but learn little of any substance about them. Highsmith might easily have expanded each section by tens of pages, but the book is all the better for its brevity and his abstemiousness.

To write more about this book would demand spoiler alerts, so I will wrap it up here in, appropriately enough, a single paragraph:

Inside Paragraphs should be required reading for everyone who studies typography and graphic design. It will also be of interest to anyone else wondering why typography matters. It costs about three Venti Iced Peppermint White Chocolate Mochas ($15). Buy it.


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  1. teresa

    Thanks for the useful review: my copy’s ordered now.

  2. Alessandro

    So… another typography 101 book? However interesting, I think there are far too many right now, compared to the scant number of well-written in-depth ones for professionals.

  3. I agree with Alessandro. This one sounds good, but srsly.

  4. Designing world need more and more new ideas and innovation. some times stylish typography is create new simple and attractive designs.
    Thanks for being productive and sharing such a nice article.

  5. It’s a wonderful little book, and Cyrus gave a good talk at TypeCon. He focuses on exactly what’s important: space.

    But I should point out that the book isn’t “perfect bound”; it’s bound in signatures, which are glued into the binding. Perfect binding would have made it harder to bend around the spine without breaking the spine. (Besides, reading it “one-handed” you would lose the composition of Cyrus’s page spreads, which are nicely done.)

  6. johno

    Thank you, John.

    I have always referred to both methods as ‘perfect bound’ — whether they be glued single pages or signatures.

  7. Paddy C

    I ordered the book because it looked interesting and I’m always game to add another book to the typography library.

    However, I will second Alessandro’s comment above: the field is indeed in need of a comprehensive master class-type book. There are many introductory level books already available and, though this is a good one, a lot of what is in it is elsewhere many times over.

  8. Ricardo

    Got mine yesterday, and went through it in two sittings. Nice little book, specially liked the illustrations.

    It is indeed somewhat introductory, but not to typography in general, but to a different way of tackling the spacing issues, coming from the analysis of the sizes of the negative-space elements.

    Putting it in another way: it may be very useful to begginers, but it will only be fully absorbed and aprecciated by those with some pratical experience, especially failed ones.

    So I’d call it “Typography 202: Paragraph spacing and rhythm”.

    :-)

  9. Really very beautiful article. I will visit again this page.

  10. I feel that this is a must read book and would provide a valuable insight in typography.

  11. João Gomes

    @Ricardo:

    Maybe I’m being a bit unfair here but I have to ask this since you mentioned “negative-space” elements: does the author simply rehash Gerrit Noordzij’s theories on the importance of counter-shapes (as the second photo seems to imply), or does he bring something truly new to the table?

  12. teresa

    @João Gomes

    There is nothing new here. The extent of Highsmith’s discussion of counter space is that it exists, and that “without the counterspace, the letter just wouldn’t be the same”. That’s it. This really is a first fundamentals book: good for high school students interested in studying graphic design who don’t even know what they don’t know.

  13. Ricardo

    @João Gomes

    I’m not familiarized with Noordzij’s work, but I doubt it.

    It’s pretty much what I said, It’s about the _size_ of the spaces (counters and letter/word/line spaces) and how these, plus the letter sizes (body, x-height, ascenders and descenders etc), affects rhythm.

    However, I disagree with Teresa. While it may be interesting and simple enough for high-schoolers, I think it’s much more valuable to those who have some experience with the matter.

    But yeah, it’s a wonderfully simple book. I can see myself reading it again once in a while, before tackling a new project.

  14. Wes

    I also agree that we need more typography books that deal in depth for professionals, especially in the digital area.

  15. Great and must read typography article . I am beginner in this so i think you should more explain with more details for beginner like me.

  16. I agree with you in the regard that I normally dislike books that are wider than they are tall, especially when I am trying to organize them! lol

    I will be checking this book out though as you have made some good points and have gotten me intrigued.

    Thanks!

  17. Great article. I think it’s realy better to read the printed book, than read text on PC or ipad - it is more comfortable and the material is better understood.

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