Space: The Initial Frontier

Book review — Inside Paragraphs

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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