Henry Wolf on typography
In 1958 Henry Wolf, newly appointed art director for Harper’s Bazaar, was tapped by the Advertising Typographers Association to write an essay on magazine typography for their bulletin. Wolf had already gained wide recognition as a promising young art director for his six years at Esquire, especially for his striking but austere use of type in layouts. The complete essay, accompanied by spreads designed by Wolf, is below.
Random Notes on Type Henry Wolf
Formulating rules and principles about an activity you have been engaged in for a long time always makes me feel slightly theatrical: the things you do every day become so much a part of you that performing in these areas is much like driving a car after many years at the wheel. You don’t think when you should disengage the clutch or how many inches to depress the gas pedal; you drive “by feel.” The same with type, which is always around when you design for printing.
Printed things are created to communicate a thought to people. Language, in printing, is made of type—a small number of symbols which acquire meaning by infinite combinations with others. Language, spoken, written, or printed is at best an imperfect tool. In using type, we therefore have a great responsibility to use it as lucidly as possible in order to preserve a maximum of intended meaning.
Type solutions function on two levels: 1) the telling of the story; 2) the abstract composition of values—since individual letters or areas of body type have color, form and mass. If you can create visual excitement and also convey the tenor and mood of the message you have been successful on both levels. In the same way a photograph could be seen on these two levels: 1) the telling of the story; 2) the composition in terms of gray values.
In any successful solution, these two levels can never be divorced. It is hard to say where one ends and the other begins. The amalgamation, the intertwining of the two is the essence of the good solution.
Size as a sure-fire attention getter is a myth. The relationship of the different elements on the page is closer to an over-all answer. I think one of the most beautiful things can be a page completely set in one size and font of type. The very simplicity is compelling. On the other hand, people work today who know how to combine many type faces in a manner which 15 years ago would have been considered unorthodox and jarring. But they do it with feeling.
I like to work with type because I like to work with things that have built-in limitations. With type, there are only a certain number of well-designed faces, and there’s little you can do except use these existing building blocks with ingenuity. I think we can look to Oriental art for a standard of judging type. If you see a page and it looks uncontrived—design and meaning in the right place—if it looks to be the obvious, effortless solution—the designer has accomplished something. Uncontrived, effortless—these are the words conferring the highest praise to a Chinese scribe.
The reader should not be aware of design, but feel it. The reader should not be aware of having a message forced upon him, but he should understand. When this happens, both functions or levels have been satisfied. The reader should be drawn to the message, absorb it, yet not know why or how.
You can set a paragraph in a type face that is intrinsically good design, and it will always be beautiful if margins and spaces are thought out carefully. But, in most problems, you must add something more to help convey emphasis without becoming merely ornamental. The empty page is always beautiful. Or, a perfect black dot on a white page is always beautiful. But the meaning and ingenuity of the designer are lacking, unless the one symbol says everything that you want. You can use type treatments alone, and still have graphic excitement. Type provides all the necessary ingredients for design on an abstract level.
Some of the best solutions occur where type functions both as an abstract element and as a meaningful graphic symbol which carries the literal message as well. (See the ad where the body copy becomes the third stripe of the French flag).
Most typography today is not very creative. One of the steps in remedying the situation is the abolishment of hard-and-fast rules which are good and have outlived themselves, or which are still good, but have been copied in instances where they don’t apply. Another way is for the designer to really become familiar with a small number of faces which he gets to know intimately. Only then is it possible to “drive the car well, without conscious step-by-step thinking.” So many variations are possible within one well-designed face. I, for one, don’t think I would be too unhappy if I were told that from now on I could use 12 faces of my own choice and have those available in all sizes of a good cutting. It’s not the choice of faces as much as a good understanding of a few which is necessary to arrive at a good two-level solution. The ambition of dilettantes is never to repeat the same faces. But their solutions to problems repeat themselves.
As with any other tool of designing, the good designer should have an economy of means rather than try to get excitement by sheer variety; a well-resolved page is one where nothing could be added or taken away without detrimental effect. In type, the quotation, “If you know many women slightly, you don’t know any; but if you know one woman well, you know them all” applies very well. If you know how to use Bodoni Book well, chances are you can also use Railroad Gothic, Caslon, Cheltenham and others.
I think type faces have moods. But to say that the most delicate face will always be applicable to “feminine” solutions is idiotic. The contrast value of a “heavy” face to other elements on the page can sometimes point up the delicacy of the rest, thereby giving the whole the feeling of delicacy. Just as Old English is not the only solution for a treatment of an antique subject. Or a script for something casual.
As I write, I feel more than ever the frustrating limitations of language. But in type, as in expressive words, we should try to be as compelling, simple and accurate as possible, in order to do what all design was intended for: communication of a thought to another brain. We must evoke as closely as it can be done the same feeling, meaning and mood in the reader that the designer was enveloped by when he first created the work.
You can find more spreads by Henry Wolf in our Flickr library.