Paul Stiff and what interests typographers

Re-reading some of Paul’s writings since his death (see Robin Kinross’s obituary), this perhaps-overlooked piece in Typography Papers (because it was a ‘response’, not an article in its own right) seemed to sum up some provoking views about what should interest typographers.

‘… typography is far more about configuring and positioning characters than about the shapes of characters. A theory of writing and typography based solely on the construction of letters, allied to a view of reading which looks no further than ‘legibility’, is like traditional linguistics in which nothing much of interest happens outside the sentence.

‘From the telescopic perspective of information design the challenging problems of today are not connected with what type designers and typographers do or do not do. This is because most designing is done by people who are not professional designers and who get no help from professionals. Some digital typographers have tried to solve the problems which non-designers face by devising ‘automatic typography’ systems which do the designing work. The aim of these systems has been to design documents as they are written. The idea is to let authors get on with their writing, and let the designing take care of itself: so all that authors have to do is declare, as they write, that this bit of text is a chapter heading, and this is a list, and so on. Realizing the idea means that a ‘meta-document’ has to be designed before any real document is written. Designing a meta-document entails prefabricating a whole repertoire of graphic formats for text elements (‘chapter heading’, ‘list’, ‘subheading’, ‘caption’, and so on) which visually represent the whole range of text elements which may occur in any text which has not yet been written.

‘This is different from what professional typographers normally do: design texts after they have been written. Here there is an obvious parallel with lettering and type design: the fifteenth-century revolution in ‘automatic typography’ systems led for the first time to sets of letters, and their spatial relations, being designed before the texts in which they would be used were written.’

Typography papers 4, 2000, pp. 92–133.