This method existed long before the computer, the printing press and even a defined measuring unit. Books were once a luxury only the richest could afford and would take months of work to be brought to fruition. The beauty of the textblock begins to soar through its position, size and the relationship it holds with the page upon which it rests.
Not only does the (Tschichold) canon and its rules lead the textblock to having the same ratio of the page, but it also positions it in perfectly whole units.
Then there is the fact that on a spread, the textblocks on both pages will be the same distance apart, over the gutter, as they are from the outer edge of the page. Earlier I made mention of a few designers who stumbled over this canon of page design and that they did that independently. The easiest to draw and possibly the first to be explicitly used for the book, the Van de Graaf canon is the one most often seen when page canons are discussed.
The brilliance of the system that was used by these early book designers is that they had virtually no standard measuring unit. Practicing in 13th century France, Honnecourt was an architect who used a similar principle to design the pages of his Workshop Record Book that he did when working on his structures. This is a moment in which the boundaries separating graphic design and architecture were blurred, showing that the development of pleasing ratios, shapes and sizes is not dependent on the medium, but the mind. Much like Van de Graaf, but much more recently in 1947, Rosarivo looked at the books of Gutenberg and his contemporaries, including Peter Schoffer and Nicolaus Jenson, to find what secrets their pages held. Using a compass, ruler (and, obviously, measuring units that were standard), Rosarivo found that there was a system to Gutenberg’s book that can be seen, understood and applied to any other page. This is of benefit because it shows how closely Gutenberg followed the lead of the scribes of the time, not only in texture of page and shape of letters, but in the design of the page too. As well as a talented and passionate graphic designer and typographer, Tschichold was a skilled calligrapher who practiced throughout Europe during the early 20th century.
Tschichold had the benefit of modern tools and drawing systems, so his diagram isn’t obviously drawn like those of Graaf or Honnecourt, though they do support his findings. While I do find a certain kind of beauty in the diagrams above, they aren’t much without a little aesthetic sensibility thrown in, are they? It is the empty space that works for this layout, as it often does for typography, especially as we have a bit of room to comfortably hold our hanging numbers — something always worth being happy about! You’ll also notice that I tried to have the main features of the face sit comfortably in the textblock also and so that the title text was balanced. This layout slides smoothly into position, much like the notes, gently evoking and beautifully striving so the heart of the content may dance. It’s always fun reading people who are a lot smarter than you, and Daniele is definitely a lot smarter than I am.
I was a bit concerned that, in practice, it would lend itself much more to book interior design than magazine design, but as you proved here, it can work well as both. I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering a lot of these theories of late as most of this type of information was glossed over when I was at Uni.
I have a lot of fun finding out these new (to me) topics and then sharing them with fine folk, like yourself! Also, just for the heck of it, I took a couple different size blank pages and used some of these techniques. I’m a designer and hadn’t really come across it until I started researching it, and even then it took a bit of work to find it all out!
I had seen the canon as a whole a few times, but never really understood it, where it came from or that multiple people had attempted it . I love this I have been musing over my own weird cross boundary job where I design and develop website bridging the gap between designer and developer. So happy to hear that you liked the article and I agree that it’s a shame that theory seems to come second place after things like Photoshop brushes, but hey, that’s the way it is! This is the kind of treasures I really immerse myself and the delicacy of the forgotten just takes a life of its own. I would love to see a similar article exploring how these apply to other modern applications such as web design, this really shows how the theories apply to media which was yet to be invented when the theory was written. And believe it or not, but the Comment form labels probably took as long as any other single element of the site!
Thank you very much for laying out so clearly that what actually matters and is underestimated by so many.
Am an artist who has had a lifetime love of books, especially the great ones hailing mostly from from Bruges and the Celtic world. I hadn’t heard of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili before (I have a lot to learn) but after looking it up, I can’t help but think of it as utterly beautiful!
A wonderfully written and explained article that could have been proudly published in many a top-end design magazine or book. Seriously, thanks for taking the time to write so informative a piece and have so lovely site for it. However, an understanding of what makes a harmonious layout is important to making something disharmonious, dynamic, and interesting.
I wonder how or why the first book makers came up with the height x width ratio of a book page that they settled on? Whenever you want to know why something was done a particular way, think of what came before.
I know how you feel as I use to feel the same, but the old adage that to know the rules you must break them rings true when it comes to design.
Also, this kind of system is about working within a framework, with which you can play and throw your work and ideas against in an effort to make it more interesting and reasoned. Books going as far back as Gutenberg’s are based on golden ratio sizes, and would be applied to a portrait page, as if it were landscape, binding two landscape pages together would cause the book to be awfully painful to bind, illustrate, illuminate and simply handle. Which is probably based on the simple fact that there is a width of text which is optimal to read, and we read down a page more comfortably than we do across it. To Jerald – working within constraints (like haiku, or following the rules of poetry when it comes to meter and scansion) can be incredibly invigorating to ones creativity, in my experience.
Thanks for adding that John, the examples of the haiku and 100 words of expression are great.
Insightful, the best part is the examples all work as living pages you would be proud to see someone reading. I found the concepts and examples I found of these systems very interesting, but I thought to really explore the topic, I’d have to whip a few up as examples – so I very much appreciate the notice you took of them! Hey, thanks for coming back to ask the question rather than just fobbing it off as a load of nothingness!
You’re very much welcome :) Thank you for taking the time to read it and leave a comment!

Forsooth, enlightenment comes along but once in a while and today it graced me with this fantastic notion. I always thought his design for Sabon was more like he was returning to his earlier roots in calligraphy and perhaps even ornament. This is one of the first things I discovered about the Law School, but I will continue to tell you about it in the unfortunate event that any of you have missed this awesome feature. Late to class, and you don’t feel like walking by the professor to get to your back-row seat? As a 1L, it took me several weeks longer than it should have to realize that there is a better way of getting to or leaving class than the central staircase.
If you’re in a hurry to get to class in Furman Hall, and you happened to have forgotten to print out that Lawyering assignment, do not fret.
Also, you might try checking out the second level of the Law Library for a dozen typically available computers and four other printers. This is a system which is still as valid, beautiful and elegant with ultra-modern design as it ever was for the work of the scribes, Gutenberg and Tschichold. Even though it was considered a trade-secret, they all came to the same conclusion, hundreds of years apart, independent of one another, but each supported by the other. This simple, almost insignificant fact gives such joy that I understand why Tschichold spent years pouring over the manuscripts of the scribes!
Looking at the books of this time, Van de Graaf came to the conclusion that many books used some system in determining the position and size of the textblock.
This is an instance where you can also come to a grid of sixths, ninths, twelfths and so on.
The diagonal rules and circle helps to establish text block width and height, which is really a support system, should you use the 2:3 ratio. I quickly pulled together three examples of how the diagram might be used, in the hope of getting your mind ticking.
The outer margins work so nicely for subheads and notes that I couldn’t pass up the chance to lay this out.
I also tried to stick to Tschichold’s idea of holding about 10 words on average to a line, which I think works quite nicely here. Even keener ones will notice the margin between the subhead and the textblock is equal to our leading. I can’t explain how impressed I am with this collection of practical design principles, practices and ideas, with the design of a book as the basis. Plus you'll get your hands on a free copy of my upcoming eBook filled with original content on how to be a more effective designer. I think a lot of people who are new to the industry spend too much time reading blogs instead of books .. I don’t have the chance to do too much of this sort of design (I focus more on web and identity), but the next time a layout project comes along I will definitely be keeping what I learned here in mind!
There’s just something so incredibly satisfying about using a pencil and a ruler to find the exact placement and dimensions of that magical text area!
Looking forward to reading more of your articles, especially ones like this where you give a history lesson as well as something practical for us to apply to our designs as well.
It’s great to learn about the history of design as well as some design principals simultaneously, your blog has taught me a lot. I’ve been noticing a lot more text-heavy sites getting more attention lately, and it puts me in good spirits! I was prepared to disagree with you when I saw the story title, but I just can’t do it.
I will use this not only within design boundaries, also linking this to all those harmonies re-emerging from those shouting echoes that histories are to be re-written in endless cycles always returning us to where we started. When I finally gathered all the materials I needed for this article I was completely lost in the pages and ideas! Getting ones thoughts accepted is more influenced by the way it is presented than many realise.
Have often wondered about the larger margins and thought they were there as room for the occasional glossing, though I see the glossing just tool advantage of the beautiful negative space.
And that’s fine as there are enough books and magazines around that have the extra love and attention given to them so that they are something beautiful and wonderful. No one seems to agree about who really wrote it (the stated author seems to be a puzzle) but legends abound that Leon Battista Alberti had something to do with it–he was like the style guru who was an early important thinker.
As a number of immensely important books on design were written in German during the early 20th century, I always get excited when I find there’s been an English translation. One of my favorite designers is THS (slightly NSFW), whose work is a passionate expression and is often the complete opposite of the kind of thing like this system.
The system, which is barely the base of the design, shouldn’t even be noticed and is the smallest of a starting point.
The best designed books and magazines in the world all use grids, but as creatives, we don’t open up their pages and say “oh look!
If you have only 100 words to express something in, or a short amount of time to speak, every word, every phrase must be meaningful.
So much of the time we wish our clients gave us more freedom (less restraints, requirements, better budget, etc), but it’s those things that help us develop something wonderful and truly creative.
Your question about browsers is very valid, as yet have not seen anything that is as elegant as this.
There’s so much to learn about how people have designed books throughout the years and what can still be put into use today – I’m planing on exploring a few more topics like this one! Love anything that requires a ruler and have been fascinated by Fibonacci and all that emanates from his work for years. Would be quite easy on something like an iPad publication as the screen size is always the same, but something liquid? I nursed it for over two years, taking it out for special occasions with my dad and a buddy or two of mine.
I can’t imagine being one of his students, having a question and not being permitted to ask it. Ruari McLean did the Intro to the translated edition (not the recent one) of Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie and gave a pretty thorough—I thought—sense of the bigness of his personality and the closed quality to his point of view. After our discussions, I’ll have to go back and reread the intro in Die neue Typographie. I did recently pick up another one of his books (Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering) and found it to be a fantastic insight into his opinions on lettering. Anyone can attest to the fusion of modern sophistication and historic charm that is characteristic of the Law School’s two main buildings. There are doors leading from the locker rooms to the back of the classroom on at least one side of each major 1L classroom.

Granted, it is the more scenic route and all of your friends are going this way, but if you’re more about convenience, then listen closely. On my hunt for hidden treasures, I actually came across so many neat study spots that I had no idea were even there.
The basement hangout area is equipped with a small kitchenette, a couch, and some bar stools. You all may know of the filtered fountain down the hall to your right when you get to the top of the central staircase.
She is from Jacksonville, Florida, and graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. The textblock sits in the upper section of the page, which is more inline with where our eyes rest on a page, as well as giving space at the bottom for our hands to hold the book open without covering any content. It’s this kind of little touch that helps separate ourselves from amateur and take a step toward professional. Though … I do like the elegance and process of doing it as if I were using a pencil and straight edge digitally.
And if not, it’s just a starting point, something to perhaps consider while laying out your page and using to help establish a balance and harmony, perhaps? I’d hate to think that all these ideas will be almost lost in the next decade or so because of this.
The elegance with which you describe the similarities of the canons matches that of the layout itself. The animations and overlays on real designs really clearly show how the divisions and proportions work.
I hate the idea of trying to adapt this kind of theory to a medium I don’t know instinctively. Thank you for letting me know of it, I think I’m going to have to get one of the books about it off Amazon. They will last, even if the runs are only a couple thousand, and the money driven ones will eventually die and be forgotten. I studied a lot of art history while getting my MFA, but for all of my early years, there was no English translation of this book.
But it’s worth using it to help develop a design that is aesthetically pleasing and satisfying to our eyes and mind. Bringhurt’s Typographic Style hasn’t left my side since I started to gain an interest in design and typography a number of years ago! As a photographer and newbie designer, I’m deeply interested about anything about composition.
I’m sure we are all too familiar with the small but inviting courtyard in front of Vanderbilt that dutifully welcomes students, faculty members, and guests. But it’s worth the hike for the several well-lit leather chairs with tables, overlooking the second floor study area. Before each wing on either side of the building, there is a set of stairs that can get you to and from class in a matter of 30 seconds. Of course, no one would speak to me if I revealed them all, but just know that if you walk around the library you will see more of these carrels than you ever thought existed. Plus, the study rooms are perfect for group study sessions, and they even have chalkboards.
If you get bored or hungry, just around the corner there are a number of arcade games and several vending machines for snacks and sodas. But from what I’ve seen, you have to get there quickly after class because there always seems to be a line. Running through Tschichold’s Golden Canon or the Villard Figure is of little meaning, right? What directs the eye to it and what we as designers and copy writers and illustrators do with this space. Might just be a few simple little lines, but when they dance together, something brilliant is given to the page! They went to a lot of trouble to typeset it to look like the first masterpiece by Aldus Minutius in Venice, with that beautiful large margin space (I hate to say it, but the artist in me wants to gloss it).
I believe it has something to do with writing in short horizontal lines being easier to keep clean than longer lines. But some of my musings were lost over a year ago when my blog and Twitter account were hacked into.
And we know, once inside, we will be greeted by a security guard and have to flash an ID to get into the building. Rather than wait five minutes to crawl down the crowded central staircase, you could already be on your merry way back to Mercer. This cluster of desks is located on the level just before the bottom floor and just beneath the Furman underpass—all the way to the left wing of the library if you are walking down the stairs. This particular fountain (pictured to the right) is located in the locker area in the lounge right beneath the front stairs. You’re in luck, because right back in the lounge off to the right, you will find all three of these things. It’s like marrying coincidence and brilliance whenever a focus element sits on one of the lines. It’s like a shorthand version of all the theory books on my shelves, but with animation added for good measure.
When I heard there was an English translation at last, no matter how expensive it was, my order went in right away!
Certainly it was just as giant a change from his position that the ideal book text body type was a plain, unadorned sans serif to designing one of the really great serif text faces, Sabon.
I can also only assume that by now most 1Ls have found the library and the school’s two cafes.
Her interests include civil and criminal litigation as well as intellectual property and entertainment law. It will force anyone to really read up on the classical world, and my poor old Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World got the most use in all the years it’s been in my library. But beyond these, there are other features of the school that it might takes a while to learn about or discover.

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