Directness and Simplicity

By Will Bradley

It seldom happens that a workman has the same opportunity for individual expression as that which comes to the job compositor, for, as a rule, the instuctions accompanying “copy” restrict him only in that one item of size, the choice of material and the method of its use being left entirely to his own judgement. In this situation it is natural to suppose a man will take pride in his work and strive for a high degree of perfection in its execution.

Just what constitutes perfection is hard to define, but it is safe to say that it can be reached only by a straightforward and direct road, where, if along the way there are any guide posts these will probably contain only the one word — “Simplicilty;” for a road which is direct, honest and simple must needs lead to success.

Simplicity in type arrangement need not mean either severity or plainness, but rather such balancing of color as will tend to produce harmony — for example see the following exhibits: In No. 1 the announcement is set with long and short lines, an arrangement which depends for its effect upon a proper selection of type, both as to face and size and upon proper spacing. The next example condenses the reading matter to a panel. Now in both cases the method of procedure is direct, honest and simple; furthermore, it is but the A B C of type display; it is in stepping beyond this and in striving for an expression of individuality that one either meets with success, or in failing spoils that which might without this extra effort have been quite worth while.

Any worthy effort towards improvement is deserving of praise, and this wholly regardless of the attained result. No effort, however, can be a worthy one which has for its motive only a consideration of self. The compositor who would advance in his craft should strive hard to understand and appreciate the conditions which he should weigh against his own pride and any natural desire he may have for artistic display.

The great mass of job composition is commercial and for purposes of advertising, its true value lying in the actual amount of goods which directly or indirectly it succeeds in selling. Now, it frequently happens that a piece of work which reaches a high standard of excellence according to the conditions of the office, fails utterly in pleasing the customer, and when reset according to the marked corrections proves to be in the compositor’s judgement merely ordinary. This term, meant in criticism, is in reality one of praise, it being a fact that with the proper face of type an arrangement which is merely ordinary possesses for many lines of business a value not possible with any other arrangement.

Each of the large commercial houses has at the head of its advertising department a man of wide experience and with a keen appreciation of the true value of all methods of publicity, the success or failure of such a house depending largely upon this man’s judgement. This being true, no better source of study is open to the compositor than that of the advertisements of any large business house as displayed in the leading magazines, for it should always be borne in mind that the employer is best served by a production which brings results to the customer.

It is quite safe to say that with the average work, after having used due care as to the selection of type, it is wise to keep its arrangement as direct and simple as possible. At times, however, it is not only pardonable, but even advisable, for the compositor to strive for the expression of a personal note, and if the effort be not misdirected the results will make it fully justified.

Copy of the above nature is furnished in the annoucement already shown. Exhibits 1 and 2 show a natural arrangement. How can one make a step beyond these and yet hold true to the principles of directness and simplicity? The first point of importance is to think out the design in a complete form before beginning any work, as a design built up piece by piece always consumes too much time, lacks unity and has none of the charm of spontaneity. Having thought out the deisgn, it is best to rough it out in pencil, just enough to set the idea clearly before the eye.

This accomplished, time can be given uninterruptdly to the work of execution. As for the working out of an idea, this is of necessity a matter of personal feeling and expression; experience, however, has taught us some things, for instance, we know that a plain white space of pleasing form has a certain decorative value,which is also true of gray or black space. Now, if be kept massed so as to hold its true value, colors complimentary to each other may be placed in juxtaposition, gray with white, gray with gray, gray with black, white with black, gray and white with black, harmony and balance depending upon the workman’s perception of these qualities. A small black upon a white background naturally has more color than the same space would have upon a gray ground. Gray may be placed upon white, and then by adding thereto a spot of black the richness of color is increased by reason of contrast. Again a dark gray may be placed upon a light gray, and to these also may be added a black.

The term color as used here refers to the various tones from black to white, the only sense in which it bears any relation to the work of the compositor.

Working along the lines as indicated in the forgoing, one may attain results similar to those shown in examples 3 to 8, each one of which is as simple in the manner of construction as examples 1 and 2, but are only kept thus by having the idea well enough in hand to preclude any possibility of experimenting while actually at the case.

If the compositor will trace on transparent paper the form of any of the acompanying examples, it will be seen that the design in each case resolves itself into various squares and spaces, or tones of gray, and blank or white spaces. This, then, is the method upon which each design was built, which once decided there was left merely the matter of a selection of such material as would produce the desired effect.

In closing, the remark may again be made that for the average work of an office the compositor is of greatest value to his employer when he makes a judicious selection of type and trusts to conventional methods of display.

NOTE.— When material is purchased for the composing room, an its proper use entrusted to the judgement of the various compositors, this judgement is, as a rule, influenced by whatever may be the general tendency in style of type display at the time. Style in typography, like style in dress, is subject to change, and is frequently but a turning back to modes of an earlier time. Present day tendecies point to the returning general use of borders. It was, therefore, though wise to employ them exclusively in illustrating the foregoing papers.

In decorative units, called borders, the compositor has what has always been a legitimate form of design, and one with splendid possibilities.* The em body, when it comes in multiples of six points, allows of quick composition and no loss of time in justifying, being from the standpoint of economy in time and material more prctical than the use of brass rule

*See Paper on the use of Borders and Ornaments on November number of the American Chap-Book.

190410 American Chap-Book

No. 1. Long and short lines.

No. 1. Long and short lines.

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Source: Bradley, Will. ‘Directness and simplicity.’ The American Chap-Book, vol. 1, no. 2. Jersey City: American Type Founders, Oct 1904.


Citation: Lindsay, Martin S. Directness and Simplicity. Website: Accessed 18 Jan 2020, <>. Bibliography. References.