Typographic Style Handbook

M. Mitchell and S. Wightman (MacLehose Press, 2017), 288pp, £14.99 (flexibound)
ISBN 978 08 57057 53 2

Reviewed by Mary Hobbins

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This book brings together aspects of typography for those involved in publishing text. In the introduction, the authors express the hope that it ‘will prove a valuable reference and aid communication between the various departments’, so, because an opportunity to gain insight into other areas of contemporary process is always useful, I was immediately drawn to what I could learn here.

There is a lot to like about Typographic Style Handbook, from its size, choice of binding and rounded corners to the generally clear layout of the information it contains. It begins at square one with basic terminology, to ‘make conversations between the various functions clearer and help to avoid confusions’, and is then divided into three main sections: general typesetting, which covers the nuts and bolts; books and journals, which covers styles and conventions; and corporate style, which is a very brief look at branding and building house styles for commercial communications. The sections cover topics step by step, giving rules, style options and principles, and using examples to illustrate. There is a manageable amount of information on the pages, and dark red is used to guide navigation. Among the nine appendices is a thought-provoking one describing typographic choices to help partially sighted or dyslexic readers (Appendix G), and the combined glossary and index at the back is a method I had not come across before and liked, although it is very short and a number of terms I looked up were not listed.

What about editing?

From an editor’s point of view, there is very little information about the activity of preparing text for typesetting: the term ‘edit’ does not appear in the index; Appendix A, ‘Progressing printed works’, does not include the editing stage at all; and Appendix H, ‘Preparing word-processing [sic] documents for typesetting’, is very vague, advises placing instructions for the typesetter/compositor in square brackets and only discusses a few design aspects, not all. There is no mention of commonly displayed material, such as tables and quoted extracts, nor how to limit instructions to particular chunks of text. Inserting instructions into a typescript for the compositor is an editing activity with numerous variations in methodology that needs to be discussed in some depth, but only one method is specified and the examples given are coloured, giving the impression of being a rule.

I would have liked to see dedicated discussion somewhere on the process of preparing electronic text – the authors’ focus is almost entirely directed to describing the process of producing print forms.

Design and typography are just as relevant in producing electronic text as they are for printed, but, although there is fleeting mention of ‘online material’ in a couple of places, no detailed information is given about its preparation.

Typos and non-standard BSI marks

Unfortunately, there are several irritating aspects of this book that should have been addressed during development and production. These include the numerous spelling errors/‘typos’, which ought to have been caught during proofreading, and, as sections are numbered, cross-referencing would have been useful to the reader. It was a deliberate organisational aspect that each section be ‘self-contained’, but, having decided to number the subsections, making use of them for cross-referencing might have served to better develop principles (eg running heads), save repetition and free up space to explore some topics in more depth (eg Microsoft Word styles and XML tagging in Appendix H). However, the biggest disappointment for me is Appendix C, ‘Marking up proofs’, which provides a potentially useful list of examples using BSI marks. Regrettably, many of the symbols, or combinations of symbols, do not conform to the BS 5261C:2005 standard and are therefore misleading for publishing students and others consulting the list.

There are lots of little nuggets of useful and interesting information to be found in this book and the pages are easy to consult, but I felt that topics about which there was clearly more to know were rushed over, several carefully set out examples were rather a waste of space to prescribe so closely (eg variations in list punctuation) and the repetition was frustrating when searching for more in-depth information. I was left with the impression that the authors knew much more about some aspects of their subject than others, and discussed to any degree only those they felt sure of.

Good – in parts

The back cover blurb describes Typographic Style Handbook as ‘an indispensable new manual for anyone working with text’, but I am not sure it has yet achieved its goal. For publishing organisations, not all of the departments/functions have been included, so there are gaps in the terminology and processes described. For self-publishers and others, the extensive discussion of proof types and stages will be irrelevant, and guidance on producing digital texts has not been fully explored (eg ebooks, websites, blogs).

For businesses and institutions, the information on corporate style seems old fashioned and rather too basic and brief to be given its own section. In general, for anyone with an interest in producing publications, this is a practical and interesting read. Once the hitches have been sorted out, and a more rounded approach applied, Typographic Style Handbook could well become a valuable source of advice and guidance on current practices for producing published text.

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