Please note that I am not asking for famous books about typography (like this question does), although I imagine that such books would usually themselves be examples of great typography.

What I have in mind is this: in most fields, there is a more-or-less agreed-upon canon of exemplars (see e.g. here), a collection of outcomes that the profession considers to be the best that it has to offer, a collection of paradigmatically good fruits of the labor of the field's practitioners, as judged by the practitioners themselves. Such canons are often at least somewhat controversial, but they usually exist nevertheless, even if the practitioners don't use the actual term 'the canon' to describe them.

In order to keep the scope of the question manageable, let's restrict the exemplars to 'mass-producible Western' (MPW) ones. By 'mass-producible', I mean that they were made using some sort of process capable of mass production (even if the actual number of copies produced wasn't that large and could have reasonably been produced using some other method). Examples of such processes include movable type, hot metal typesetting, phototypesetting, offset printing, and the like.

I understand that this way, some extremely influential and admired work will not get mentioned. Later on, I may well post another question, this time asking about exemplars that are not MPW. But I'm starting with the MPW ones because they are the most relevant to the texts I am personally encountering every day, and indeed to the texts I am producing myself.

An example: the Gutenberg Bible

It seems clear that the typographers' canon of exemplars contains at least one book: the Gutenberg Bible. This book seems to be admired not only for its historical significance but also for its enduring aesthetic quality. For example, here the text points out a lack of major gaps or rivers and the even texture of the word block in the Gutenberg Bible. Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style references Gutenberg in many places. And here we find this sentence (emphasis mine):

The traditional book form is the classic example of concord: it is found in both the uniform, tightly woven, dense pages of the Gutenberg Bible and the light, open, gray pages of the conventional contemporary book set in roman types.

And from the Library of Congress:

This Bible, with its noble Gothic type richly impressed on the page, is recognized as a masterpiece of fine printing and craftsmanship and is all the more remarkable because it was undoubtedly one of the very first books to emerge from the press. (source)

So, my question is this: besides the Gutenberg Bible, what are some other books in the typographers' canon of exemplars?

The answers need not be primarily opinion-based

While there are sure to be some books about which typographers disagree among themselves whether they belong in the canon, there are also sure to be plenty of books that, like the Gutenberg Bible, nearly everyone in the profession will at least agree are widely considered to be in the canon. For such books, a particular typographer might tell you that they personally don't think that some of them deserve to be in the canon, but, characteristically for books that are established as canonical, the typographer will readily admit that their view is a minority one.

How can we know which books are canonical? Here is one way. I imagine that, as in almost any profession, typographers have to be initiated into their discipline. I don't know exactly how that is usually done these days (school/university? apprenticeship?), but however it is done, it is quite likely that the teacher/master of the trade would occasionally bring up examples of great work by the profession. Sometimes this would be recent examples, but other times, probably, it would be some kind of 'classic' work. Some of these 'classic', enduring examples are bound to be books (others will be magazines, brochures, posters, leaflets, etc.). Moreover, some of these examples will have probably made it into books about typography, which would turn the latter into reputable sources that one can cite in support of a claim that a particular book belongs in the canon. It seems to me that Jan Tschichold's The Form of the Book (see here) in particular might name some members of the canon, but unfortunately I don't have access to it at the moment.

Preliminary research on my part

I did do a lot of googling with search terms such as which books are admired by typographers and the like, but Google tends to interpret such querries as going after books about typography, which is not what I want at the moment. True, I could go to a library, locate a bunch of books about typography, and go through them one by one to see if any of them bring forward examples of particularly well-typeset books. But that is a bigger time commitment than I can afford right now. So I'm hoping that some people here have already read many books on typography and will recall which books those books praised for their typography.

What kind of information I hope the answers will include

If possible, it would be nice to know why these books are considered such good exemplars, i.e. which aspects of typography they do particularly well.

At the moment, I am particularly interested in exemplars that excel at the level of a paragraph, i.e. where the following things were done particularly well: kerning, tracking, word-spacing, line breaking, expansion, hanging punctuation, interline spacing, and the like. I'm sure that these days, such tasks are mostly done by software, but I suspect that even today, high-quality work requires manual tweaks. And so there should be some set of standards for what a high-quality result should look like, and I suspect that the 'canon of exemplars' provides important guidance here, in addition to that presented in books about typography and in addition to whatever canons of rules there might be (e.g. these).

However, finding out about 'canonical exemplars' of other aspects of typography would also be very interesting!

A further restriction to 'invisible' typography

I understand that some members of the canon are going to be 'experimental', in the same sense in which the magazine Ray Gun was experimental.1 I would like to say something like, 'I'm looking for members of the canon that are not experimental like that'. I realize that this is not terribly well-defined. I guess what I have in mind are members of the canon where typography is an instrument rather than the centerpiece. Another way to put it is that I'm looking for members of the canon which are trying to satisfy the dictum that good typography is invisible (see here). And if you print an article in Zapf Dingbats (here), then you are definitely not trying to obey that dictum.

1Thanks to user curious for bringing up Ray Gun.

  • 1
    Hi linguisticturn, Welcome to Graphic Design.
    – Stan
    Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 2:12
  • 1
    Good question, looking forward to some answers. Please do not block this - read the paragraph where the poster is explaining his rational about NOT wanting opinions but training-approved examples. Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 15:28
  • @linguisticum I suggest you edit the title to better reflect the idea of canonical examplars. You also might want to specify a time frame. For example, the magazine Ray Gun is often mentioned in type coursework but it probably has nothing to do with what you're looking for! I do have The Form of the Book, might be able to see if it mentions anything later this week.
    – curious
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 21:41
  • @curious Thank you for your comment! I think the present version of the question manages to implement your recommendations. Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 16:30

1 Answer 1


I am the asker of the question, but I will get us started. The following seems to belong to the canon:

Penguin Books under Jan Tschichold

Jan Tschichold has been called a titan of typography and a pioneer of modern graphic design (here). As best as I can tell, every biography of him prominently features his tenure at Penguin Books. Scholarly articles and even entire books have been written about it. Here is the blurb for one of them:

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, and following the success of its paperback rebranding, Penguin Books made the bold decision to completely redesign its publications. Their subsequent choice of designer would not only lead to the consolidation of an iconic brand but also a revolution in typographic conventions.By the time Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) arrived at Penguin Books in 1947, he had already established himself as an innovative and highly-talented typographer and graphic designer. His previous prolific design experience helped him tackle the Herculean task presented to him: to create a uniform design that could be applied to mass production. The resulting Penguin Composition Rules and King Penguin standard grids, represent one aspect of the typographic revolution that Tschichold masterminded at the publishing house.Examining for the first time Tschichold's innovative design practices at Penguin, this book offers a detailed account of the development of an iconic brand. (source)

And here are some highlights from this article:

After establishing these design standards [the “Penguin Composition Rules” (see here)], Tschichold had the responsibility of explaining it to the large group of Penguin Books compositors and printers, many of whom were less than enthusiastic for the intensified level of scrutiny and involvement in their work. Tschichold’s presence was most clearly felt in the publisher’s composing rooms, which he visited often to make arduous revisions to typographical arrangements and layouts. Tschichold stated, “Every day I had to wade through miles of corrections (often ten books daily). I had a rubber stamp made: ‘Equalize letter-spaces according to their visual value.’ It was totally ignored; the hand compositors continued to space out the capitals on title-pages (where optical spacing is essential) with spaces of equal thickness.” Despite initial resistance, Tschichold persisted, and after about a year he began to see improvements. He could then turn his full energies toward the actual design of the books.

Tschichold’s final revision of the Penguin cover in 1949 was to modify the Penguin Books trademark. He improved the letter spacing and reduced its overall size for improved proportion. He decreased the line between the title and author’s name to two points and also introduced two hairline border rules above and below the title and author’s name. These final revisions firmly established a standardized format, which unified the Penguin series.

The roundels were created for many book covers within the series as iconic representations of the characters in the story and to add character and finishing touch to the design. Tschichold employed the classic and assertive typographic features of Monotype Perpetua for many of the covers within the Penguin Classics. For the chapter headings and body text, Tschichold would mix various weights of Monotype Bembo and Monotype Centaur Titling. The results were a stunning, classical and unique quality that was heightened by the exquisite Perpetua setting and elegant roundel insignia.

  • I was working on an answer, mostly based on Meggs' history of graphic design but there's a lot of ground to cover and I want to be sure it's useful as my time is limited. I can share a few titles if you'd like to join us in chat
    – curious
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 17:45
  • @curious OK, I'm in the chat! Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 19:37

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