Writing and Printing

Emil Ruder, Typographie

The invention of printing is manifested in works in which the new epoch-making process of using movable type does not show to its full advantage. Gutenberg, Fust, Schoffer and other early printers were anxious to preserve the appearance of early manuscripts. By illumination of the margins and the initial letters, and particularly by the copious use of ligatures, the printed work was made deceptively similar to the manuscript book, and this attempted assimilation of the two forms has caused confusion right down to the present age. In this respect the invention of printing differed basically from other inventions. In lithography, for example, the genius of the new technique is demonstrated in masterpieces.

The incunabulum was compared with the manuscript book and the printer reacted with a sense of inferiority. The manuscript book is unique and irreplaceable; it cannot be reproduced. The printed work, on the other hand, can be reproduced in any desired quantity but is, of course, worth very much less in the sense that the single copy no longer has the value of the original manuscript.

Although vigour and wilful individuality were deliberately cultivated even in the printed works of the 16th century, there has been a tendency through every period of printing right down to the present day to regard such individuality as something to be played down.

there is a deep-rooted belief that writing and printing are two different and mutually incompatible techniques and that they should be kept strictly apart. The written letter is something personal, organic, unique and spontaneous. It mirrors the character and the personality of the writer, and often his mood of the moment. But the printed letter, which can be cast as often as necessary from the mould, goes on being repeated in a precise and invariable form. It is impersonal, neutral and objective by nature, and it is precisely these qualities which enable the typographer to use it universally and to vary his composition in a multitude of ways.

A good designer must refrain from mixing writing and printing. The spontaneity of handwriting can only be distantly approached and never attained by printing, and the alternative forms and ligatures which are intended to bring printing closer to writing are merely evidence of an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. In the script types as they are known, of either ancient or more recent design, the beauty of the handwriting has been debased into an unpleasant imitation reflected in the rigid and repetitive forms.

Masterpieces of printing, of whatever age, are eloquent of the power and untrammelled individuality of the technique. there is a cool and fascinating beauty about them: they are free from alien borrowings and from the sense of inferiority which arose through making false comparisons in the early days of printing.