“A method to produce the perfect book.”
The perfect book. This is how designer-genius Jan Tschichold described this system. Not the ok book, nor the pretty good book, but the perfect book.
This method existed long before the computer, the printing press and even a defined measuring unit. No picas or points, no inches or millimeters. It can be used with nothing more than a straight edge, a piece of paper and a pencil.
And you can still use it. 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.
The Secret Canon & Page Harmony
Books were once a luxury only the richest could afford and would take months of work to be brought to fruition.
And they were harmoniously beautiful.
The bookmakers knew the secret to the perfect book. They shared among themselves a system—a canon—by which their blocks of text and the pages they were printed on would “agree with one another and become a harmonious unit.”
So elegant is this method of producing harmony that a few designers saw to rediscover it. 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.
They found the way to design a harmonious page. A perfect page.
There’s a dance to all this
Let’s look at this dance, shall we? In its simplest form, here is the canon, without the guides.
And here it is with them (using the Van de Graaf Canon and Tschichold’s recommended 2:3 page-size ratio, which we’ll get into next).
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.
This is where the harmony is found.
Without anything more than a straight edge and a pencil, this process will give you—every single time—a textblock which is in a relatively exact position and size, with echoed margins, all of which are elegantly rational.
No matter the page size, you will always end up with a 9×9 grid, with the textblock 1/9th from the top and inside, and 2/9ths from the outside and bottom.
How is this dance beautiful? Oh, let me count the ways!
A module is to a grid, as a cell is to a table.Firstly, our 2:3 ratio is back! Right there! The inner margin is 2 to a 3 of the upper margin. Our outer margin and bottom margin? Double those! 4 to the outer and 6 to the bottom! And the modules? Oh how wonderfully the modules of our grid echos the 2:3 ratio!
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.
“… because we hold the book by the lower margin when we take it in the hand and read it” — Paul Renner.And yet another piece of practically beauty? 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. Small, but lovely.
And my favourite aspect of this page block? Where I believe the harmony comes to a wonderful climax? The height of the textblock is equal to the width of the page.
Oh how my heart leapt when I learned this! This simple, almost insignificant fact gives such joy that I understand why Tschichold spent years pouring over the manuscripts of the scribes! It brings a smile to my face because of the logic and reason it puts forth.
It’s a logic which gives way to grace, which leads to beauty — graphic design at its most beautiful.