El Lissitzky: Topography of Typography

In the chapter “Principles of the New Typography”, from Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of the International Style, 1920-1965, Richard Hollis wrote: “The new set of rules to replace the convention of traditional typography were laid down between 1923 and 1928, mainly by artists, and chiefly in Germany. As we have noted, although they owed something to the graphic excesses of the Futurists and the Dadaists, their concerns was with function rather than aesthetics. The first significant statement was by El Lissitzky, whose Topography of Typography appeared in Schwitter’s Merz magazine in July 1923. It is a series of declamatory assertions of first principles, beginning “In communicating, the printed word is seen, not heard.”

The following was first published as “Topography of Typography ” (in German “Topographie der Typographie “) in the publication MERZ  No. 4, Hannover, July 1923:

  1. The words on the printed surface are taken in by seeing, not by hearing.
  2. One communicates meanings through the convention of words; meaning attains form through letters.
  3. Economy of expression: optics instead of phonetics.
  4. The design of the book-space, set according to the constraints of printing mechanics, must correspond to the tensions and pressures of content.
  5. The design of the book-space using process blocks that create the new optics. The supernatural reality of the perfected eye.
  6. The continuous sequence of pages: the bioscopic book.
  7. The new book demands the new writer. Inkpot and quill-pen are dead.
  8. The printed surface transcends space and time. The printed surface, the infinity of books, must be transcended. THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY.

Below is the page from the publication showing the rules printed in German on reddish paper. The publication’s editor added the following disclaimer (underneath the line): “The editors do not approve of all above assertions because in some instances they do not recognize a connection between text and letter design.” It is not clear which specific assertions they referred to, but if only they could have known how the practice of typography is being viewed in 2016, they might have added a few more assertions that would have challenged traditional typography.