Inspiration from a Typographer

Most of you know that different fonts and typefaces can give your documents a certain feel, a certain flair, or a certain artistic element that you wouldn’t get using the same old font for everything. So, I was reading an article about a relatively famous typographer, Eric Gill, the developer of a number of typefaces.

The interview is interesting, the history of typefaces is interesting, and getting a perspective on the world 100 years ago is also interesting. But the very last thing that he said, about artistry, beauty, and making something that’s valuable, is really what stuck with me:

I think an artist is not a person who makes things beautiful, but simply one who deliberately makes things as well as he can — whether he is a clock-maker or picture-painter; because machine-made things are very much better when no “designer” has had anything to do with them — when they are just plain serviceable things. I think that if you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself.

I adore this sentiment. Make the thing that is useful, elegant, concise, and not wasteful, and that will make it beautiful. It’s the type of sentiment that applies to so many types of artifice, from typefaces to clock-making to the motions of the planets.

What a great sentiment! R.I.P., Eric Gill (1882-1940), and thank you for leaving us with all that you’ve created in this world.


  1. #1 BenHead
    April 3, 2009

    Very true. As a tech guy, I often find beauty in well-written computer code (just as math folks can see it in certain formulas). Whether it’s elegant simplicity or a clever trick or whatever…it’s very much the same feeling I get reading a poem or viewing a painting. In the end I think beauty is all over the place, and different people, looking through different lenses, see it in different places. So certainly anyone taking up any sort of creative endeavor can be called an artist.

  2. #2 mathyoo
    April 6, 2009

    I’m a graphic designer and have been long enough that I remember designing without a computer. Eric Gill has always been one of my three favorite typographers for just that reason, and I use Gill Sans and Perpetua all the time in my work.

    BTW, welcome to Science Blogs!

  3. #3 Florian
    April 6, 2009

    Thank you so much for sharing that! I so “adore this sentiment”, too!
    I’d like to add one more example: Beauty in people.
    The woman I love sure is sexy, but she doesn’t “design” herself, doesn’t care for fancy expensive clothes or shoes, usually no makeup. But she’s brilliant at and dedicated to so many things and still always wants to become better; she’s out there for the truth, and never wants to give up. The way she does things, both passively enjoying (e.g. being passionate about and able to appreciate fantastic music and literature) and pursuing or making them herself – that’s a big part of what makes her the most beautiful girl in the world to me.

  4. #4 Patness
    April 6, 2009

    Speaking as another Comp.Sci. guy, I totally agree with your paraphrase. I am doing my best to commit it to memory – it is just that beautiful (and not more).

  5. #5 Crudely Wrott
    April 7, 2009

    As a woodworker I have long known that elegance and simplicity are chief considerations of design. Skill and accuracy of fit and finish create something much greater than the sum of the parts. (Maybe helped by the hours of sanding and rubbing, and rubbing.)

    Also worthy of terms like “beautiful” or “clever, very neat” are some of the old repairs that I sometimes find in a door, maybe, or a staircase or some molding. Some repairs are actually invisible until I try to take something apart and find a hidden patch blind nailed and with the wood grain a virtual match. Such little discoveries are a favorite source of delight. I can almost hear that fellow chuckling softly as he stepped back and saw his repair fade from sight.

    Good work, well and lovingly done, says something about the very best in all of us. And it frequently creates something new, something useful in a novel way. Or simply something pleasant to behold.

    And welcome, Ethan, to ScienceBlogs. I’ll be sure to stop by again.

  6. #6 Sili
    April 11, 2009

    Of course, Gill is a pretty controversial figure, and he’s one of those artists that make important the debate about whether one can disociate the art from the artist. Or does using Gill’s fonts, say, mean that one is implicit condoning him as a human being?

  7. #7 Ethan Siegel
    April 12, 2009

    I think that whatever Gill may have done as a person in his life does nothing to detract from the quality of his work or of his typographic creations.

    And the same goes for his quote — I think it’s a simple, beautiful, brilliant sentiment.

    And the controversy about him brings up a *lot* of moral and ethical questions; I’m not sure I have the answer to them.

  8. #8 Sili
    April 12, 2009

    Neither do I. It’s one of those things.

    Luckily, Hitler was by all accounts a pretty mediocre painter, but if he had had talent, we would have a similar ambivalence towards his art, I’m sure.

  9. #9 jelly
    January 19, 2010

    my grandfather is a clock

  10. #10 jelly bear
    January 19, 2010

    people are so weird and crazy like my grandfather thats a clock! 🙂

  11. #11 jellieca
    January 19, 2010

    hola people if i was you i would read this comment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!HI!

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