Two Men and a Printing Press: Keeping Alive the Art of Typography

by Anne Fullerton

Published at 2017-08-03



We're not supposed to judge books by their covers, but like it or not, when shopping around a bookstore with nothing particular in mind, it's often a cover that will attract the eye. I was recently perusing the selection at the lovely Type Books in Toronto's Queen West neighbourhood, and certain books stood out to me, not by their outside cover, but rather by their typography—what was on the inside of the books. It turned out that these particular books were designed (and made and published) by Gaspereau Press, a favourite press of mine tucked away in Nova Scotia.


The Two Men at Gaspereau Press

Gaspereau Press was established by two men, Gary Dunfield and Andrew Steeves, who committed themselves to creating beautiful literary books by talented Canadian authors. While the press has grown by a few additional employees over the years, it remains small and dedicated to the art of book-making. In fact, it produces Smyth-sewn paperbacks, cloth-bound hardcovers, and even letterpress limited editions on hand-made paper, all onsite.


This means that Gaspereau appreciates the book as a physical, visual object, and the affect that can have on a reader. (They stay so true to that, in fact, that when their book The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud was nominated for the Giller Prize, they wished to stay true to their usual 500 to 1,500 print run rather than have a large publisher take over.) Their use of letterpress—an ancient (and now rare) technique that requires skill, labour, and artistic vision, as it involves using individual metal pieces for each letter—in particular speaks to the care they give the interior of their books, creating through each one a stunning visual piece.


Typography 101

Many details are taken into account in designing typography, including the thickness and richness of the font, the spacing between lines (leading), the spaces between the letters themselves (kerning), and the margins on a page (at one talk I attended a few years ago at a New Brunswick library, Steeves even mentioned how margin design takes into account the amount of space the reader’s thumb takes up when holding and reading an open book).


With the technologies we have at hand and use on a daily basis, much of typography’s techniques are now automated, but that does not mean we aren’t still designing and creating, and it is worthwhile to consider these details more closely and the effect they may have. While you and I may not take kerning or leading into account in our writing, we are our own typographers every time we send an email, write a report, take notes, or even send a text message. 


Font is something that we choose—consciously or not—each time we write, and it is something that is worth bearing in mind. When deciding on a font, it’s not always flash or variety that is best, as too many font styles become distracting and unpleasant. And, just because a font looks appealing or catches the eye, does not mean it is necessarily the best choice; readability is also an important (and often the most important) factor. 


Research shows that some relatively common fonts are more difficult to read (Helvetica), some are unpleasant to the eye (Comic Sans), while others are built for speed (Times New Roman), or even considered trustworthy (Baskerville). As for the serif versus sans serif debate: sans serif fonts are commonly used for the web because they are less visually complex, while serifs are recommended for print, and used widely for titles and headings.


From advertisements to blogs, newspapers, paperbacks, and hand-sewn novels, typography is significant in every medium. Poor typography can truly turn the reader off and have them abandon whatever it is they’re reading, while well-thought-out typography can entice someone to pick up a book (as I did with Gold by George Elliot Clarke at Type Books) and begin reading it.


For more on Gaspereau Press, typography, and the art of making fine books, get your hands on a copy of Smoke Proof by Andrew Steeves (who also designed the book, set it into type, and hand-printed the wrappers). If you’re wondering what “smoke proof” means, click here for an explanation.


For a bit more on the art of book design, see Nina’s blog, “Book Design for Beginners.”