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A 19th/20th Century Designer and Printer Speaks On Message-Appropriate Design

Daniel Berkeley Updike (1860-1941) has been described as “the most distinguished American printer.” He was one of a handful of highly successful and influential book designers of the twentieth century and proprietor of the Merrymount Press in Boston. This excerpt is from “The Well-Made Book: Essays & Lectures by Daniel Berkeley Updike,” edited by William S. Peterson.

Thus we have suddenly arrived at the relation of the printer to his customers. Cardinal Newman speaks somewhere of the need of praising an “economy in imparting religious truth.” This being interpreted signifies to keep back something; and has its authority in certain rather “unevangelical” passages in the New Testament, to the effect that it is at times wise to give out only as much truth as the hearer is able to bear. This is usually the part of wisdom in a printer’s treatment of a customer. He cannot be told everything; in fact he can only be told (advantageously to himself) what it is good for him to know! Anglo-Saxons detest this kind of reasoning, because they say that it appears shifty and untruthful; but what they really subconsciously dislike is the principle of authority inherent in it. As a race we resent experts-though all Americans, and no doubt some English, secretly believe that they are experts themselves! So, though printers often act on some such idea, they do not fancy calling it an “economy in imparting truth.” One may hold back information, but it is bad form to admit to yourself that you do, or to hold the theory that it may be defensibly done. Such people agree in principle with George III when he said, “Shakespeare often wrote sad stuff, but one must not say so.”

As customers fall into many different classes, they have to be met in many different ways. They certainly sometimes bring difficult typographical problems to the printer, for which they suggest or dictate ridiculous solutions. But a printer cannot be of use to typography by dismissing their views and them. His part is to lead them into the more excellent way, by showing them what can be done to improve their work and what cannot, and by explaining the reason why. Thus he can avoid needlessly annoying a “client,” and encourage him not only to have this particular piece of work printed well, but to have more work printed better; for most people will use good types if they can only be made to see the reason of their goodness. I remember once being obliged to print, for a personage who dealt in muffins, a circular which was to show their excellence; and to this end he showed me an announcement printed in coloured ink from horrid types, on brown note-paper, with a “hemstitched” perforated edge, as a model for what was to be done. This circular he had secured from the establishment of a milliner. His mind worked in this way: that as an expensive hat was advertised by a circular adorned with perforations, and this hat cost one hundred times more than a muffin, a circular adapted for the hat must be many times better than the ordinary method of muffin advertising! I explained that there was a suitable and even ideal way of advertising muffins as well as hats, and that to advertise a muffin as one would a hat might very likely mislead the public about its digestibility! We ended by making an advertisement which I thought pretty, and he said was extremely so, and it sold the muffins! What more could you ask? Thus it is a part of wisdom, though not, alas, always of inclination, to try to teach a customer-to lead and not drive him. But there are times when, if a customer insists on employing some bad, freaky types in cheap, tawdry display of colour, you are right in telling him that he must have his work done elsewhere.

That amusing person, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in a letter to her daughter, Lady Bute, said that “people commonly educate their children as they build their houses, according to some plan they think beautiful, without considering whether it is suitable for the purpose for which they are designed. Almost all girls of quality are educated as if they were to be great ladies. You should teach yours to confine their desires to probabilities.” And this is just as true of printing as of education or house-building, and, I am told, is a useful idea when marrying off a daughter.

But customers seldom see that the essential thing in all printing is that it be suitable for the purpose for which it is designed, and printers have not based their practice on any such sensible rule. If printers had more of a standard and a stiffer one, both about the types they employ and the way in which they use them, printing would be better. The printer, if he has no standard, must allow the customer to dictate his own wishes about types. He is defenseless, no matter how indefensible typographically the customer’s ideas may be. In fixed opinions of what types are good and what are bad, the average printer has been a most spiritless individual. His long-suffering has become a tradition, and for him to assert that there are things typographically which he will not do, has the expectedness of the much talked-of (but seldom seen) turning worm! Clergymen, businessmen, landscape architects, school teachers, and contractors all have what they call “ideas” about types and their arrangement, and make no bones about telling the printer what they are. Yet these people are profoundly ignorant of typography. If the printer had an educated standard in typography, he could show them that they were so. But he has nothing to suggest. He is not leading, but following; if he takes any other position, it is troublesome to him and he is misunderstood by his public. Pained surprise is upon the faces of friends; annoyed resistance is shown by the customer. “Prudential reasons” are suggested by uncles, “kindness” by aunts, “horse-sense” by business acquaintances. The printer who sticks to a standard is usually supposed to be arbitrary, autocratic, wilful, conceited, and generally toplofty. Now, he may be all this, but he is not of necessity so; and as a matter of fact, he is sometimes as weary of his standard as any customer can be. There is, however, a standard. It can be held to, though not without trouble. The lack of it has reduced much modern printing to what it is.

These are some of the difficulties we meet with in dealing with people who know little about printing and, to some extent, admit it. But there is a second class who are worse: those who take a superior tone about it and are very sure that they know the printer’s inmost thoughts. To prove this they use an inaccurate semi-technical jargon which has taught me the wisdom of never trying to talk in the terms of another person’s trade-I do not deal in architectural terms before an architect, though I may inflict them on my defenseless door! To the mind of this second class there are two kinds of work that a press may do, differentiated by the terms “artistic” and “commercial”-terms very carelessly and very currently used. It is often said (as if it were a compliment) that such and such a printer does not do commercial work, but only artistic. One may say that he endeavours to do good work, if that is “artistic”; and he sells it, so it is after all “commercial.” The rejoinder is, “But I mean printing of a commercial character, i.e. used in business”-the inference being that such printing cannot be “artistic” (poor, overworked word!), which, thank God, is often the case! The real difficulty lies in what is meant by artistic printing. To my mind it means: printing as exactly and agreeably suited as possible to the object for which it is to be used-commercial printing being just as capable of possessing this excellence as any other variety. But most people, if they stopped to analyse, would find that they really meant by “artistic printing” something queer, dear, and not well adapted to daily use, delivered later than expected; and by “commercial,” something commonplace, cheap, nasty, and done in a hurry. The truth is that the best presses do but one kind of work, which is neither solely commercial nor artistic, but both, i.e. good. Then again, in the mind of the class of customers of whom I speak, literary interest is confused with problems of handicraft. A mere circular or an advertisement, they say, cannot be interesting to arrange. One can never make such persons understand that it is not the matter to be printed, but the problem of design presented by that matter, which is interesting to a printer. An edition of Dante may be a great bore to execute, and offer no very difficult problem; while one may be exceedingly amused and interested by a circular about tea! To see this requires the professional point of view, and does not support the lazy generalizations of the amiable amateur. He will continue to call printing “very artistic” and “only commercial,” and rather fancy that he commends himself to a printer by so doing.

Perhaps it may be said that in old times there was not such a variety of types as there is now, or so many kinds of work to be done. This is true. But it is quite easy to restrict the repertoire of types in any office to good types and to permit their use only in legitimate ways. The earliest printers were often learned men, and yet perhaps their contemporaries thought that they took themselves too seriously. But what they took seriously was not themselves, but their work. They were educated enough and independent enough to hold to certain ideals. If Aldus had watered down his manner of printing and continually varied his types to suit other people’s views, he would never have been heard of. None the less, the heads of contemporary Italian uncles and aunts were sadly shaken, perhaps, and friends of the family were seriously distressed. We remember the types and books of Aldus still; but the names of these “wise and prudent” are forgotten.

Daniel Berkeley Updike (1860-1941) has been described as “the most distinguished American printer.” He was one of a handful of highly successful and influential book designers of the twentieth century and proprietor of the Merrymount Press in Boston. This excerpt is from “The Well-Made Book: Essays & Lectures by Daniel Berkeley Updike,” edited by William S. Peterson. Price: $55. Available at major booksellers or directly from the publisher via

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