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The Collation

Measuring Hamlet and the golden section

It is an understatement to say that the layout of most books doesn’t show much daring, and that academic publications are among the most dull in this respect. But solid content and tasteful form do not necessarily exclude each other, as is convincingly demonstrated by the Canadian book designer Robert Bringhurst. Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is not only a poetical account of his subject, it is a beautiful object that reflects the importance of its content.

In his chapter 8, “Shaping the Page,” Bringhurst explains the concept of the golden section: “The golden section is a symmetrical relation built from asymmetrical parts. Two numbers, shapes or elements embody the golden section when the smaller is to the larger as the larger is to the sum.” 1 In order not to chase you away with Bringhurst’s subsequent algebraic elaborations, you can go by the following rule of thumb. Pages are shaped according to the golden section when the height is 1.61803 times taller than the width. In other words, if a page is 162 millimeters tall and 100 millimeters wide, then it almost perfectly reflects the golden section, a shape that is especially pleasing to the eye and soothing for the mind. 

  1. Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, Version 3.0 (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 2004) p. 155.
  2. I took all measurements with a stainless steel, Hol brand ruler, which is divided in ½ mm rules. I rounded up all measures up to a full millimeter, so that a 269.5 mm was thus entered as 270 mm.
  3. For the statisticians amongst our readers, the standard deviation is less than 1 mm for either height or width, or, more exactly, 0.81 for the height and 0.67 for the width.
  4. Goran Proot, “Designing the Word of God. Layout and Typography of Flemish 16th-Century Folio Bibles Published in the Vernacular,” in De Gulden Passer 90 (2012), 143–179, esp. 154–155; Goran Proot, “The Evolving Typographical Identity of Theatre Programmes Produced for the Flemish Jesuits in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” in W. Kelly (ed.), The Book in the Low Countries [forthcoming].

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