University of Saskatchewan

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Student Jon Bath studies fonts {Photo courtesy of James Zheng}
October 30, 2007

Something old, something new: U of S English student consults early printing manuals to create effective websites

October 30, 2007
Nineteenth in Series
For The StarPhoenix
By Wendy Gillis

Jon Bath is not your average English student.

While the majority of English students study the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Ondaatje, Bath has his nose deep in centuries-old printing manuals, studying the medium through which these works were made famous: the book itself.

“Most people when they study English study a work of literature,” says Bath, from his office on the U of S campus. “I study the technologies that make literature possible, and the effect that those technologies have on the reader.”

Bath, a PhD student, says that throughout his degrees he has become increasingly interested in the way text looks and how visual form affects the reading experience as a whole.

This interest has led him to study the technologies that have enabled people to read – what he refers to as the reading interfaces, such as the book, or more recently, web pages on the internet.

In his studies, Bath focuses his attention on the traditional printing of books, looking to discover why the printed book has changed so little during its 650-year lifespan. By digging through printing instruction manuals from hundreds of years ago, Bath is discovering how book printers controlled the appearance of the text through elements such as spacing or typeface.

Though at times printing manuals are less stimulating than the literature his English comrades might be reading, Bath says he does find gems that make his research efforts worthwhile.

“I do find some that are really, really interesting,” says Bath. “What should just be a dry, technical manual is actually a really interesting account of history.”

Among Bath’s most captivating finds have been the stories of the printers themselves, who he says have “largely been lost to history” despite now being the household names of fonts in word processing programs.

Often fonts are named after the men who created a typeface, such as Baskerville or Garamond. Bath says he is excited by their stories because sometimes there were political or religious reasons why book printers created a certain typeface.

Baskerville, for example, created fonts to reflect the growing interest in the ‘rational’ sciences that occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries. In an attempt to design a more modern looking font, Baskerville and others used the principles of geometry to create a greater contrast between the thick and thin parts of the letter.

These new typefaces were later used during the French Revolution in the documents and newspapers of the new republic, creating a visual separation from those of the old government.

Bath’s studies have definite real-world applications as well and have helped him land a job with the new U of S Humanities and Fine Arts Digital Research Centre.

As the director of the centre, created this year to advance multidisciplinary, digital research within the fine arts and humanities, Bath applies his knowledge of reading technologies of the past to those in the present.

He deals with faculty and researchers who are interested in using new technologies in their teaching and research, such as creating a webpage for notes or creating a digital edition of a book.

“I’m familiar with how interfaces have worked throughout history, so a lot of the work that researchers do in the centre applies to what I do,” says Bath. “Knowing how people historically have read is very handy when you want to make a website that people will read.”

For example, Bath says knowing the best ways to apply the traditional Western ways of reading – left to right and top to bottom – is important when designing a website.

As people have become accustomed to reading from a page, the most natural starting point has become the top left, which is why many websites have their company logo or home page in this location.

Studying even the most basic reasons why the book has been such a long-lived technology is worthwhile, Bath says, because people can adapt what has worked in the past to the new media.

“Now that we’re at the point in history where we’re creating new reading interfaces on the computer, I believe you can make them much more effective if you work within the traditions that we’re all accustomed to.”

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Wendy Gillis is a student intern with the U of S Research Communications office.

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