“Typography exists to honor content,” Robert Bringhurst says at the beginning of his The Elements of Typographic Style. Its goals are clarity, transparency, durability, and legibility. At its best, typography is an art that “must relinquish the attention it has drawn.” (p.17) This renowned “bible” for typesetters, letterpress printers, and interested others is also a pleasure to read. The writing is clear and felicitous, and the book is itself an example of its subject: the proper placement and spacing of letterforms and their history.
As the phrase honor content implies, good typography enables the reader to take in the content absent unnecessary obstacles, such as crowding, page arrangements that don’t accord with content or meaning, and unnecessary stylistic flourishes.
Here's a photo of a spread from Bringhurst’s book. Despite my pencil marks, you can easily see the appealing arrangement of the page. The text elements ask to be read.
Notice the sidebar on the left hand page about how typographic principles apply to other cultures and alphabetic forms. Despite my low quality photograph below, you can easily read the text and the interesting discussion of non-western serif and sans serif typeforms.
After considering Bringhurst’s typographic principles, we can understand why we’re annoyed when we encounter poor typography, why our wish to look away from certain texts isn’t necessarily a problem of content (though that could be the case, too), but, rather, of typography. According to Bringhurst, typography is an old and living art and one that affects all writers and their readers.