George Orwell once observed that best prose was like a window pane: It revealed its subject without calling attention to itself. Utter transparency was the ideal. It is the same, we think, with graphic design. There is a reason that words like “clean,” “spare,” “simple,” and “elegant” are terms of praise in that world while “ornate,” “cluttered,” and “fussy” are deprecatory. The New Criterion has often been noticed—applauded or derided, depending on who was doing the noticing—for its polemical edge and battles with the politically correct establishment in academia and the world of culture.
But it has also, from its very first issue in September 1982, been widely admired for the clarity and chaste simplicity of its design. That design was the brain-child of Alvin Eisenman, who started America’s first university graphic design department at Yale in 1951. The founding editors, Sam Lipman and Hilton, consulted with Alvin and looked at other magazines for inspiration: the old American Scholar, for example, and the now-defunct English monthly Encounter. Alvin drew on and refined some ideas he found there, and in such earlier models as T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, for the new periodical. As far as we have been able to determine, The New Criterion was the first magazine to use Galliard, the eminently readable type designed by Matthew Carter and first issued in 1978. Mr. Carter took his inspiration from a sixteenth-century font designed by the French type designer Robert Granjon, updating Galliard to take advantage of such novel capabilities of digital typography as indefinite scaling and character kerning.
Alvin’s choice of Galliard was the perfect complement to his orderly, reader-friendly layout in which a fifty-line grid with twelve-point leading is maintained throughout almost all of the magazine (our poetry pages, which are set 11/14, are a notable exception). Alvin, who died in September at ninety-two, had been seriously ill these past few years. He cared deeply about The New Criterion, the substance of its contents as well as the magazine’s look. But we fondly recall many long conversations with him in years past about various niceties of typography, from the most readable line length and leading to ligatures and display type. We also had many conversations about the articles and reviews that appeared in our pages. He was particularly exercised by the insinuation of ideology into the teaching of the humanities, a subject of many of our discussions. Ensconced for decades at Yale, he had a ringside seat for the unfolding of that spectacle.
Except for some trifling differences, The New Criterion looks the same today, at the end of 2013, as it did in 1982, thirty years ago. That is a testament to the genius and longevity of Alvin Eisenman’s design. Sad though we are at his death, we are happy to have this opportunity to pay homage to his important contribution to the public face of The New Criterion.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 4, on page 2
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