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Published four years ago, Page 1: Great Expectations: Seventy Graphic Solutions is the superb result of a “simple” typographic experiment: give 70 international graphic designers the same brief – to design and lay out the first page of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.

Dickens’s novel is a neat choice for many reasons. We do judge books by the covers, and by their opening lines too, and by the blurbs on the back, and the reviews (and the price tag).

The type and design do influence our expectations about what we are about to read. As Marshall McLuhan used to say, the medium is the message – creating a symbiotic relationship in which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

In the case of Great Expectations, the content – the words of Dickens – may seem unvarying over the decades and centuries. Yet the form is constantly shifting, as typographers and book cover designers – and, indeed, film-makers – intervene and make their mark, adding new layers and shades of meaning.

At the furthest reaches, perhaps, is the 1998 film adaptation of Dickens’s novel with Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro. It shifts the story from early 19th-century London to the Gulf Coast and 1990s New York, and changes the hero’s name from Pip to Finn, and Miss Havisham becomes Nora Dinsmoor. But maybe it messed too much with viewers’ and readers’ expectations – it has a Tomatometer score of a measly 38% on Rotten Tomatoes; by contrast, David Lean’s apparently “more faithful” 1947 film version has an amazing 100%.

(Talking about form and content and different media, though, Great Expectations didn’t start life as a book per se: it was serialised in a weekly magazine that Dickens co-owned called All the Year Round. But maybe I digress too much.)

The opening chapter is a clever choice for the “Page One” typography project for another reason: it begins with Pip reflecting on his own name, and on the letterforms of his family’s names on their tombstones. I hope Mr Dickens and his publishers and copyright lawyers will not take grave offence if I provide an extended extract from this opening page:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly…

There’s a great sense of fun in the typographers’ playful responses to the “Page One” brief. Neil Donnelly’s contribution (see top of this post) immediately comes across as very “tabloidy”. Or check out the apparently more restrained and refined contributions by Phil Baines (below) or Tony Chambers. With the latter, once you know its inner secrets you’ll never ever look at the opening of the “faithful” David Lean film adaptation in the same way.

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Mr Chambers chose the Baskerville typeface for his contribution because, as he explains in this video from the book’s launch, John Baskerville began his trade as an engraver of headstones. The typeface also reflects the typical sight of lower-case sans serif lettering in an early 19th-century graveyard.

And in this tribute to what must be English literature’s most famous orphan (apart from Oliver Twist of course) (OK, and Jane Eyre) (“But what about Heathcliff?” I hear someone pipe up from the back of the class), Mr Chambers’s contribution also includes a deliberate editorial faux pas: a lonely “orphan” line of type. He leaves the end of the opening paragraph – the solitary word and full stop “Pip.” – stranded on its own at the top of a second column of type. It’s a perfect in-joke.

Here’s how Wikipedia currently describes widows and orphans:

In typesetting, widows and orphans are lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph.

Chambers has worked for GQ, the Sunday Times magazine and Wallpaper. Having fought against “typographic crimes” such as these danglers for much of his working life, he describes this twist in his contribution to the “Page One” project as giving him “a slight perverse pleasure”.

The project was curated by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, the founders of the publishing house GraphicDesign&. Their splendid book would make a fine Christmas pressie (hint hint) for anyone with a keen interest in Charles Dickens and/or design, and in the mysteries of how form shapes the content of our world.

Images courtesy of the GraphicDesign& website

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