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Post-war layout and design — part 1

by Arthur Phillips

Philip Marriage writes: Trained as a compositor, Arthur Phillips joined HMSO as a technical clerk in 1935 and remained for 38 years, apart from his wartime service in the Royal Navy. He made his reputation as a technical pioneer in the field of computerised typesetting, however his first post on returning from the war was in the newly formed Layout Section under Harry Carter. After nine years in layout and design he moved back into the mainstream and led HMSO's technical developments. In 1968 HMSO published his seminal work  Computer Peripherals and Typesetting. He produced many other technical publications and on retirement was awarded the OBE. This extract from his unpublished autobiography (a copy of which is in the St Bride Printing Library in London), deals with his layout years.

On my return to HMSO in March 1946 I was immediately involved in the work of the Layout and Design Section under Harry Carter, who requested that I should start by working on a desk abutting his own. Within a day or so I received a call from someone who had been responsible for production of The Pacific Post   a paper issued in Sydney for the British Fleet. I was feeling too uncertain of myself to accept his invitation to lunch and he was sure I was giving him the hand-off. The invitation was not renewed. It did not take Carter long to realise that I had limitations in my design ability, but it was deemed essential to have someone who knew the office background in this new section.

Sir Francis Meynell had been appointed honorary typographic advisor to HMSO, and was instrumental in the appointment of Harry Carter as head of the design section. It was now clear that HMSO was officially recognising that the design of publications was its official concern. The position of Departmental printing, that is all the printed matter used by Departments, but not issued as Government Publications, was more obscure.

In 1946 we were working to what was called economy standards which increased the text page size of royal octavo and reduced the type size compared with the recommendations in the 1922 typefaces report. An artist, Sydney Stead, was now one of the Layout Section staff which meant that many cover designs could now be prepared and artwork provided for letterpress or lithographic reproduction.

HMSO needed to make many adjustments to its staff policy now that the war had concluded. The technical clerks on the basic grade before the war had comprised the older men from the First World War and the new recruits from the 1935 and subsequent examination, most of the latter had gone into the services and their places made good by temporary staff. These temporaries were, of course, older men, because all the younger ones had been called up. There was therefore a big contrast between the ages of those who had joined the permanent staff from 1935 and the rest of the technical staff. Some of the temporaries had held quite responsible executive jobs with private printers before the war and when things were sorted out would find their superior officer was half their age. I did not detect any particular tensions arising directly from this age anomaly.

Prior to the war all promotion in HMSO was by seniority. The egalitist would consider this manifestly unfair, the alternative proposed in the case of HMSO was promotion by merit; this latter doesn't help the egalitist at all! The alternatives not  proposed would be random promotion which would achieve about the same result as seniority or merit, or by election, judging by the government we get this doesn't seem much improvement.

Promotion by merit required some assessment of this very subjective quality; and as said to the person criticising the pictures in the National Gallery 'It isn't the pictures you are judging'.

I have never tried to understand management theory. I have tried my hand at psychology, but I can't tell whether any of my ideas correspond to the bandwagon current model.

It was Alan Patrick who described to me four of the categories into which one could divide humanity when considering intelligence and industry.

     1 The intelligent and industrious = the top people.
     2 The intelligent and the lazy = those who get the credit for the work of (1)
     3 The dim and lazy = the proletariat
     4 The dim and industrious = the creators of chaos in society

These four sets, as they would be known in the new maths, can be further divided for the intelligent and industrious may not in fact work very much for the organisation that pays them; they may work for their own ends within the organisation. The second set will merely divert the credit of others to themselves.

One of the most important human qualities which does not appear as a heading on a report sheet is loyalty. If it did so appear I am not sure that the object of the loyalty would be adequately defined. My own view is that loyalty should not require the truth to be distorted or misrepresented. Many people have loyalties to ideas, sometimes their own, but more often those of others, and sometimes their own are only reflections of those of Machiavelli. Loyalties may be parochial, to a family or to a unit of an organisation to the exclusion of other units, or to the organisation, or quite differently to the function of that organisation.

In HMSO its function was to provide Departments with the services that one might require from a printer and publisher and the High Street stationery shop. There could be discussion between HMSO and a Department as to whether services required were legitimate and reasonable. To solve this an appeal might be made to the higher executives of both bodies, and finally to the Treasury. My own interpretation of loyalty was to the efficiency of the Service and not of any one section of it. As with the parable of the horse-shoe and the lost battle. It would be wrong for HMSO to find it contrary to its policy to provide local printing facilities for the Navy which resulted in lack of maintenance manuals for a Radar set and so having one out of action at a vital time.

* * *

As soon as I got back HMSO I thought about the possibility of attending some printing evening classes, but before I did anything Arthur Monkman phoned me and asked if I would like to teach to a final composing class. I felt a bit dubious about this as I hadn't given any thought to printing for five years, but he explained that there had been no technical changes in the trade during the war and I accepted. I did enjoy taking this class which was mainly men whose printing education had been interrupted by the war. I took the same fifth year composing the next year but the following year I was asked to take the intermediate grade.

Ellis Thirkettle was now principal of the London School of Printing and students were being prepared for the City and Guilds of London examinations. For my third year as a lecturer I was asked to take the students who were still in their mid-20s for an examination which required they attend the following year for their final composing certificate. I advised that they all entered for the final examination and so saved themselves a year of study. Rather naturally this did not receive the approval of the LSP who rightly said I was supposed to be teaching the intermediate syllabus. But I was not limiting the scope of my teaching to that syllabus. The following year the LSP found they could manage without me, but Thirkettle recommended me as a lecturer for Graphic Reproduction at the City of London College and I accepted this part-time job.

There was rather a strange anomaly because I took a class of students studying for an advertising qualification in which I explained all the various methods of preparing originals and the basics of the different printing processes. The second half of the evening was taken by a lecturer who came from Farnborough and taught layout. I earned my living in the Layout Section of HMSO, he was in the photographic section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough.

After I had had a couple of weeks delivering my lecture at the City of London College the head of department came into the class to see and hear what sort of lecturer I was. Well he did manage to hear, but not to see, for as soon as he sat down I switched on a projector to show a Dufay colour transparency and blew the fuses for the complete floor. So I concluded my lecture in the dark, possibly in more ways than one for I considered photography as practised by amateurs just another of the many drains down which to pour one's spare cash. I continued to lecture at the City of London College until I resigned to help run a choral society in Bracknell.

* * *

There was some unspoken opposition to the new Layout Section and the independence which Carter was able to exercise with the authority of Sir Francis Meynell; this resulted in the section coming under the Director of Publications not the Printing and Binding division which ordered the publications from the printers.

In 1947 I became involved in the design and printing of the Jerusalem City Plan  by Henry Kendall. The Greater London Plan  had already been produced largely by the efforts of H G Hyde in the publications ordering section of Printing and Binding Division before the formation of the separate Layout Section. This type of book calls for a good deal of technical knowledge in the reproduction of maps, coloured insets and half-tones independently of the design skill that might be used in arranging headings, title pages and text dimensions. The Jerusalem City Plan  was published just before Great Britain relinquished its mandate over Palestine on 14 May 1948; indeed it was essential to get the book printed before that date. I don't know whether Israel has benefited from Kendall's ideas or implemented any of them, but the book was selected as one of the National Book League Best Designed Books of the Year. The quality of the paper was not good enough but the volume was produced on an Agency basis to sell at £1. This meant that HMSO was paid the cost of printing; and did not have the usual publishers risk of having to recover the cost from sales.

The next big job I designed was the Clyde Valley Plan ,  this was an extensive regional plan for the environs of Glasgow. Some printing had already been put in hand by the architectural consultants before it was decided that HMSO should undertake the production of the book. As a result of this I sorted out the incompleted work and fixed up further work to be undertaken by HMSO. I was acting outside the terms of reference of the Layout Section, but had been asked to do so by the head of the publications ordering section. When published the Clyde Valley Plan was also selected by the National Book League.

HMSO was now looking at its post-war staff structure and making some plans for the concurrent retirement of many of the senior technical staff. Arrangements were therefore made to hold promotion panels at which a cadre of future executives would be selected. I was not considered to be in a technical section since we came under the Director of Publications, but I was surprised to find my name missing from the list of interviewees for the promotion panel. It had been crossed off by the Technical Assistant Controller and the reason given was 'technical inexperience'. I was reinstated at the request of the staff association but I considered myself in the same category as Belshazzar!

I had already attended one panel very soon after my return, this was to sort out those who would be promoted to 'Higher Grade Technical Clerk' or Technical Officer. This latter designation was new, and the old higher-grade corresponding to the 'three-to-four' (hundred pounds a year salary) was retained for the heads of sections deemed to be doing the more routine jobs. I knew that the panel was looking for someone to install the costing in Harrow Press, I did not want the job. I was asked some questions on costing and if I was interested. I replied that I was interested in managing a Press efficiently but not in costing. The response was 'So you want to start at the top'. I agreed. The only technical question I can remember came from C J Bruce who wanted to know why there had been difficulties with getting yellow printing ink. I could not think of a suitable reply and the chairman, Dashfield, excused me on the grounds that I was unlikely to know about the shortage of chrome pigment during the war. As a result of this first panel I was upgraded to technical officer in the Layout Section.

This second panel was far more important than the first for it assured subsequent promotion unless you blotted your copybook, something which I was particularly adept at. The successful interviewees became know as 'Flyers'.

I have always worked on the assumption that an examiner or interviewer gets tired and bored if he has a lot of answers to assess. Indeed as an examiner I could usually tell what the rest of an answer was going to be after reading the first four lines. And when you have read enough answers to the same question they make no impression on you at all and its time to pack up marking. On these principles I always tried to give unusual answers to any discursive question, it would wake up the examiners.

One of the directors had said before I was interviewed 'I can't understand some of your chaps, why one said to the question 'What paper do you read?' 'I don't read one!' As this applied to me I thought it a good answer to give. So I was asked what do you read? I included 'Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy ,  which I had been reading on the train and not taking advantage of the knowledge that its dust cover nicely fitted Forever Amber .  I answered questions on William of Occam and St Thomas Aquinas put to me by Wright, a kindly intellectual, but I also claimed a passing acquaintance with calculus and got caught out on that one.

As might be expected I was not chosen as a flyer. I can't remember any of the technical questions so I suppose I answered them adequately. One usually remembers the answers you haven't given on these occasions. But as a result of the 'technical inexperience' comment I decided that I would gain technical recognition outside HMSO. I know I could have found a commercial job, but I did not like the uncertainties of the commercial world.

* * *

I consider that my work in the Layout Section under Harry Carter was in the main an education for me; that was not HMSO's justification for paying me my salary but I did have one or two satisfied customers. I would like to explain my attitude to book design by first quoting Stanley Morison in his First Principles of Typography , in which he said:

'Typography may be defined as the art of rightly disposing printing material in accordance with specific purpose; of so arranging the letters, distributing the space and controlling the type as to aid to the maximum the reader's comprehension of the text. . . . It follows that in the printing of books meant to be read there is little room for 'bright' typography.'

Again from Oliver Simon's Introduction to Typography :

'To achieve harmony and legibility is the main object of typography'.

All this was summarised by Beatrice Warde whose lecture I attended when I was still an apprentice.

'If I listen to a sermon, and when it is finished I say to myself or my friends "That was a rattling good sermon". Then it was a failure, for if a success I would have said "I want to be saved!".'

Of course Morison was restricting his comments to book production, but those remarks were particularly applicable to the information bookwork of HMSO. My critics would rightly observe that I was not an advocate of 'bright' typography because I was not a bright typographer, but that does not invalidate the view that for a great deal of bookwork one does not have to present the reader with bright ideas which will so often intrude between the author and the reader. Hugh Williamson expresses a similar sentiment in a different way in his Some Notes on Book Design :

'But book design is so inseparably a part of book production that the best man to design a book is the book production manager'.

In this he is referring to books from the commercial publishers but HMSO had nobody corresponding to a ‘book production manager'. This was an inevitable result from the split between production of publications under the Director of Printing and Binding, and Layout and Design under the Director of Publications. For the books which I designed I ignored this dicotomy and handed over to the Printing and Binding Division a complete specification, completing a paste-up and defining each section.

Hugh Williamson is right in his view that book production is inseparable from design, the more so as the book becomes more complex, but the less so as they become booklets, and then pamphlets. It is a problem that all publishers have to face in holding the author responsible for providing not only adequate MSS but also illustrations. Whilst HMSO relied on all Departments to provide adequate maps, diagrams and bromide prints it could not avoid the responsibility of deciding if they were adequate. This function traditionally belonged to the Printing and Binding Division and was not abrogated by them when the Layout and Design Section was formed.

The situation was usually resolved by co-operation at a lower staff level an example being a report on the Burma Campaign which HMSO published. Lord Louis Mountbatten had provided text printed in India and many maps and diagrams were to be added, these had been prepared by army survey units and were not at all suitable for reproduction. I was supposed to attend the meeting, to discuss which diagrams were acceptable and which had to be redrawn, purely as an observer; but I had done all the analysis of the material and virtually ran the meeting. Certainly the production requirements were equally important as the design. With the Regional Plans the situation was even more complex because one had to achieve uniformity in appearance of coloured maps from a collection of originals varying in size and colour and decide which ought to be colour litho and which letterpress. It may seem odd to think of letterpress maps but in some cases the map detail was just a background on which to indicate future development.

For this kind of book the text was on as good paper as could be afforded and half-tone illustrations were as tip-ins, wrap-rounds, inserts or art-paper sections. It was up to the designer to exercise his skill in getting these illustration pages between the text sections or wrapped round or inserted in the middle of a section to avoid the binder having to cut bolts (the head-fold) and at the same time keep the illustrations near the relevant text. The same conditions applied to insert litho maps, it was an obviously better job to wrap a map round a text section with a guard than to have to paste it in. Much of this called for a knowledge of imposition which one would not expect to find on the syllabus of an art school to the necessary depth.

Sometimes I would be too clever and provide gripper space on sheets of bleed-off illustrations which did not suit the printer. But one cannot always contend with the printer's work load and the resultant allocation of machines when the work is done under contract and the final method of printing left to the requirements of the shop floor.

* * *

There is one factor which has a considerable influence on the impact of an item of printing which is quite independent of any typographic excellence or incompetence; it is the quality of paper. No skill in typography can compensate for the printing on inferior paper. This regrettable fact was an implicit limitation on the work of the Layout Section although rarely acknowledged and debated. At its worst, the very thin papers used as an economy permitted the reverse of the title page and the first page of text to become a ghostly addition to any blank spaces on the title page. Other limitations on the use of colour, on the reduction of type size and loss of margins, could, at least in part, be compensated by the use of a well designed and appropriate type face for text and headings and vertical spacing.

The problems stemmed from HMSO wanting to reduce the substance of a paper to the minimum as an economy, yet not wanting to pay for expensive loading which would give the thinner paper the required opacity. When in 1935 I sat for the entrance examination for HMSO there had been a question about quality of paper and I had mentioned the use of titanium dioxide; to the best of my recollection this substance which gives high opacity was first mentioned in an HMSO contract just before I was about to retire in 1973.

HMSO Laboratory was responsible for defining paper specifications for competitive tender, and these were adequate in respect of furnish (the fibre content of the paper), substance (the weight) and calliper (the thickness) also the breaking strain of the paper. But up to the immediate post-war period very little attention was given to the printing qualities of paper.

In 1935 Julius Bekk gave a lecture entitled What the Printing Process Demands of Paper   and this was printed by The London School of Printing. Around 1950 I sent a paper to the Deputy Controller proposing the test equipment which our Laboratory ought to add in order to define printability of paper. There was nothing original about my suggestions, they were based on the Dr Bekk Report and were particularly concerned with smoothness of surface and picking. As far as I know the fact that the suggestions came from me and not from the technical division or Laboratory caused no comment and I remained on friendly terms with Eric Halsen who was Head of Laboratory.

What can and cannot be printed on various grades of paper is taught in the technical courses, thus in relation to half-tones it is held that an MF printing will not adequately reproduce halftones of finer screen than 65-85 lines per inch. But Carter who was not unduly constrained by technical theory had the Ruhr Coalfield report printed on MF paper with 120 screen halftones. It was perfectly successful.  It has to be appreciated that the technical information one is taught is generally applicable, and if a printer makes a mess of printing a 65 screen halftone on MF then you have cause of complaint, but if he makes a mess of a 120 screen on the same paper then you can be held responsible if you provide the block for letterpress printing.

This situation was made very clear to me after I left the Layout Section when we were asked to print some RAF manuals and had insufficient coated paper. I got them printed on a good litho paper although the blocks were 120 or 133 screen. Later my colleague faced with the same situation specified the same paper and it was a failure, but he had been warned by the printer so had some responsibility. He received an official reprimand for making a wrong technical decision, but nobody checked whether the paper he used had the same surface properties as the paper I had used.

There were occasions when the laboratory was called in because the paper was causing trouble to the printer, it was a practice of HMSO to supply all the paper required for its work, so there was an inherent risk that a printer would claim that the paper was at fault if the resultant print was substandard. But I was not impressed by the laboratory's approach to printing problems as when one of their staff seemed to think that 'show-through' and 'strike-through' were one and the same.

Immediately after the war it was understandable that we had to print prestige books on rather inferior printing paper, this applied more to text paper than to art sections. One very good thing about choice of paper by HMSO was that we never chose a featherweight for books in order to make them bulk more, a favourite resort of the publisher who based his cover price on the width of the spine. Departments would sometimes insist on getting a better style and paper quality than normal, they usually got it; one particular case was the FIDS reports of Sir Vivian Fuchs. I can't remember exactly when these were printed but it was in the early '50s and Sir Vivian explained to us that a better quality style was justified as it was necessary to impress the Argentineans that the Government was taking an interest in the Falkland Island Dependencies. I've no doubt that the extra cost was not significant in relation to the 1982 venture with the Falklands. But I do wish that I had been less ready to accept the economy standards although these were agreed between publishers and remained in force for some time after the war.

This digression on paper emphasises that book design is inseparable from book production and although HMSO still assigned production to the Printing and Binding Division and design to the Layout Section under the Publications Division it only worked because staff at all levels had a amicable modus vivendi .

* * *

The organisation of the Layout Section might reasonably be described as 'adaptive'. Carter had a small partitioned office to himself with his desk and a random where he could stand to draw when he felt inclined. His clerical-assistant secretary kept a record of all the work coming into the section. Well nearly all the work, because every day one of the publications staff from the Parliamentary Paper Section would come dashing in with a bunch of copy to have a cover and title page, tables and headings marked up for type size; this would be handed to Hyde or to me or to one of the others with the instructions 'Must get the 4 o'clock messenger to Drury Lane'. This had no connection with My Fair Lady  or any other ghost of Charles II's good friends, but with the much more mundane Linotype operators at Drury Lane Parliamentary Press.

Tables in the copy were set Monotype and I do not suppose it was strictly necessary for us to mark up the table type size, because we did what the Monotype operator would have done, measure the width of the table as typed in 12-point ens if it was 12-pitch type and convert that to whatever number of ens of 6-pt or 8-pt would fit the page upright or landscape. This rush Parliamentary work was able to have scant attention and our ability to deal with it contrasted somewhat with what we had heard was the perfectionist approach of Sir Francis Meynell who was recorded as having 22 different title page designs set before he was satisfied in one of his books.

All the non-Parliamentary work and some of the less urgent Parliamentary publications came into the section and were entered in the record, then put on a large trestle table in the main room. It was up to us to take a job from the table when we had finished our current one, and to see that the work on the table didn't hand around too long. When one job was delayed I admitted to the Director of Publications that it had been in Layout Section a fortnight, his reply was 'I wouldn't like to think that any   job spent a fortnight in Layout'. This showed a commendable expediency, which most commercial publishers, including my American one would do well to emulate. It also shows some unawareness of the work required in the design of complex books. Of the trivial, it was the HMSO advertisements which annoyed me, they were always wanted in a hurry and once when I complained to Harry that they were a nuisance that might be dealt with by some standard style instructions he replied 'Well I do my share'. This was absolutely correct, he would take them off the table as often as we did, but it was not the point of my complaint although it speaks highly of his notions of egality.

One problem which arose from out 'adaptive' routine was that each individual seemed to collect work of a particular Department by reason of his contact with that Department. This resulted in the individual designer being full up with work and not available to take it from the general pool. Such work became the prerogative of the individual. This is not a bad thing if it does not get out-of-hand.

* * *

Perhaps one might look with advantage at the different alternatives which are open to any head of a section such as HMSO Layout where it enjoys a reasonable degree of autonomy. These gambits are applicable to any organisation where a project is inaugurated at a meeting of executives with diverse but relevant interests.

A. The chief executive of the section attends the meeting, comes back to his office and starts work on the project himself.
B. He takes members of his staff to the meeting who come back and get on with the project.
C. He attends the meeting and comes back and instructs the staff what to do.
D. He rarely attends meetings but sends individual members of his staff to them to exercise a delegated responsibility.
E. He attends meetings makes promises, comes back to his office and does nothing himself nor issues any instructions to his staff to do anything.

According to the importance of the work, Harry Carter acted in accordance with gambit A and C but delegating as D when he thought applicable. If the reader thinks that gambit E is a figment of the imagination, it isn't but it did not apply whilst I was in the Layout Section.

I think that the organisation under Carter worked very well if one can judge from the satisfaction of Departments who provided the authors of HMSO publications.

Sir Francis Meynell was a great asset in that his status as Honorary Typographic Adviser gave Carter considerable independence from what might have been prejudices of senior permanent civil servants, for if his decisions were opposed he could appeal to Sir Francis and so to the Controller. I know of no particular case where this occurred, but the possibility was tacitly acknowledged.

Sir Francis would call on Carter at HMSO about once a month when he would look through the work of the section, he usually remained closeted with Harry though cheerfully acknowledging our existence. He was, as he says in his autobiography, directly involved in the Coronation printing and in The Laying of the Foundation Stone of the new Chamber of the House of Commons  which he designed in collaboration with Carter. Sir Francis was on the boards which chose the staff for the Layout Section, again as he correctly says in his autobiography he was unable 'to influence or even examine more than a tiny fraction of the vast Stationery Office output'. This statement does modi ••••••••  'Harry Carter and I had ourselves to do such significant typographical work as was done'. Unless this is read as the comment of the computer supplier who claimed 'IBM and I share 80% of the computer market!'


[Forward to part 2 including Personal impression of Harry Carter by A H P]
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