The Black Rule is intimately connected to a typographic grid, and the paper it’s printed on. It’s the sign of the hand of a graphic designer who shows no sign of his hand. It’s not really necessary, but it’s critical to the identity of the work and the person who imagined it. It’s an indulgence wielded by an unusually unindulgent designer.
The Black Rule rocks the tradition of black as a marker of importance and formality. Black letter, black leather, black lingerie, black marks, black tie, the black box, black robes, the black frame that turns white paper into an obituary: the depth of black takes each situation and makes it more so. It’s a western tradition, this gravity of black; so deep-seated as to be unmistakable, even when not specific to the message. At the very least, black says, “Pay Attention.” (…“and by the way, the paper ends here”).
Now why is that parenthetic comment of any interest? Because the other thing The Black Rule is, is an anachronism. This from a designer known for his attachment to an ideal of timelessness. (It just goes to show that you can’t control everything, as much as you might like to). The Black Rule defines the edge of the paper, the space of the page, the hierarchy of heads and subheads, stops and starts. The width and depth of The Black Rule is proportionate to the grid. The grid was a regular, mathematically simple, framework for the sizing and proportioning of text and images, often driven by the proportion of the photographs, divided by the spaces between paragraphs. One thought of the spaces and boundaries of the old-school grid as being quite physical, devoid of ambiguity and capriciousness. Back in the day when a young designer had to take a piece of coated illustration board and draw a grid with non-reproducing blue pencil upon it, to start the work of laying out a poster or a brochure or a book, when all that work had to be done before you even began what you really needed to do, the right grid would simplify the options and efficiently speed the job along.
A digression is in order, here. There is a famous diagram by an august Swiss proponent of the grid that shows a typographic grid extended into a three-dimensional space: it’s just a room, but it might as well be stretching into infinity. If you saw the movie Tron, the one that sort of tried to visualize what William Gibson might have meant by cyberspace, it didn’t look that different from Josef Müller-Brockmann’s giant fishing-net of gridspace stretched like Lycra across all (Day-Glo and black) reality. But it turns out that there is no edge to cyberspace, not on a screen and not out there in the giant networked whatever. Only that which is solid has an edge: a wall, a building, a piece of paper. So the physicality of The Black Rule is an analogue of the finite, architecture reduced to two dimensions, connecting the structure of the grid to the field that it is defining (and it is definite); it has a beginning, points along the way that need support, and an end. So another way of looking at The Black Rule is to not see it as superfluous at all, but as important to a poster as a 2 x 4 might be to holding up a tract house. You can’t just saw it off and expect things to stand up. Because the grid without some sort of dynamic support is just a (theoretically endless) field of options, and The Black Rule provides a decisiveness that turns out to be quite affective, and obviously fetching.