Tschichold was the son of a provincial signwriter, and he was trained in calligraphy. This artisan background and calligraphic training set him apart from almost all other noted typographers of the time, since they had inevitably trained in architecture or the fine arts. It also may help explain why he never worked with handmade papers and custom fonts as many typographers did, preferring instead to use stock fonts on a careful choice from commercial paper stocks.
After the election of Hitler in Germany, all designers had to register with the Ministry of Culture, and all teaching posts were threatened for anyone who was sympathetic to communism. Soon after Tschichold had taken up a teaching post in Munich at the behest of Paul Renner, they both were denounced as "cultural Bolshevists". Ten days after the Nazis surged to power in March 1933, Tschichold and his wife were arrested. During the arrest, Soviet posters were found in his flat, casting him under suspicion of collaboration with communists. All copies of Tschichold's books were seized by the Gestapo "for the protection of the German people". After six weeks a policeman somehow found him tickets for Switzerland, and he and his family managed to escape Nazi Germany in August 1933.
Apart from two longer stays in England in 1937–1937 (at the invitation of the Penrose Annual), and 1947–1949 (at the invitation of Ruari McLean, the British typographer, with whom he worked on the design of Penguin Books), Tschichold lived in Switzerland for the rest of his life. Jan Tschichold died in the hospital at Locarno in 1974.
Tschichold had converted to Modernist design principles in 1923 after visiting the first Weimar Bauhaus exhibition. He became a leading advocate of Modernist design: first with an influential 1925 magazine supplement; then a 1927 personal exhibition; then with his most noted work Die neue Typographie. This book was a manifesto of modern design, in which he condemned all typefaces but sans-serif (called Grotesk in Germany). He also favoured non-centered design (e.g., on title pages), and codified many other Modernist design rules. He advocated the use of standardised paper sizes for all printed matter, and made some of the first clear explanations of the effective use of different sizes and weights of type in order to quickly and easily convey information. This book was followed with a series of practical manuals on the principles of Modernist typography which had a wide influence among ordinary workers and printers in Germany. Yet, despite his visits to England just before the war, only about four articles by Tschichold had been translated into English by 1945.
Although Die neue Typographie remains a classic, Tschichold slowly abandoned his rigid beliefs from around 1932 onwards (e.g. his Saskia typeface of 1932, and his acceptance of classical Roman typefaces for body-type) as he moved back towards Classicism in print design. He later condemned Die neue Typographie as too extreme. He also went so far as to condemn Modernist design in general as being authoritarian and inherently fascistic.
Between 1947–1949 Tschichold lived in England where he oversaw the redesign of 500 paperbacks published by Penguin Books, leaving them with a standardized set of typographic rules, the Penguin Composition Rules. Although he gave Penguin's books (particularly the Pelican range) a unified look and enforced many of the typographic practices that are taken for granted today, he allowed the nature of each work to dictate its look, with varied covers and title pages. In working for a firm that made cheap mass-market paperbacks, he was following a line of work—in cheap popular culture forms (e.g. film posters)—that he had always pursued during his career.
His abandonment of Modernist principles meant that, even though he was living in Switzerland after the war, he was not at the centre of the post-war Swiss International Typographic Style. Unimpressed by the use of realist or neo-grotesque typefaces, which he saw as a revival of poorly-designed models, his survey of typefaces in advertising deliberately made no mention of such designs, save for a reference to 'survivals from the nineteenth-century which have recently enjoyed a short-lived popularity.'
Between 1926 and 1929, he designed a “universal alphabet” to clean up the few multigraphs and non-phonetic spellings in the German language. For example, he devised brand new characters to replace the multigraphs ch and sch. His intentions were to change the spelling by systematically replacing eu with oi, w with v, and z with ts. Long vowels were indicated by a macron below them, though the umlaut was still above. The alphabet was presented in one typeface, which was sans-serif and without capital letters.
Typefaces Tschichold designed include:
Sabon was designed to be a typeface that would give the same reproduction on both Monotype and Linotype systems. It was used early after its release by Bradbury Thompson to set the Washburn College Bible. A “Sabon Next” was later released by Linotype as an ‘interpretation’ of Tschichold's original Sabon.
- Schriften: 1925–1974 Band 1/2. Berlin, 1992.
- Die neue Typographie, Ein Handbuch für zeitgemäss Schaffende, Berlin, Verlag des Bildungsverbandes der Deutschen Buchdrucker, 1928.
- Typografische Entwurfstechnik, Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Dr Fritz Wedekind & Co., 1932.
- Ausgewählte Aufsätze über Fragen der Gestalt des Buches und der Typographie, 1948.
- Schatzkammer der Schreibkunst, Basel, 2. Aufl. 1949.
- Meisterbuch der Schrift. Ein Lehrbuch mit vorbildlichen Schriften aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart für Schriftenmaler, Graphiker, Bildhauer, Graveure, Lithographen, Verlagshersteller, Buchdrucker, Architekten und Kunstschulen, Ravensburg, 1952, 2. Aufl. 1965.
- Geschichte der Schrift in Bildern, Hamburg, 4. Aufl. 1961.
- De proporties van het boek (Die Proportionen des Buches), Amsterdam, 1991.
- Aynsley, Jeremy. Graphic Design in Germany, 1890–1945 (2000. University of California Press) ISBN 0-520-22796-4.
- Blackwell, Lewis. 20th Century Type (2004. Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-10073-6.
- Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style (1992. Hartley & Marks) ISBN 0-88179-033-8.
- Burke, Christopher. Active literature. Jan Tschichold and New Typography (2007. Hyphen Press) ISBN 978-0-907259-32-9.
- de Jong, Cees W., Alston W. Purvis, Martijn F. Le Coultre, Richard B. Doubleday and Hans Reichart. Jan Tschichold—Master Typographer: His Life, Work & Legacy (2008. Thames & Hudson) ISBN 978-0-500-51398-9.
- Doubleday, Richard B. Jan Tschichold, Designer: The Penguin Years (2006. Oak Knoll Press & Lund Humphries) ISBN 978-1-58456-178-1; ISBN 1-58456-178-5.
- Friedl, Friederich, Nicholas Ott and Bernard Stein. Typography: An encyclopedic survey of type design and techniques through history (1998. Black Dog & Leventhal) ISBN 1-57912-023-7.
- Macmillan, Neil. An A–Z of Type Designers (2006. Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-11151-7.
- McLean, Ruari. Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography (1997. Princeton Architectural Press) ISBN 1-56898-084-1.
- Meggs, Philip B. History of Graphic Design (1998. John Wiley & Sons) ISBN 0-470-04265-6.
- IDEA Magazine No 321: Works of Jan Tschichold. 
- Jan Tschichold—Posters of the AvantGarde written by Martijn F. Le Coultre and Alston W. Purvis page 21
- Jan Tschichold—Posters of the AvantGarde written by Martijn F. Le Coultre and Alston W. Purvis, p. 43, Fig 4. "Framework of ideal proportions in a medieval manuscript without multiple columns. Determined by Jan Tschichold 1953. Page proportion 2:3. margin proportions 1:1:2:3, Text area proportioned in the Golden Section. The lower outer corner of the text area is fixed by a diagonal as well."
- Richard Doubleday. "Jan Tschichold at Penguin Books" (PDF).
- Hollis, Richard (2006). Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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- www.tschichold.de (requires Flash plugin).
- Short biography of Jan Tschichold at Textism.
- Jan Tschichold: a titan of typography