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John Edward Pitson MBE

English-born typographer and Director (Typography) of the Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS) best known for the publication of the Style manual for authors, editors and printers.



John Pitson, who died on 25th November 2010, aged 92, made a lasting impression on the standard of the publications produced by the Australian Government through the publication of the highly respected Style Manual for authors, editors and printers.  In so doing he moved the information produced by the Commonwealth Government from the cramped and arcane and disordered into the modern era, and left sufficiently strong foundations for the process to continue even in the current fragmentary forms of media.

Pitson brought to Australian government publications ideas he had learnt during his 13 years in the Layout Section of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) in London. Here, working under Harry Carter and with Sir Francis Meynell as Honorary Typographic Adviser, he developed a strong reforming passion and an understanding of the need for clear purposeful decision making. He quoted Meynell’s response when asked advice on typography, ‘You are an ingenious chap, Pitson, and I’m sure you will find an answer’.

He was born in Buckland Cottage, Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire England. One of five children, he was educated at Slough Secondary and Harrow County where he matriculated with honours and then apprenticed as a compositor at HMSO’s Harrow Press. He joined the RAF in 1939 as a fitter/armourer and served in England and Western Europe during WWII. In 1943 he married Freda Instone.

It was at war’s end that he joined the embryonic HMSO design team and soon their work was recognised. As Beatrice Warde noted in the article entitled ‘Typographic Transformations‘, ‘When HMSO calls in some of the best typographic talent of our day, and brilliantly restyles its whole range of publications, that is   news. It means that “official printing” is no longer being considered as something that can afford to look dreary. Today it must look worthy of the nation that produced it.’ That was what Pitson sought to inspire in the publications issuing from the government in Australia.

He arrived in Australia in 1964 to take up the position of Director of Typography in the Government Printing Office in Canberra where he was in his own words ‘ringmaster in my own (antipodean) circus’ and in November that year was invested by the Governor-General at Government House, Canberra with an MBE awarded for his work in the UK.

Pitson’s task was to implement the design and production recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary and Government Publications, chaired by Dudley Erwin MP. This committee produced a wide range of recommendations covering all aspects of design, printing and distribution. Recommendation 75: The need for a Typographer  describes his job as, ‘ “to achieve harmony” between the typeface, composition, margins, paper, binding, etc., “and legibility” ‘.

With the full support of the Government Printer, Albert Arthur, he took up the challenge. His first acts were to update the range of type faces held by the printing office and to produce a handsome type book. He modernised the layout of Parliamentary Papers, then with the support of the Committee began the introduction of International paper sizes. This was an important first step as before their introduction the Government Printer (and all other Australian printers) had to hold at least 15 different sizes of paper in several grades and weights ready for any printing request. Any reduction here would produce substantial savings in many areas.

By 1966 he, with fellow committee members, had produced the first edition of the Style Manual for authors, editors and printers  of Australian Government publications. This publication was influential in standardising Commonwealth publications. The Style Manual   was on almost every desk and office of anyone who had to produce information and not only for Government publications. It was reprinted in 1968, a second edition in 1972, and reprinted twice in 1974. David Whitbread one of the authors of the latest edition says, ‘ . . .  when I was invited to be an author of the sixth edition (released in 2002), we went back to John’s original edition to review its content and noted that, in subsequent editions, content had been lost that was now required again — so we reintroduced some of his topics and advice in the sixth edition. Much of his advice was timeless in its sensibility and I realised just how much of that original volume had remained unchanged, even recognising some of the original diagrams’.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the appointment of John Pitson as Typographer to the new AGPS, and the subsequent growth of the AGPS design section, prompted the development of the Graphic Design industry in Canberra. Departments soon became aware of the benefits of well-designed publications and freelance studios rapidly developed to supplement the work of AGPS and to service the growing sophistication of clients. The demand for qualified staff brought designers from around Australia and overseas until Graphic Design courses offered at Canberra Institute of Technology and the University of Canberra were able to fill the gap. During this period the ACT branch of the NSW Chapter of the Industrial Design Institute of Australia (IDIA) was formed and John Pitson was among its early members.

After this intense period of work John retired in 1978. He became a volunteer with the Australian Executive Service Overseas Program (AESOP) and worked in Samoa and Fiji.

In 1957 the Pitsons adopted two children, Liz and Bob. Freda died in 1984 after a long illness. In 1985 he married Nancye Blakely who predeceased him. Pitson is survived by daughter Liz and son Bob, two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

• John Edward Pitson, typographer and administrator, born 15 July 1918; died 25 November 2010, aged 92

Prepared by Adrian Young, with assistance from Liz Bree, daughter of John Pitson, Richard Farmer and David Marshal ex AGPS, David Whitbread who worked on the current edition of the Style Manual and Phillip Marriage ex HMSO London

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