The functional role of the page number is simple: it provides order and sequence to a text. And while it is a supremely utilitarian design element, more thought is put into it than you might imagine. Should it go at the top or the bottom of the page? In the right or left margin? Or in the center? These are all conscious and deliberate choices made by designers.
The designer who is perhaps most responsible for modern page-number placement is Jan Tschichold. Born in Switzerland and educated at the Leipzig Academy of the Arts, Tschichold fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and eventually settled in London. From 1947 to 1949, he worked at Penguin Books, where he masterminded the uniformly elegant and simplistic design of the imprint’s paperbacks that persists today.
But Tschichold’s mark went deeper than just book covers; he created an entire set of house instructions for the company’s books. And for Tschichold, folios (the word used by designers for page numbers) were governed by the same principles he emphatically stressed in all aspects of book design. Chief among these principles was clarity. “This,” he wrote in his 1928 book The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers, “puts [the new typography] into deliberate opposition to the old typography whose aim was ‘beauty’ and whose clarity did not attain the high level we require today.”
Tschichold was adamant that folios should exist to facilitate that logical sequence and provide a guide for the eye when skimming to quickly access needed information (“Reading presupposes eye movement,” he observed). To that end, his instructions for Penguin specified that folios should be the same typeface and size as the rest of the text, and in Arabic numerals.
One significant point of design that Tschichold abandoned was the practice of subordinating the organization of all text elements around an invisible central axis (stay with me here.) What that means is that a designer builds out all the design elements of a book from that nonexistent axis “as if there were some focal point in the center of a line which would justify such an arrangement,” Tschichold wrote. But this, he determined, imposed an artificial central order on the layout of a text. It was an illogical practice, because readers don’t start reading from the center of a book, but from the sides.