Archives for category: Book design

01-e1481908042903Literary Hub shows some pretty nice covers in their post The 60 Best Book Covers of 2016, as Chosen by Designers. The first one, shown here, is fascinating, and unsurprisingly was selected by seven of the designers. I think the type must have been “set” using an Xacto knife, working on a print of the hands. It makes it look like the words have been carved out of the flesh.

Giambattista Bodoni was born in Saluzzo in northern Italy in 1740. His father and his grandfather were printers but at the age of 18 the ambitious Giambattista decamped to Rome. After a while he succeeded in getting work at the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s missionary department which had a printing office. There he got exposure to their many foreign types.

He was tipped as the printer to the Duke of Parma and went there in 1768. He spent the rest of his life in Parma. Like so many 18th century printers Bodoni fell in love with the work of John Baskerville, who revolutionized the print world by achieving a lighter pressure allowing for thinner lines on smoother paper. The extensive use of white space, which Bodoni favored in imitation of Baskerville, established our preference nowadays for well spaced type. One of the tour-de-force works he printed was a book with the Lord’s Prayer in 155 different languages, many with their own typeface: this he presented to the Pope in 1806.


From a typographical point of view, probably his most important work is his Manuale Tipografica which was eventually printed by his widow who took over the business when Bodoni died in 1813. You can see on the title page the reference to La Vedova, the widow.

Bodoni’s typefaces, archetypical modern face, feature very thin serifs. A warning: do not try to reverse Bodoni out of a solid color (don’t try to reverse any type out of 4-color process, unless it’s very large). The thin serifs will plug if you do and make you look like a fool!

The Columbia University Book History Colloquium sponsored a talk in September by Valerie Lester who recently published a biography of Bodoni.

Serifs are those little strokes at the top and bottom of most typefaces — but not the one used here. Here’s a basic picture of serifs (in red) from the Wikipedia article on the subject:


There’s more to this than that of course. The Mergenthaler Type Library categorizes its typefaces by the nature of their serifs. They classify into five groups, “Old Face”, “Transitional”, “Modern Face”, “Slab Serif”, and “Sans Serif”, which last describes the font in which you are reading these words.

Gutenberg’s earliest types were all Fraktur/Black letter (occasionally referred to as Old English), 200px-schriftzug_fraktur-svgwhich does of course have twirly bits which could be referred to as serifs, or at least could justify the Italian printers who first introduced Roman types in their decision not to eliminate serifs. Of course, serifs, although unnamed at that time, were familiar from ancient Roman stone inscriptions, and these were an explicit model for the early typesetters. There’s some suggestion that the flicks which serifs mimic represent the action of the pen as it is released from the paper at the end of a stroke. The Roman precedent however seems satisfactorily determinative for a craft being developed in the Renaissance, where classical knowledge was being busily recovered and distributed.

img_0400was the first Roman font (though it was done as Italic only initially). You can see that the serifs are bracketed — they get thicker as they get closer to the vertical stroke of the letter. Classic old style. One might imagine Francesco Griffo who cut it for Aldus Manutius modeling his letters on Trajan’s Column:


img_0005may be taken as the typical transitional font. Though transitional serifs are little different from old style: the label seems almost to be there as a signpost rather than as anything actual. John Baskerville (1705-1776) gained a huge reputation as a printer, though his main business was japanning. The serifs on his types are bracketed still, but a little less so, and the whole letter is lighter, thinner than old style types. This was related to advances in printing technology, but doesn’t really amount to a revolution, though much excitement was aroused across Europe.

Designers exist to create difference so naturally someone thought “Why must there be brackets?” Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) designed the first modern face, img_0401with serifs which are just straight lines.  The brackets, however, remain on the serifs at the righthand ends of horizontals: the cap E has unbracketed at the left, but bracketed serifs at the right. Aesthetics prevail over theory again!

Slab Serifs are unmistakable. Memphis can stand as an example. img_0006 As you can see the serifs are aggressively straight. Such mannered fonts ought really to be restricted to display, but naturally enough we can always manage to find some innovation-mad designer who can’t resist the temptation of setting text in a slab-serif typeface.

The origin of the word “serif” is not altogether clear. The OED suggests it may have come from the Dutch schreef, meaning line, stroke or mark, though its earliest example (1785) spells the word “ceriph” which might appear to argue against that derivation. On the other hand the word is odd enough to scream “borrowed from another language” and schreef does appear to be the Dutch word for it.

Are serifs any use, or are they just decorative convention? The eye chart you are exposed to at the optician’s tends to use sans serif type, but whether sans serif or serif type is more legible seems to be difficult to establish. Legibility is affected by many factors, and little real research has been done. In so far as any conclusions can be made, it would appear that serifs are actually irrelevant to legibility. Some research seems to indicate that (surprise, surprise) we find it easier to understand the familiar than something new. So serifs are probably there because we are used to their being there.

Dawkins-covers-250x156No doubt the heading makes you think letterpress or some other ancient technology, but no. This revival is of a technology merely 30 or so years old. The Digital Reader, who does quietly point out that Penguin’s claims may be a trifle overstated, tells us that PRH have rescued a Pascal program Richard Dawkins created in 1986 and set up a website,, on which you too can enjoy playing with “ancient technology”. Some results can be seen in the covers for the latest reprints of Dawkins’ books.

Erik Kwakkel, invaluable medieval book person, has been measuring the proportion of the page occupied by the text in medieval books and finds it to come out around 50% — generous by today’s more cheese-paring standards. His post at Medieval Books shows several examples. Nowadays we often see around 70% in trade paperbacks and our most generous designs seem to get down to 55% or so.

One of the surprising features of these numbers is how high the trade paperback number looks. But the number is misleading. 70% sounds like the type must be really packed onto the page — but the example below, which is at about 70%, doesn’t really look too bad. Maybe we have just become conditioned to less white paper surrounding our type.


One reason for the larger margins in medieval books was to allow marginal annotation. Erik Kwakkel also attributes it to conservatism: it had just always been like that. Another might have been the knowledge that, as very valuable objects books would be kept for years and rebound over and over again. Every time the book was rebound a small amount of the margin would be lost.

On margin proportions see also Margins.


CjvIFiHXEAEHQ3hErik Kwakkel shows this picture from the Bodleian Library via Twitter. The Bodleian caption describes it thus “Transparent vellum binding by Edwards of Halifax, c.1785. Members of the Edwards family took out a patent in 1785 for the process of rendering vellum transparent by soaking it in pearl ash and subjecting it to high pressure. They also made a speciality of painting landscapes on the fore-edges of books: this volume shows a painting of the falls of Tivoli, but it is only visible when the pages are fanned out.” You can zoom in on the image at the Bodleian’s Luna site, here. More information about the process and its patenting by Edwards of Halifax at CoolConservation. This piece expresses uncertainty as to whether the patent covered both the treatment of the vellum or the method of painting on the back, or only one of the two.

Booktryst has a story about Cedric Chivers of Bath who version of this process was called Vellucent binding. This story has several images showing quite elaborate transparent vellum binding. It looks to me that the processes differ in that the Edwards of Halifax process involved painting or printing the design in reverse on the back of the translucent vellum, lining that with a white sheet, and then binding the pair onto the boards. Mr Chivers’ Vellucent technique had the design painted onto the backing sheet, then covered by the vellum to make one “indisseverable” sheet.

A Vellucent binding

A Vellucent binding


While these binding processes no doubt have their own special character we would recognize them today as lamination applied to a paper over boards, particularly a matte lam. Designers seeking the translucent effect can now use a paper substitute, though as far as I know nobody has been printing on the back of such a paper.


The Digital Reader provides instructions on how to get a variety of typefaces for your e-reader.

220px-ComicSansSpec3.svgTo me, if you are worrying about the typeface it is set in, the book you are reading probably isn’t really holding your attention. I dare say War and Peace in Comic Sans* might be a trial, though I still can’t believe it would actually stop anyone reading. If you can put up with wildly varying word space, forced in so that every line ends up aligned left and right, sometimes with letter space too, surely the actual form of the letters must be as nothing to you. Of course there are people who just love to play around with their devices almost to prove that they can “defeat” them. So if you want an alternative look, here you go.


*Because of the prominence of this illustration of Microsoft’s Comic Sans, I should perhaps point out that Comic Sans is NOT one of the faces The Digital Reader is proposing you might download for your e-reading device.

(See also Design of e-books.)

old transferIn the good old, bad old days, before computers were omnipresent, designers used to spend hours rubbing away at transfer sheets of letters. Letraset was the brand leader but we are really talking about dry transfer type. The Letraset company still exists and continues to sell its transfer sheets. It was founded in 1959, at which point mechanical artists (I mean people creating mechanicals for printing, not guys drawing car engines) heaved a sigh of relief. They no longer had to send out to a jobbing typesetter to get type set for their mechanicals; they could just pick up a sheet of Letraset from their local art supply store and apply it directly to their boards.

The sheet carrying the transfer type had a bit of tack to it, so it wouldn’t slip about, and came with a protective backing sheet of tissue paper. As you can see from the picture there was a dashed alignment guidance system below every letter. Like the guy in the picture, most people didn’t really use this. We weren’t “setting” Letraset for long paragraphs of type: just for the title and author on a book jacket, say. You’d rub off the letter using a pencil, or a special rubbing tool, lift away the carrier sheet and burnish the letter by placing the tissue paper backing sheet over the line of type and rubbing a smooth-sided object back and forth over it until the letters were well and truly bonded to the board. Although they wouldn’t just fall off the letters remained fragile — you could easily damage them by failing to pay attention, and of course mechanicals were always themselves protected by a covering layer of thin paper.

With most e-books the “look” of the “page” is not really under the control of the publisher. The book will appear as it does on Kindle because of the layout parameters decided on by Amazon; same with iBooks and Apple. The only ways a publisher can fully determine the layout is to put the book up as a PDF, which makes it basically just a series of pictures of pages, or to design their own user interface. In the worlds of non-entertainment reading, this is happening more frequently.

Kevin Callahan gives sane practical advice at Digital Book World on how to design for e-books. The things you can do are different from what we are used to in the print world, but that doesn’t mean there’s no scope for creativity. After this week’s meeting of The Book Industry Guild of New York, ably organized and moderated by Kathy Sandler, I have won through to the realization that e-book design is more about designing things so that they’ll work, rather than designing them so they’ll look nice. In the world of physical books we are the heirs of generations of design of this nuts-and-bolts sort: we all knew that bibliographies went at the back rather than spread throughout the text, that tables could be set up this way for easy comprehension, and so on. And design for print books was all about appearance: if it looked right, it worked right — the user’s eye and brain would interpret the information in the agreed way, and it would instantly be understandable. Now we have to design for function not just for appearance. I’m not sure what the state of play is on table design: as far as I can tell there’s really no way to make a table (bigger than a couple of columns) work on an iPhone. This is one of the reasons I remain sanguine about the prospects of the print academic book.

To a very limited extent the look of the page is under the control of the reader. You can change the Kindle font, choosing among eight options one of which is called “Publisher font”, which may or may not mean anything. They recently added a new font called Open Dyslexic. I guess they’ve tested it and know it helps. You can enlarge or reduce the size of the type, change the leading, make the type black on white, white out of black, and or black on a sepia color. Your options are however controlled by the interface creator.

3046678-inline-3046678-slide-s-5-the-kindle-finally-gets-some-typography-that-doesnt-suckKindle recently introduced a new typeface, Bookerly, which looks quite nice. It was designed for them by Monotype. The Passive Voice tells us of Co.Design’s piece about the new Kindle typography. Digital Book World deflates the whole thing: it’s not the fonts, it’s the justification stupid! It is annoying that Kindle insists on justification: on an iPhone screen this leads to many crazy spacing “decisions”. Better however than one book I have from Project Gutenberg where every line throughout the book is centered! I think you may be able to do something about changing the default on the Kindle itself, but not I think on the Kindle app. The latest version of the app has improved things a bit by introducing hyphenation, but as far as I can tell you cannot get to a even-word-spaced-ragged right layout, like this blog, which is what one really wants. (Obviously the Kindle and the iPad, with their bigger screens, therefore more words per line, do work better in this regard.)


Photo: Wired

Photo: Wired

Wired magazine shows spreads from this Chanel book with no ink, which of course makes one think of Braille. Irma Boom sees it importantly as an anti-digital book: on screen it’s nothing — you have to touch it to “read” it.

Louisiana Channel provides a video of Ms Boom discussing The Architecture of the Book, a sort on rolling catalog of her past projects. Each version of this is 9% larger than the previous edition, so as she says when she gets to be 80 the book will be the sort of size we expect design tomes to be. She discusses the architect’s-model-like books she makes before engaging in a production so she can check out “the distribution of text and image”. It features a very small book, made by someone else in the fifties, which has to be smaller than what I advertised as the world’s smallest book in my post from March 2013.

Click on the link “My manifesto for a book” at Louisiana Channel and learn what a nightmare working with a designer who knows their mind must be. The book under discussion is Sheila Hicks: Weaving as metaphor, published by Yale University Press, apparently successfully (in the video she refers to a fourth printing), although the publisher did at one point suggest that following her design might bankrupt them. You can also find a link there to “A tribute to Coco Chanel”, which discusses the inkless book.

See also my previous post Boom books from October last year.