Archives for category: Book design

As Thrym & Ellen point out at the start of their post Stellar Book Jacket, Jan Tschichold advised against putting anything meaningful on those disposable pieces of advertising, book jackets. Fair enough: I’ve advised the same policy with regard to endpapers. Thrym and Ellen have however come up with a cunning counter example.

This star chart is the folded-out jacket of The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H. A. Rey. You can see the folds for the flaps at the top and the bottom of the picture. Unsurprisingly the spine area has taken the most damage. Rey (born Hans Augusto Reyersbach) was half, with his wife Margaret, of the team which brought us the original Curious George. They wrote the first six volumes of what has become almost a publishing industry of its own. You can see at the link above that the jacket also gave you a horizon chart before you unfolded it completely.

The book is still in print, though no doubt the fold-out jacket has been abandoned along the way. A second-hand version of the 1952 1st edition is available at Amazon for $75.00. The condition of the dust jacket, which apparently carries the original piece of $4 is described as “Very good”. Go for it: you’ll never see a more thoroughly functional jacket.

The first thing that struck me about Keith Houston’s The Book (W. W. Norton, 2016, $29.95) was the deconstructed binding. It’s like a three-piece binding without the sides. The only bit of cloth is the red spine. The bare binders board is exposed front and back, teaching by showing how a book’s case is constructed. I don’t think you can make it out in this photo, but the only thing on the back board which isn’t printed black on the raw board is the barcode. In order that the barcode should be scannable (i.e. have sufficient definition and clarity) they have had to print it on a white label and stick it (very straight and accurately) onto the board. It’s wonderful what these Chinese book manufacturers can (still) do.

You can see the braces down the side of the copy identifying the different elements. This technique (again, teaching by showing) continues inside the book, as can be seen from this photo of page 1.

Every Chinese schoolchild can (allegedly) tell you that Cai Lun invented paper, and Mr Houston tells the story, with narrative aplomb. Mark Kurlansky doesn’t beat about that bush “Cai Lun did not invent paper” he states in his Prologue: after his account Mr Houston also reveals to us that records exist of paper being made in China long before Cai Lun’s time, but his story is the one that sticks in the mind.

Mr Houston is a reliable and entertaining narrator. I think it’s fair to say that in his 26 pages about paper making you will develop a better understanding of the procedure than you’d garner from the entire 336-page volume Paper by Mr Kurlansky.

The focus of the book is historical. We learn about the development of writing systems, the making of papyrus, the growing popularity of parchment and paper, the work of scribes, all the major figures in book history, plus how what we now expect in a book and its format came to evolve. It’s not that you won’t develop an understanding of today’s book manufacturing industry — you’ll just pick it up as it were along the way. And the author does end the book with a very detailed colophon telling us all about this particular book’s manufacture, in China where we seem to have to go nowadays to get anything done in the old-fashioned ways at an affordable price.

The book is generously annotated. There are 62 pages of endnotes, and a sprinkling of footnotes. There isn’t a complete bibliography; rather a 3-page list of Further Reading, which is I guess OK. You can dig anything special out of the endnotes. Many color illustrations are spread throughout, printed on the cream text stock: some of these are a bit flat and murky though.

This is a very good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Mr Houston, who is the man behind the Shady Characters blog, will be giving a talk on book history at The British Library on 3 July. I bet it’ll be worth the ten quid.


We habitually refer to anything appearing at the top of the page, other than the folio, as a running head. Properly speaking, though, a running head is one that changes as we go through the book, giving a description of the material appearing on that page, or spread. Usually a running head will appear only on the recto, with the verso carrying the Part title, the Chapter title, or at a pinch the book’s title. This unchanging head should properly be termed a page head or headline.

We rarely use real running heads nowadays: they cost extra, since you can’t decide what they should say until the book has been paged, so they lead to an extra step in the proofing process. As a compromise we occasionally use the section titles as a sort of running head. Dictionaries usually have proper running heads, telling you the range of words covered on that page. Bibles also tend to have truly descriptive running heads, providing a sort of commentary on what appears on the page. A careful publisher will give you a running head in the endnotes section, providing the text page range for which notes can be found on each page of notes. This makes the endnotes much easier to use, and I wish it was always done.

As Judith Butcher points out in Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for editors, authors and publishers “Running heads are unnecessary unless they help the reader to find a particular part of the book”. Thus most novels will not have anything at the top of the page unless the publisher has wanted to waste space to make a short book seem more substantial. A page head giving you the book’s title only doesn’t provide you with any information — we can assume, I think, that the readers are aware what book it is they are reading! If that’s all you can think of to put up there, keep quiet. Innocent publishing novices may assume that a book needs to have running heads in order to look like a book: wrong — it will only need running heads if it needs running heads to provide navigational help to the reader. But try telling that to some enthusiasts.

See also my raised nose on the subject of running feet.

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.)