Archives for category: Book design

That’s what we in the book making game call most anything in a book which isn’t type: the book’s graphic component. Obviously a four-color reproduction of the Mona Lisa qualifies as art, but so too do all photos, however gross and unattractive they may be. Any graphs, pie charts, bar graphs, diagrams of the digestive system or whatever, genealogical charts, drawn maps — all drawings in short, are also art. We tend to call this stuff line art, in order to differentiate it from halftone art, which is the photos.

The word art is here a contraction of artwork, which is what we might call it if we were being a bit more formal. I believe we might commission artwork from a graphic artist, and once we had it, talk of it as art. The art for the book, collectively speaking, is the art program. The copyeditor, or an editorial assistant will tape a little label to the back of the piece of art, positioned so that it shows from the front at the bottom. This is the art label and will carry the ID number for that piece of art. The same person will compile a detailed listing of the art program including the ID numbers. This list is called the art log, and will travel with the manuscript as it progresses through the system (along with, one hopes, all the various pieces of art). There’s an unfortunate tendency for bits of art to be late in arriving, perhaps because the author can’t get permission, or the draftsman’s running late, but even absent art must be included in the art log. This art log will include directions as to the prominence or treatment of various bits of art — full page; may bleed; lighten up; must fall on same opening as text reference on msp (manuscript page) 237; crop this or that bit (cut off — well no cutting is done, here we just mean “do not include”); and so on. At some point someone, probably a designer, will size the art, and the sizing information will be entered in the art log too. To size art you indicate what reduction (or occasionally enlargement) factor should be applied to the original in order to make it end up the size you want it to be. In other words, you don’t say “make it as wide as the text” you either mark it “63%” or indicate the final dimension on the edge of the piece of art, with a couple of tick marks showing the limits. Sizing (and cropping) is often shown on a tissue overlay. We would aim to keep original art in the same condition in which we received it: occasionally you are dealing with a valuable piece. (Nowadays of course, with our end-to-end digital workflows, things are naturally rather different.)

The most elaborate bit of art in the book will probably be the jacket art. This will be just the picture used, without any of the type showing title, author etc. When these elements are combined, you are looking at the jacket mechanical.

We are used to this sort of encomium being directed at Gutenberg’s Bible, but Edward Burne-Jones, not totally disinterested it’s true — he did the illustrations — when he spoke of “a pocket cathedral . . . the finest book ever printed” was referring to The Kelmscott Chaucer.

The University of Delaware has organized an exhibition, which is available online here, to mark the 125th anniversary of the book’s publication on 26 June 1896. There are events worldwide, and a comprehensive list may be found at The William Morris Society’s website.

This prospectus describes the binding options for the book, and offers copies at prices which of course startle today’s readers. Notice the warning about the ink used: a full year’s drying was required before the sheets would be safe for folding and forwarding!

William Morris established the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith in January 1891. Between then and 1898, the press produced 53 books (totaling around 18,000 copies). After an age which had ushered in mass production, Morris wanted to demonstrate that the craft standards of the past could be repeated – even surpassed – in the present. Kelmscott books reinvigorated the ideals of book design and inspired better standards of production. Numerous other presses were set up to perpetuate Morris’ aims, including the Doves, Eragny, Ashendene and Vale Presses. Fine arts printing is important of course, but we had to wait till the 1930s for the practical application of these design principles to “normal” books. Stanley Morison was central to this design revolution. Today’s book buyer has to thank William Morris that today’s production values aren’t even worse than we’ve allowed them to become.

I have to confess that William Morris, socialist though he was, was always a bit of too much for me. Earnestness is of course important, but it can be a bit wearing. Remember the fashion for Morris wallpapers and furnishing fabrics: too intense. And books to my mind do benefit from white space. Still, a great, energetic and good man.

I often find myself suppressing the urge to use the word font when talking about typefaces. A typeface is a design for type — Times Roman is a typeface, as is Helvetica Neue, the typeface used here I believe. Properly speaking a font is all the Times Roman or Helevetica Neue characters needed for say 14 point setting. See Font for a clearer definition.

Here’s a sensible set of advice about text design from The Design Team. Under the heading The Type Snob they do actually include the advice to give up on that trivial vocabulary distinction. Well, I’ll try. 

It may not be immediately obvious to the outsider, but the first step the book designer needs to take is to decide what typeface (oops, font) will be used for the text. The text comprises the majority of the words in the book, so it’s appropriately basic. If you get wedded to a display face, you’ll probably struggle to get to a matching text font. Leave the fancy stuff for later. So how does the designer decide the text will be set in Times Roman or in Helvetica Neue? (In the case of this blog the decision comes as part and parcel with the layout template provided by WordPress.)

In the olden, hot-metal days the requirement that the printer you were going to use actually had the typeface you wanted was clearly fundamental. In a hot metal world you might find that Caslon was available at printer X only in 10, 12, and 18 point sizes for Roman and Italic, 10 and 12 for Bold, 10, 14, and 18pt for Bold Italic. If the book was going to have lots of footnotes, you’d need maybe an 8 point size — so either you changed printer or more likely changed typeface. This constraint continued into film setting days. Nowadays this is no longer an issue as the fonts travel in the computer files along with the text.

So back then there was much consulting of printers’ type books. The bigger printers would have many typefaces, so choice was not lacking. Certain faces were considered appropriate for certain subject matters — we might use Modern for science because the printer had an unrivaled array of mathematical sorts. Garamond, Bembo and such old style faces were considered appropriate for literary topics. We often inclined to Ehrhardt as it could squeeze a lot of text onto a page. Unless there’s a compelling reason you should avoid setting the text of a book in any sans serif face — the presence of a small serif improves readability, and sans should be reserved for headings (if you have to), signage and adverts. A further problem with most sans faces is the confusion potential between Cap “eye”, the number 1 and lower case “ell”. Under all circumstances fancy fonts like Comic Sans should be shunned.

The aim of good typography is that it should be invisible, operating at a subconscious level. You don’t want the reader stopping and exclaiming “What a beautiful W” or, worse, the opposite. The only communication which should be going on is between author and reader. Designers are not part of the conversation: they should aim to be just the air through which the sound waves travel..

London Remembers added this blue plaque* to their collection of lost memorials as it had been left off the front of 22-23 Chiswell Street after the redesign of the entranceway. (Link via a tweet from Typographica.) The Caslon Letter Foundry had operated there from 1734 till 1936. Turns out that a couple of months later the plaque reappeared — so pilgrimages can resume. Spitalfields Life has an article about the foundry with a large gallery of photos. There’s a link there to a piece about Caslon which also has lots of illustrations.

William Caslon is, of course, remembered as the designer of the eponymous typeface.He needs however to be referred to as William I, as he came out of Halesowen to found a type founding dynasty in London. He started out as an apprentice with the Worshipful Company of Loriners in 1706. Loriners, often lorimers, make the metal parts for horse bridles. Caslon allegedly focussed on engraving metal pieces, especially gun locks, a task which also seems to have fallen to the loriner. Around 1720 the talented young man was set up as a type founder by John Watts, William Bower, and A. N. Other. Good timing. In 1722 Caslon was commissioned by SPCK (the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the third oldest English publisher after CUP and OUP) to cut an Arabic typeface. SPCK liked it, but even more did people like the Roman letter used at the bottom of the specimen sheet to identify the type founder. Printer Samuel Palmer got Caslon to cut an entire Roman alphabet, and so successful did Caslon’s Pica Roman become that very quickly England was transformed from an importer of type into an exporter. The face gained a world-wide following: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both set in Caslon type.

Caslon came to be the “British” typeface. It’s an old-style face rather than transitional like the almost contemporary Baskerville (well, fifty years later actually), and it took off from older Dutch designs, tidying them up and generating a feeling of straightforward solidity and geometrical balance. In weird slap-in-the-face mode the first biography of James Baskerville was printed at Cambridge University Press in 1907 using Caslon’s type. And this despite the fact that Baskerville’s original punches and matrices were owned by CUP. Into the nineteenth century Caslon enjoyed its continuing popularity, but gradually fell out of favor in time to be resuscitated in the twentieth century type renaissance in Britain.

Here’s a type specimen which includes down the right hand side Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Samaritan and Coptic, and at the bottom, Saxon. Keep clicking on it if you want to get into it.


*These blue plaques are quite widespread across London — there are apparently more than 950 of them. They usually note the fact that famous person X lived here. The scheme started in 1866 and is now administered by English Heritage.

Claude Garamont (c.1510-61) worked in Paris as a punchcutter during a time of rapid development in typeface design. The typeface which bears his name, Garamond, is characterized by a light elegance, and with its low x-height, a fairly compact look. His italic is less favored than his Roman, and indeed sometimes the italic cut by Robert Granjon (1513-1589 or 1590) is used in conjunction with Garamond’s Roman.* Garamond was one of the earliest type designers to insist that Italic Caps should be slanted like the lower case characters.

As an elegant, classy typeface Garamond was often favored by designers for literary topics. When first introduced it represented a shake-up in the world of type design, taking over as it did from the much heavier, German-influenced typefaces. It achieved lots of imitators, among them Caslon which ended up being used for the Declaration of Independence. Bear in mind that back then copying a typeface wasn’t as straightforward as it is today. You had to get down to it, get out your loupe and graver, and duplicate the work of the original punchcutter in metal. No surprise that your version might differ a little from Mr Garamont’s original. Some would differ more than others, and would in their turn generate different family lines of faces.

In the illustration below who can wonder why they chose to emphasize that lower case g? This must be as close as we can get to perfection of g. (I have to hang my head in shame at the version of that letter provided by the face used by this blog.)

Mental Floss brings us the startling news that the D.C. Circuit Court has written to lawyers telling them not to use Garamond in their filings. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.)This anti-Garamondism appears to have nothing to do with that flurry of anti-French sentiment a few years back which saw French fries having to be renamed Freedom fries — it’s apparently all to do with size. The court claims that Garamond “appears smaller” and alleges that using it allows lawyers to exceed length limits on their briefs. Surely they could just switch to a word count limit rather than a page count.

One possible justification for the decision is the fact that Garamond doesn’t render particularly well on a computer screen. Here’s a post from Design for hackers which explains this.

The Court should perhaps be careful about the expression of its motivation. I once spent hours going through type books figuring out what the tightest setting typeface would be — and Garamond was not the winner. The typeface allowing you to cram most characters onto a page turns out to be (maybe was then) Weidemann. We did use the Weidemann in a Bible — this may not be the most elegant Bible ever printed, but it must be a contender for the fewest pages for the largest type. It might, I suppose, be argued that Garamond’s low x-height allows you to use less leading than other faces demand, thus fitting a line or two more onto any given type area.


*However Garamond’s Italic ampersand is something to behold, and should never be lost.

Fortunately this extravagant flight of fancy is preserved in Matthew Carter’s Galliard Italic. Galliard was introduced in 1978 and is the typeface used in the Library of America volumes. Carter followed Granjon in designing his Galliard, and I speculate whether this ampersand was actually Granjon’s not Garamond’s, incorporated into the design for Monotype Garamond Italic in the 1920s when so many “lost” typefaces were reintroduced to the world of printing.

“Booksellers Against Trick Spines” was originally an April Fool’s gag, but the problem of trick spines might have some basis in reality. A trick spine is the name someone has given to book spines which don’t look anything like the front cover of the book. Brilliant Books gives a few examples. Some of these spines are indeed starkly different from the front cover art: One Long River Song has a yellow spine but hardly any yellow on the blue front; The Body Keeps Score ditto, with orange instead of yellow. One can see how this might make a spine-out book difficult to locate on the shelf: the memory of the book you have internalized is the front cover.

Well of course this is by no means cause for major concern, but I do think “good” design would tend to call for some relationship between the various panels making up a cover. After all a good design should stick in the mind, and become integrated with the overall idea of the book in question, facilitating picking it out in a crowd. Given that in most bookstore crowds the only bit of the book that’s going to be seen is the spine, that should argue for a bit of primacy being given to that portion of the design. And I don’t mean by this those annoying little boxed duplicates of the illustration on the front cover which became such a fashionable trick a few years back. I think the design of the whole cover should be one integrated whole.

The original joke, picked up in a Shelf Awareness update on recent April 1 “initiatives”, includes this logo for the supposed organization dedicated to countering the plague.

While booksellers driven batty by this problem might solve the issue by training and alphabetical ordering, perhaps we should also bear in mind the needs of the home library user with the seeker desperately trying to locate that blue cover while all that’s exposed to view is a yellow or orange strip. Almost makes you want to settle for a boring alphabetical arrangement for your books. I keep mine in serendipity-inducing randomness — constant inspection is needed to keep fixed in your mind where any individual book is to be found.

Might the trick spine be a problem, real or imaginary, which finds its origins in the increasing importance of online bookselling? All the design attention nowadays gets focussed on the need for a striking front cover, one which will be readily identifiable when reduced to the thumbnail size we are likely to encounter online, so that the spine and the back cover almost become afterthoughts.

Sounds like a bit of a joke but here you can hear this new typeface earnestly introduced by a spokesperson from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Apparently the idea is that if you have to struggle to get the information, you’ll be able to remember it better. This idea, which is dressed up with the scientific-sounding name “desirable difficulty”, may or may not be nonsense. Make the typeface hard to read, and the reader will work harder at understanding it. This rather calls into question efforts to design text pages with a typeface which makes it easier for dyslexics to cope. If there’s any basis to this desirable difficulty study plan wouldn’t it be desirable to instal 40 watt bulbs in all libraries, and few of them at that? Or set textbooks in 5 point type and print them in pale grey ink? It might also be considered wise to make students do their homework in noisy pubs: not that any of them would ever have thought of that for themselves. Or maybe to forbid them to do their homework at all, or even to prevent them from attending class. “We’re not going to tell you what it is you need to know, but the test’s next week.”

The concept of desirable difficulty was apparently invented in 1994 by Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist. It is good to know that he is also the discoverer of the “directed forgetting paradigm” — the full service: can’t get that Sans Forgetica text out of your mind, here comes directed forgetting.

Sans Forgetica makes you think of a Costa Brava seaside resort with one or two too many margaritas on board — maybe the beach is where we should all be going to study.

Notice of this story comes via The Passive Voice, where there are further links to pieces in Wired and in Science Daily. The Science Daily article indicates that the jury is actually still out on whether this desirable difficulty does or does not increase learning.

In my schooldays the preferred method was not so much desirable difficulty (Latin has that inherently anyway) rather it was “desirable fear” — the technique of beating knowledge into the brain via the backside. It never worked either.

The Passive Voice shared a link to Self-Publishing Advice Center about choosing typefaces which would be easier for dyslexics to read. Seems a larger sans serif face, well leaded, on cream paper is best: the article’s link to The British Dyslexia Foundation‘s style guide no longer works, as the guide has been revised. It may now be found here.

According to the article 10% of the people in Britain are dyslexic. Presumably the ebook format provides a bit of help, enabling you to select from (a few) typefaces and make your text larger. The author of the article, thriller writer A. A. Abbott, is producing dyslexic-friendly editions of all of her books. It does seem that we have finally accepted the reality of this condition, and are providing appropriate government help to those thus challenged. Should publishers be doing more?

Peter Mendelsund and David Alworth think about what a cover can do at Literary Hub, in an extract from their book The Look of the Book: Jackets, Covers and Art at the Edges of Literature published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. That link takes you to, where, like me, you may end up a little disappointed by their jacket design! The nub of their LitHub piece: “The cover functions simultaneously as an invitation to potential readers and as an entryway into the universe that the writer has created, whether fictional, historical, autobiographical, or otherwise.”

The execution of such a program is shown in another LitHub post — 89 Best Book Covers of 2020.

For me this Penguin cover is the wittiest on show.

At the other end of the design spectrum, I have to say I hate the dumb knee-jerk way the Cap K has been turned round on this cover (from a different source). The essence of good design is that it should be as invisible as possible. When you are hit between the eyes by a trite idea like reversing the K which this designer has obviously done just because the Russian alphabet includes a character, “ya”, which is written like a back-to-front R, then everyone can immediately see the designer’s thought process, and agree that it was a lousy idea. The silliness is then exacerbated by dropping the K out to white to draw even more attention to the “cleverness”.

Here are photographs of the logo and imprint on the title page and the back flap of the jacket of Martin Amis’ Inside Story: How to Write.

Title page

Back flap of jacket

Let’s set aside the logo problem right away. Knopf’s logo has always been the borzoi, shown nicely on the jacket flap. It was Blanche Knopf’s idea right at the outset. Who on earth thought that that silly stick dog on the title page was a good idea? It looks modern only to those traditionalists who think “modern = lousy”. Personally  I have nothing against the modern, but I do think lousy is just lousy.*

People out in the real world probably don’t realize that the designers of the inside of a book are almost always different from the designers of the jacket or cover. Many text designs are nowadays dealt with by a standard template design, which is just pulled off the shelf as a layout which’ll look OK for this or that book.

That sans serif type (which may be Computer Modern) is used throughout the book for the running heads which are set in nicely letterspaced caps. It’s also used for chapter titles and first level subheadings. Partly because it’s not the world’s most handsome sans serif typeface, I’m not entirely in love with the internal design. Of course the interior may well have been set in Britain where the book is published by Jonathan Cape, a division (like Knopf in America) of Penguin Random House.

On the title page, the company name and addresses are nicely letterspaced caps. For my money the rather clunky bold type used for the company name might have had even more letterspacing: both lines may actually have the same amount, with the heaviness of the bold type making it look a little less spaced. Not sure. But if so, you’d really want to add a little bit more spacing to make the lines look similar in color.

While the interior of books often gets rather short shrift, real money is usually spent on the jacket. It looks like Knopf’s jacket department hasn’t bought into stick dog — thank goodness. On the jacket we are told about the illustrations in the book in a line of nicely letterspaced Cap and small caps along with the (appropriate) old style numerals. (They are there on the title page too.) However, no sooner has that line been satisfactorily set, but Chip Kidd, or whoever was executing his directives, forgets to turn off the letterspacing. This results in the dumbness that the remaining copy, all in upper and lower case, comes out stupidly letterspaced too, which makes it harder to read. Also, notice however — a flaw in the design of the typeface used — how horribly heavy that Cap W looks in the first line shown. You might say that’s the way the font is, so what can the designer do about it? Answer: use a different, a better, typeface!

OK, nobody’s really going to be reading this stuff, and harder isn’t really all that much harder. So who cares? Well Knopf cares, or should: and they used to like to avoid solecisms like this.


* In 2011 Knopf ran a contest for a new version of the borzoi — the one used in Amis’ book was already in their stable, or should I say kennel. Their site shows a few of the versions they’ve used over the years.