Archives for category: Book design

The Bookseller has a round-up of the best cover designs of the year — from British publishers. I was struck by this one which seems pretty cunning. For the sake of completeness here’s a link to a US view, Paste‘s 30 Best Book Covers of 2017. There are tons of bloggers producing this sort of cover favorites list.

In September The Guardian did a piece on the differences between British and American book cover design. I must say I do usually find myself voting for the UK jacket over the US, and I have always attributed this to the impossibility of ever overcoming early childhood conditioning. The Guardian, in discussing the cis- and transatlantic jackets of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened comes down on the US side (me too in this case). Slightly surprised, they say “it raises the question: why did the Americans get it right and the British so wrong when UK book design is supposedly the envy of the world?” Well, you can’t expect The Guardian to overcome its early childhood conditioning either.







Is the gap between US and UK design closing, and if so why? If it is, it’s probably for no reason other than because everything in Britain/ everywhere seems to get more and more international/American all the time. One reason advanced in The Guardian piece seems fairly lame to me: “US designers have upped their game because of the explosion in digital books”. There’s no question that jacket design has been affected by the on-line revolution: a fussy little detail-heavy design is just going to look like a blob when viewed at 436 x 436 pixels on Amazon. But surely the force that is Amazon is just as strong in Britain as it is in the USA, and UK designers are likely to have upped their game in similar ways.

I find myself voting (contrary to The Guardian) for the US cover of Go Set a Watchman rather than the UK one. Harper have made their version look quite like the well-known cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book everyone’s familiar with. True it has some gash typeface taking the place of the hand-lettering on the older book, but anybody looking at them would know they were related to one another. The tree makes a nice comment too.












The UK cover for To Kill a Mockingbird (lower row) is surely not one anyone would want to echo. In America where every schoolchild is made to read To Kill a Mockingbird, the cover is lodged in most minds. In Britain it can’t have any similar iconic aspirations. Those Brits who have seen their cover will probably instantly have forgotten it. That little circle on the Go Set a Watchman cover quoting the other cover, is, I think, the worst feature of the design. Notice that it has the tree making the same comment.


Illustration by Elena and Anna Balbusso from the Folio Society edition

The Folio Society has seized the moment by reissuing their edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which they first published in 2012. Elena and Anna Balbusso, the twin sisters who did the illustrations for the book were interviewed at Publishing Perspectives. Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview can be found at these links. All seven “plates” are reproduced in the course of the two-part interview.

You can get the book from The Folio Society for $71.95. They only have 83 copies left.

from Learn about Type at Monotype Imaging Inc.


Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford states “Unless instructions are given to the contrary, capitals, small capitals, numerals, and punctuation in displayed lines should be letter-spaced.” The lines above, in Sabon Initial cap & small cap, show the difference — which non-designers among you may consider pretty minor. I might argue with the third line and want even more space between the two Ts, but I do think the overall color of the two sets of lines shows how beneficial letter-spacing caps and small caps can be. That cap W in the second line really sticks out, but your letter-spacing can’t do too much about that.

Caps extend from the base line (a few typefaces have one or two descend below) up to the top of the ascenders. Small caps are designed to be the same height as the x-height of the face.

Hart’s Rules calls for small caps (which I cannot generate in this blog’s typeface) to be used for abbreviations like AD, AM, BC, and tells us that they should be set without letter spacing in these instances.

Quaintly they command “Text references to capital symbols in plates and line-blocks to be in small caps, except in scientific work, where capitals are used.” It is true that (to me at least) small caps tend to have a humanistic, as opposed to scientific, look — no doubt because that’s where one tends to meet them. In scientific setting symbols have so much significance that using a small cap for aesthetic reasons runs the risk of having readers stopping to ponder if there’s some meaningful distinction being made between upper case C and small cap C. For analogous reasons one will be unlikely to meet old style figures in scientific or mathematical setting.

Cambridge practice, as codified by Judith Butcher in her Copy-editing, is perhaps best just directly quoted:

Use of small capitals

Small capitals are often used for AD, BC, except with lining figures where small capitals would look too small: AD 1990. [I cannot make my AD small, so the point is lost. These are lining figures though.] In the USA they are used for a.m. and p.m. Small capitals are also used for quoted words originally in capitals and for most capitalized roman numbers, e.g. vol. XII [again I can go smaller], though full capitals are always used in titles such as Henry VII and for LXX (Septuagint). Some authors type lower-case roman numbers to indicate small capitals rather than full capitals; ask the author if you are not sure what is required.

I love typography has a detailed examination of small caps, demonstrating that small caps are not just scaled-down caps, but separately designed characters. If you are one of those who think the letter-spacing in the example at the top is not discernible or irrelevant, you might probably think it a waste of time to design small caps separately when you could just scale down the caps. But the whole typesetting craft, bearing 5½ centuries of trial and error, knows what’s right.

Both of these techniques arrive at the same destination, a wooden block with the background carved away, leaving a raised image which can be inked and printed by letterpress along with the types making up the text.

Boxwood sample from Hobbit House Inc.

They differ in that wood engraving is done on the end grain of a block of wood (often boxwood) whereas a woodcut will be done on the more easily worked side grain. In this photo the end grain is seen on the right hand side.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is credited with the invention of wood engraving, and he certainly was a master of the craft, engraving fine lines which the end grain could hold in a way that the side grain couldn’t.

However, one has to recall the detail which Albrecht Dürer had been able to achieve in his woodcuts four hundred years earlier. Here for example is St. John devouring the book from Revelations X.9 “And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.” Dürer’s book is surely a bit more than a “little book” but he does manage to get lots of fine detail into this woodcut. One commentator claimed you could read the words on the pages. The Web Gallery of Art enables you to increase the size of its image to 200%, but even at that I can’t tell whether the words really are recognizable.

By the early years of the nineteenth century the technology of printing illustrations in books had advanced to quite sophisticated levels. The peak of excellence was offered by copperplate engraving, whereby a craftsman delicately gouged out little lines of metal from a smooth plate to allow the remaining image to be printed either as an intaglio or a relief print. The stability of the metal allowed for delicate lines, and marked a significant advance over the earlier method of woodcuts.

But do not assume that just because something is better it automatically takes over from all contenders. There was a hefty installed base of woodcut operators, and because copperplates cost more and required printing on a separate press they were thus only employed on deluxe projects. (Because these copperplates had to be printed on a different press and added in later to the text pages, they were known as “plates”, a term we still use in a rather debased sense, sometimes even using it to designate just a full page halftone.)

One cannot perhaps argue that this whimsical vignette contains more detail than Dürer’s work; but this feather just wouldn’t have been possible as a woodcut.

Bewick was born in Mickley near Newcastle upon Tyne, and spent his working life in that city (recoiling from an eight-month stint in London). A better draftsman than scholar, Bewick was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to Ralph Bielby, an engraver, and quite quickly switched from engraving on metal to doing his work on end-grain boxwood. This was not only cheaper but enabled the engravings to be incorporated into pages of metal type and printed in one pass. The pinnacle of their partnership was the publication of Bewick’s A History of British Birds in two volumes, Land Birds (1797) and Water Birds (1804).

One of Bewick’s blocks







Here’s a video showing Thomas Shahan making a woodcut

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.

And now a video of a wood engraving:

The project described in this video was set up by the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. The engraving is being done on end grain maple off-cuts from their wooden type. As you can see the techniques are very similar, with a wood engraver being able to use finer tools to create tinier detail.

Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick is an excellent biography.

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.