Archives for category: Book design

A vignette was originally just an ornament with a intertwined vine tendril motif. In books the vignette started out as a border of twisted vines, and, shedding its vine motif, came to mean a repeated illustrative element placed at the beginning or end of a chapter. One most commonly comes upon them at the end of chapters in older books where they often seem to play the role of filling all that empty space which many printers seemed then to abhor.

Building on that meaning a vignette can effectively mean any illustration without a frame. For example this wood engraving by Thomas Bewick:

Ralph Waldo Emerson

After the invention of photography it took on the additional meaning of a design in which the central element (often a portrait) was highlighted by removing the background. In the days of photoengraving this was a highly skilled process, involving an air-brush, a paint brush and white ink/paint. You can see this being done towards the end of the first video at Engraving a halftone block. (Even more incredibly in this video you can also see the artist/artisan creating the type by hand using only his paint brush.)

Vignette has now evolved to mean also that effect created by a camera lens whereby the center of the image tends to be brighter than the corners and edges. Your computer’s photo software probably gives you the ability to adjust this if you need to.

Metaphorically the vignette’s meaning was extended in the late 19th century to mean a brief, tightly-focussed written portrait. This meaning has spread out to mean just a sketch in words.

Drop initials always look nice. Well, I like the look at least. Magazine Designing tells us “Drop caps and initials are an effective way of grabbing readers attention because they add personality and visual strength to the page.” To me, they have a sort of old fashioned, quality appearance. We can see an origin in those illuminated and historiated initials in manuscripts.

The Missal of Cardinal Angelo Acciaiuoli. Fitzwilliam Museum


Magazine Designing also tells us that drops dropped out of favor in the early 20th century under the influence of Bauhaus typographical rigor. That may have had something to do with it, but I’d bet that the main reason was economics. Drop initials add cost, and as labor costs went up publishers found themselves less and less willing to pay for “frills” like decent paper, generous margins, good book cloth, footnotes, drop initials etc.. Therefore if you are going to pay for drop initials you probably ought to do them right. Here’s The New Yorker doing it wrong:

Took me a moment or two to figure out that “live” isn’t being used here as an adjective. Here’s Hart’s Rules showing us how it ought to be done.

As you may see, Hart (the Bible of Oxford bookmaking) also disagrees with The New Yorker‘s handling of the open quotation mark.

I would also argue that good book composition manners demand that the rest of the word be set in letterspaced small caps or at least caps. That alone would have helped a little in the “live” confusion.

Adding negative space in hot metal days used to involve getting a saw and cutting out part of the type to allow the rest of the word to tuck in next to the top of the “A”. In modern computer setting it’s much easier — you just have to have your system programmed to apply a rule which you need to define in code. But “Hey — it’s not worth the (tiny) hassle — nobody’ll notice.”



Tables are usually taken for granted. (In this grant we can include those bits of wood on which we rest our books while examining tables within them.) The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first example of the use of the word in the sense of “a systematic arrangement of words, numbers, symbols etc.” the 11th century (Old) English of Byrhtferð: “Þæra geara getæl hæfð seo tabule þe we amearkian willað”. So the table has been around for a long time. However the scribes may have dealt with tabular material*, it has long been a topic of debate for book compositors, and each printing house would establish house rules for the layout of tables, all with the aim of making the information contained therein as clear and accessible as possible.

Naturally Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have evolved different ways of dealing with the same material. One occasionally imagines them saying “So they do it that way over there. OK, we’ll do it this way here.” The main difference comes down to the head and foot rules where Oxford favors bold or semi-bold rules, while Cambridge goes for a double rule. To my (obviously utterly unprejudiced) eye, the color of the Cambridge version makes it superior. The bold rules clunk a bit as you flip through a book.

Oxford style

Cambridge style

The Chicago Manual of Style rather wanly opts for a single rule at top and bottom, losing any distinction from internal rules.

The parts of a table, all of which will be identified at least in the early going in a full manuscript mark-up, include the stub, which is the list of the elements you’d look up in the table, table number, table head, column heads, spanner rules etc. This picture from Cambridge University Press’ excellent Copy-editing handbook by Judith Butcher, shows some of this.

The use of leader lines (rows of dots) is usually frowned upon in bookwork. Newspapers may routinely use them, but book compositors always tried to work out any problems of the eye jumping from one line to another by the use of spacing, both vertical, between lines, and horizontal, between the  columns.


* Here’s a manuscript page showing a rather fancy table from a manuscript of Ptolemy’s Almagest. The table lists values of arcs and chords of angles. The manuscript’s creation date is uncertain, but majority opinion inclines to the 9th century, with one or two preferring the 7th or 8th centuries.

Photo: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. grec 2389, folio 17 recto.

CrimeReads shows us 25 covers for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. They rank them. I’m not sure I agree with their No.1 pick.

For me The Library of America jacket does it all just fine. Surely a book like this is an established quantity and doesn’t need the help of a strikingly illustrated cover in order to sell. Plain’ll do just fine with a book this famous.


Here’s another cover, the soon to be published Annotated Big Sleep.

The cover isn’t bad: I quite like the sleepy-town photo, though the typeface is bit sharp-elbowed.

CrimeReads gives a large extract from the introduction to this book.


An ambigram is a word which can be read when viewed upside down or as a mirror image.

Here’s a nice example from Wikipedia.






The sense when viewed upside down doesn’t have to be identical. The originator, Peter Newell published Topsys & Turvys in 1893. The Library of Congress offers a full PDF of the book. Here is the final page, followed by the upside down version of same.

This is obviously quite clever.

Newell may be the first to have produced ambigrams, but it doesn’t look like that’s what he’d have called them. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as it’s earlier quote one from Douglas Hofstadter dating from 1985, though they don’t go as far as attributing the word’s origin to him. John Langdon, an American typographer is mentioned as a pioneer of the ambigram. His 1992 book, Wordplay, contains about 60 examples. The Amazon listing features the “Look Inside” feature which will enable you to see several of them,

Stanley Morison’s name was always mentioned with reverence in the Pitt Building in the sixties and seventies. He had died in 1967. As typographical advisor to the University Press his name had long been the calling card of all who wished to celebrate and cement Cambridge’s place of preeminence among letterpress printers.

Nicolas Barker, Morison’s biographer, speaks for about ¾ of an hour in this video of a talk at the Cooper Union in New York. (If you don’t see a video above, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

Morison became interested in type as a result the purchase of the 10 September 1912 supplement to The Times dealing with printing and its history. He was, apart from his typographical work, notable for two main things. He always wore a black suit of ecclesiastical cut with a black hat, and was a life-time socialist, imprisoned during the First World War for his pacifist beliefs.

Any publisher at all interested in design should read First Principles of Typography, a brief introduction to his style: simplicity, balance, a historical sensitivity and attention to detail.

Many book designers need to see his remarks, near the bottom of this page about ‘bright’ typography. “Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” The designer’s work should ideally remain invisible to the reader’s (conscious) mind. Your job is to ease communication between author and reader; no more and no less.

See also my February post Stanley Morison.


OK, I suppose, but let’s hope nobody gets the idea of setting text in these characters. The Artphabet, each character based upon the work of a famous artist, is shown here at the website of CESS, the Madrid-based creator.

A five-minute film which makes it all pretty straightforward.

If you see no video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Is it just me, or is there really something a bit odd about the term “Table” Of Contents? I guess it really is a table in the same way that real tables are tables: columns of information arranged in rows. In this case just two columns, chapter title (though chapter number could make a third column) and then the relevant page numbers. I think my beef is really with the use of the full term as the main heading on the contents page in a book. The words “Table of” should always be omitted. They add nothing to the proper heading “Contents” and look ugly, and being redundant, intrusive. I always think the presence of the words “Table of” are a marker of the amateur publisher. (Nobody ever said that these value judgements which proliferate in book making are not snobbish or élitist.) While I’m at it, the use of leader lines has exactly the same effect on me.

Here, (via The Digital Reader) is a piece from .TxtLab about Rethinking the table of contents. This is all fine, but seems to me in the end to be nothing more than play. Does knowing there’s some enhanced relationship between paper and ephemerality in this text provide me with any information that I can make use of? Despite the heading the authors’ experiments don’t seem to have anything to do with rethinking the TOC.*

The contents list is in essence a part of the index; or to put it the other way round, the index is a continuation and expansion of the contents list. They are both techniques for finding your way around the book. (I wonder if this has anything to do with the European practice of putting the Contents at the back of the book?) There is obviously potential to automate the contents/index function in an ebook. In a print book you turn to the front or the back of the book and seek information on where you might find information about a certain topic. With a digital text you can potentially find every reference to that word; but that’s likely to be too much information. What you need is to find significant occurrences of the word or group of words, or actually not the word so much as the subject. You don’t really want an function that’ll find you “morbidity” without also bringing you “approaching death”. What you need is an index, compiled by an intelligence which has foreseen exactly the sorts of question you are asking of the text. This could potentially be invisible, summoned only by clicking on a word which would conjure up all the similar references to morbidity and to approaching death etc.

Does a list of chapters for a novel really help, even if they are hyperlinked? I tend not to be conscious of being engaged in Chapter 17 as I read along, and really just want to be able to get back to the page I was reading when I started noodling around in the text trying to remember just why Uncle Bob was such a problem. I dare say it doesn’t cost much to hyperlink your contents list, so that a reader can in fact flick straight to Chapter 17 however rarely a reader might need to do that. But surely more could be done. Maybe we want a return to eighteenth century practice with its “In which the hero . . . ” sort of chapter summary at the head of each chapter. In non-fiction this would be even more useful. Of course it all costs money: if you are going to provide this sort of hyperlinking, someone has to think it through, plan it out, and execute it so that when you do click on something you really do get there (and a pet peeve, are actually able to get back to where you started from).

Again I’ll say, remember we are (still) in the early years of the ebook. In the beginning all ebooks were just clones of the printed volume, and maybe the existence of so many unhelpful volumes out there inured us publishers to the idea that that was OK. But it’s not OK: to fulfill the potential of the ebook, so much more housekeeping needs to be done. But market forces are the real driver. Until such time as readers vote with their pocket books I suspect we’ll just continue short-back-and-sides-ing them.


* Is it odd that in marking up a manuscript we publishers will happily refer to this section of the book as the TOC, despite our prejudice (well maybe it’s mainly my prejudice) against Table of?

Leader lines are those rows of dots, often to be found in tables and contents lists, which carry your eye from one column of information to the next, without the danger of your flipping from one line to the next and thus getting things mixed up. Leader is here pronounced to rhyme with “need”, having nothing to do with the metal used in typesetting.

I think leader lines are really rather ugly, and usually represent an admission of design failure. If the gap is too wide for the eye to bridge reliably, then reduce the gap by indenting the lines left and right and/or increase the line spacing so that the eye can more reliably move from line to line without error. There’s almost always a work-around, and surviving leader lines suggest to me a lazy or ignorant designer.

Here’s a ludicrous example from an 1894 edition of Balzac in translation printed in Philadelphia by George Barrie and Son. The line isn’t even long enough to make leader lines helpful: the compositor has just put them there out of habit or because he thinks that’s what you have to do, there can be no other reason. Look at the crazy one for page 272!

One basic principle of good book design and composition is that nothing should be included that does not have a function. These leader lines serve no purpose.

Their use in technical drawing to establish a link between a drawn object and text describing it is a horse of a different color, and as such is of course altogether acceptable.