Archives for category: Book design

David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen sends a link to this YouTube video.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. You might prefer to watch this without the sound.

The Scholarly Kitchen post provides a link to a previous cover animation video.

Designer Sarah J. Coleman provides, via Spine Magazine, this accelerated video showing the drawing of the cover for Dreadful Young Ladies and other Stories by Kelly Barnhill.

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

Erik Kwakkel’s blog medievalbooks has an informative post on the design and layout of medieval manuscript books, entitled Architecture of the Medieval Page. When you are looking at a richly illuminated book you have narrow your eyes to detect behind the text and illustrations surviving evidence of the indentations of the grid pattern the scribe would start off by ruling into the surface of the parchment. Later on a lead “pencil” would be used and these lines might subsequently be erased.

The grid pattern is especially obvious in these examples.

This is sort of like that ruled sheet you used to get in a pad of Basildon Bond letter-writing paper. If you stuck one of these behind a sheet of parchment though you wouldn’t be able to see through to it. I am in fact using just such a ruled sheet from my insane handwritten version of The Dynasts. (Not as much progress as should have been has been made on this since my last update. I took the last winter off for one reason or another. This has to be a seasonal activity: I don’t know if scribes were troubled by drops of sweat from their brows — but this is obviously incompatible with pen and ink production. Thus activity has to stop during the humid summer months in New York. I think it should be safe to start up again now.)

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.