Archives for category: Book design

Maybe. LitHub has their annual shot at this, showing their selection of 103 best covers of the year.

Best is a hard word. If forced to choose one, I’d go for this twister:

Daisy at Beautiful Books spends about an hour in the video below going through her 60 Most Beautiful Books of 2022 (or prettiest, something slightly different). This is actually worth a watch. A listing of the books covered, and more, can be found here. Sorry it’s too late here to serve as a holiday gift guide — unless you like to mark the New Year.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. (Link via David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen,)

The New York Times treats us to a discussion of the cover designs (if we can bypass the paywall) for Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry.

Much is made of the unexpectedness of the US jacket. Apparently the pink makes us expect a romance novel, which this is not. It’s the story of Elizabeth Zott, a (fictitious) 1950’s cooking show host who “educates her viewers in chemistry, self-worth and agency”. Barnes & Noble have made it their book of the year — Mr Daunt opines “The book has dominated the cover”. For myself, I don’t find the American cover that ditzy; in fact I rather like it. But maybe its pinkness does tend to make me assume it’s a book directed at a female audience — which for all I know it actually is. (The same could of course be said of the UK jacket with its red-dress photo.) The author is quoted “But as I’m fond of saying, the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism”. Ms Garmus “has received ‘hate mail’ from a few indignant readers who expected something different.” She is quoted as saying “They were like, ‘Your’e the worst romance novelist ever!'”

Ms Garmus, though I think she is talking here about plot and character rather than cover design, sagely concludes “I think you have to listen to your publisher . . . they have a lot of experience”. She does report that the paperback will however have a different cover design. Well even if we concede that the pink jacket may be a little off target, it’s many streets ahead of its British competitor — paradoxically the publisher, Doubleday, is the same on both sides of the Atlantic, so we are getting here a pure take on US/UK taste differences. Around the world however, opinion seems to have lined up with Great Britain rather than the United States. Only Portugal and to some extent Italy have gone along with the US approach.

Editions in Portuguese, French, Polish and Korean have gone with the British approach. Not sure why we have two Portuguese versions, with different titles too. Maybe one’s Brazilian and the other European. It’s remarkable how that little box containing “In” in a form meant to look like a chemical element label, has been preserved in these UK adaptations. Characteristically the French have realized that the title which is adequate for the rest of the world is just too silly for them. This is in harmony with their tag line telling us that our ability to change everything begins ere and now!

We round out this showcase with one more UK-based version, this one from Iceland, and three “let’s do something completely different” versions. This I can sympathize with: I think that woman in the red dress lugging the TV around is a rather disturbing image. Do you remember what a television set weighed back in the fifties and sixties? Of the three fresh approaches I think the Dutch one, which is presumably playing up the “chemie” bit, is just too dull which might also be said of the German lady aggressively confronting us on the street. The Estonian version ends up being weird enough to be rather arresting and effective though.

This Will Carter hand-lettered jacket design just seems so right that you don’t at first notice the fact that there’s a hyphen missing, indeed that a word in the title has been (unusually) hyphenated at all, and that in order to fit it, the word Press has been rendered Preß, with a Germanic esstzett symbol. Further study reveals cunning spacing adjustments in Medieval and Renaissance in order that the swash on the g can be accommodated. Daring design. But it works triumphantly. (Thanks to Sebastian Carter and Eric Marland for this photograph. © Rampant Lions Press.)

Will Carter was a letter cutter, a calligrapher, a typographer, and a printer. He founded The Rampant Lions Press in Cambridge, printing handsome well-designed books, a few of which are still available at their website. The Press was closed in 2008 when his son Sebastian retired. There’s an exhibition entitled Will Carter — Man of Letters going on right now in Magdalene College in Cambridge, sponsored by The Lettering Arts Trust. Carter (1912-2001) was an honorary fellow of the college, The show will close on 14 December.

The New Library at Magdalene College has just been declared winner of the RIBA Stirling prize for best new building in the UK. Another reason to go to the Carter show.

By the way, the extravagance in the imprint of that cover was ultimately taken care of by the forces of convention — by jamming in any-old-how an ugly unletterspaced sans-serif imprint, aligned on nothing at all. The separate box below the subtitle which originally contained the imprint has also been ditched. Designers have no control over their work once it’s in the hands of the publisher!

The picture below is of the twelfth printing of the paperback edition, done in America. The hardback, printed no doubt in Cambridge, came out in 1964 and went through three printings before the paperback came along in 1967. I begin to wonder if the Preß design was ever printed, or whether the illustration is Will Carter’s design original, though Sebastian and Eric do refer to it as the jacket. I haven’t actually seen the hardback — at least not in recent years! Colors have migrated too, perhaps in step with the location of manufacture. Ashamed I never noticed this naff imprint, and that I never did anything about it. I had charge of eight of these twelve printings.












John Coulthard has a piece at his blog Feuilleton telling us that the logo for Pan Books was drawn by Mervyn Peake (1911-68).

Those who know Peake mainly through the Gormenghast series will think of his art as a bit more eerie than jolly old Pan. Here are a couple of covers from the Penguin edition to show what I mean:

Type Punch Matrix, a Washington DC rare book dealer, presents this folding cut-out book from the 1830s. Look through the little holes on the front and you can see different views of the Jardins des Tuileries.

You can (I hope) see a little video of the book at their Twitter feed. I wonder if a book like this would be cut out by hand. You could set up dies to cut it out, but maybe in the 1830s labor costs would have enabled you to avoid that investment. Depends on how many copies were produced I guess.

. . . does visually what intonation does audibly: it emphasises the important, subordinates the less important, so clarifying the message. There is more to it than that, however. Just as the impact of the spoken word is affected by the appearance of the speaker, so is the impact of the printed word affected by the overall appearance of the sheet or page.”

This struck me as the best thing in Brooke Crutchley”s To Be a Printer (Cambridge University Press, 1980). However I think it needs slight qualification. Authors have to get this “intonation” through the services of a book designer. This makes the situation a bit more like that of an actor, surely. The actor’s delivery will be directed by the Director, so some of their intonation will be the Director’s not just their own.

Regrettably the individualized design of the text of a book is a much less common happening than it was when Mr Crutchey was working at the University Printing House in Cambridge from 1930 to 1974.

I had a bit of a go at the Times Literary Supplement a couple of years ago anent their redesign, so I feel maybe I should react to the redesign of The New York Review of Books too. That said, that’s pretty much it.

The redesign seems moderate and restrained. As I always say, why mess with success? And as Editor Emily Greenhouse says in her emailed announcement of the update, the original editors were in such a rush to get their first issue out to fill the reviewing void created by the newspaper strike of 1963 that they spent little time thinking about design matters — the design was perfectly serviceable as fifty years of success attest. And this hurried design signaled well: it rather indicated the healthy attitude of the Review — ideas are more important than looks. Everything graphic was of course redeemed by the cartoons of the irreplaceable David Levine, and now he’s left us, perhaps a little weeding of the garden isn’t altogether inappropriate.

Here’s a sample page Ms Greenhouse includes with her email:

The old, on top, and the new behind.

My main beef is with the perceived need to create two new typefaces. Don’t we have enough typefaces in the world that you could find one that was perfectly suitable? Ms Greenhouse tells us “Matt [Willey] collaborated with the typeface designer Henrik Kubel, who peered through the archives of the late Lord Mayor of London Robert Besley, the creator of Clarendon, our longtime headline font. Henrik drew two new typefaces, based on Figgins and Century and the first issues our cofounders, Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, put out, but with flourishes that feel very present-day.”

(Should I be concerned that I appear to have survived into a world where added flourishes seem very present-day?)

Rhetoric aside, one has to confess that the new type designs are actually pretty good. The text looks “bolder” and stronger, yet gets as much, if not a little more (?), onto each text line. The bold type used for the book titles is also stronger, while the headline type and general layout remain unchanged. The contents list, contributor details and masthead have been tidied up and do work better now. A successful redesign; tidying things up without making any dramatic and contentious changes.

Roger Tory Peterson masterminded a revolution in bird-watching by producing a series of field guides with clear, easy-to-use illustrations printed in accurate color with a consistent orientation of his subjects.

Now of course there had been excellent books of color illustrations of birds before Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, written with Guy Mountfort and P. A. D. Hollom. But like John James Audubon’s they tended to be huge, expensive, and definitely non-portable: the sort of thing men who’d go out and shoot their bird in order to identify it might use. (Audubon himself would work from dead birds he had shot — he once claimed that it was a bad day if he didn’t get at least 100!)

My copy of the British Peterson guide, which I got while I was at still at school, probably in 1956 or 1957, is showing its age, though the damage is pretty much restricted to the jacket, which miraculously survives. The binding, of bright blue linen cloth is still tight, though, as you can see below, the front endpaper has split down the spine fold.

Paradoxically the jacket scarcely fits the book — in the top photo see the type on the back flap almost rolling over onto the back panel. After so many printings this cannot be because the publisher just measured wrong: it has to mean that for this printing a bulkier sheet had to be used. Probably the paper used on the previous printings became unavailable at the last minute, and the nearest substitute was grabbed at.

As you can see the book was printed by Collins, the British publisher, at their own works, doubtless in Glasgow. Unusually, but justifiably in this case, the company who engraved the halftone blocks is credited. Gilchrist Bros., founded in 1893, continues trading in Leeds, now under the name Sun Strategy.

You can see a video about engraving blocks at Engraving a halftone block. I assume that “reproductions” here refers to the line illustrations, including maps as well as the halftones. In a letterpress job you had to have a block (a cut) made for every picture you wanted to print, which would then have to be fitted in with the type. There had to be some raised image for the ink to be carried on.

The color plates are indeed plates, printed separately on different (coated) paper and combined with the black and white text pages in the bindery/folding department. Given its age, unsurprisingly, the book is smyth sewn. The book is 352 pages long, xxxiv of front matter plus 318 text, and has an additional 64 pages of plates, 42 of them in color. It is bound in eleven 32-page sections each of which (after the first and last) is made up of smaller units around which a four-pager of plates is wrapped. These smaller sections are inserted into their neighboring section, resulting in the plates being distributed evenly throughout the book, each separated by 4, 8, or 16 pages of text. Clever book make-up requiring a clear mind in planning, as facing every plate we find its detailed description of it printed on text paper. More modern books in the stable don’t go in for this elaboration — they just print a chunk of the book on coated paper, binding it all together, leaving you to flick back or forward to the related text pages which end up further away from the color plates than in my early edition. Hand work like that clever inserting plan now costs so much more than it used to that we have devised means of avoiding any such elaboration at every turn. The trim size is 4½” x 7¼” — small enough I guess to fit in a pocket, though I have never carried my copy into the wild. The book cost 25 shillings, £1¼.

Roger Tory Peterson ultimately became a sort of mini-franchise, with guides to all sorts of things, trees, butterflies, and so on, plus of course regional bird guides Eastern USA, Western USA, Mexican Birds, just to name ones I own. In the USA these are published by Houghton Mifflin. Peterson was born in Jamestown, New York in 1908 and studied briefly at The Art Students League on 57th Street in Manhattan, before transferring to the more traditional National Academy of Design in the same building. While he was teaching at River’s School in Brookline, Mass. in the early 1920s he decided to create an illustrated guide to birds of the eastern United States. Publishers turned down the obviously too-expensive book till in 1934 the first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds was published by Houghton Mifflin, who printed 2,000 copies. By now of course they have sold millions. Peterson’s “system” was to show all the birds in a similar pose, with emphasis on key identification features indicated by arrows.

Back in the eighties I was an observer in the production of a two-volume Easton Press edition of Mr Peterson’s American bird paintings in their original size, The Field Guide Art of Roger Tory Peterson — I just happened to be there at the right time. These leather-bound books are huge, 11″ x 17″,* printed by John D. Lucas, Baltimore, on S. D. Warren’s 100# Lustro Dull with color separations by Red Rose Graphics of Lancaster, PA, and bound in Nashville at the Nicholstone Bindery where they’ve added fancy moiré endsheets. Here Mr Peterson’s paintings are presented as art, not as an identification tool.

He describes his “conversion experience” which occurred on 8 April 1920: “It was one of the first warm days of spring, when my friend Carl Hammerstrom, who lived up the street, and I crossed the railway tracks and climbed Swede Hill to explore new terrain south of town. As we entered a wood lot on the crest of the hill near the reservoir, I spotted a bundle of brown feathers clinging to the trunk of a tree. It was a flicker, probably exhausted from migration. The bird was sleeping, with its face buried in the fluffed feathers of its scapulars, but I thought it was dead. Gingerly, I touched it on the back. Instantly, this inert thing jerked its head around, looked at me with wild eyes, then exploded in a flash of golden wings and fled into the woods. What had appeared to be dead was very much alive. Ever since, birds have seemed to me the most vivid expression of life.”


* Audubon’s original paintings were somewhat larger than Peterson’s and were executed on double elephant paper the largest sheet available at 40″ x 27″. They were principally executed in water color but Audubon employed other media such as pencil, pastel and ink. They were definitely not all posed in the same position as an aid to identification as were Peterson’s. English engraver Robert Havell Jr. printed them on the same double elephant size sheet — they measure 29½” x 39½”: probably they got a little trim on all four sides. Printing by a combination of aquatint and etching, was of the outlines only. The colors were added by hand: at one time Havell had fifty men and women working on the job. The prints were offered for sale loose as folios of prints

CorelDraw offers you a free ebook, Preparation for Offset Printing. Go to their website and fill out the form.

I haven’t done this, so I can’t comment on the value of the book, but at that price what’ve you got to lose?

Not too many of these have been produced in the twenty-first century I guess, when pretty much everything is done digitally, but a mechanical was the way we used to create a jacket in the second half of the last century.

You’d start with a board. Measure twice and go to the guillotine to cut once, to yield a piece of white board slightly larger than the size of the jacket you were making. If we are talking about a 6″ x 9″ book, that would mean 4 inches for the back flap, 6⅛” for the back cover, whatever the spine width would be, 6⅛” for the front cover and another 4″ for the front flap plus at least an inch of white space all round. The jacket would be 9¼” deep. If there was to be a solid color you’d get out your drafting pen and ruler and draw a box allowing ⅛” bleed top and bottom, and ¼” overlap onto the front and back flaps.

You’d have gotten the type for the jacket typeset by a local supplier, proofed and corrected. This type would include the title etc. for the front and the spine, all the back copy, usually adverts for a couple of other related books, as well as the flap copy describing book and author. It should also include type for the stamping die. (In some instances you might do the title on front and spine using Letraset, and of course lots of jackets used hand drawn script.) Obviously, before you sent the setting copy off to the typesetter, all spec’d up for typesetting, you’d have to have had a clear idea in your mind what the jacket was going to look like, even though you might have done nothing more than envisage it. At the end of the process the typesetter would send you a repro proof (a reproduction proof) — all the type output on photo paper in galley form. With your Xacto knife and a transparent gridded ruler you’d cut out all the type you needed for the front of the jacket — probably just title, subtitle and author’s name. If your title was going to be in two lines, you’d end up with two little bits of paper, maybe another for the subtitle and then one for the author’s name. Lay these out in approximate position on the ruled-up board and adjust them this way and that until they look like you want them to look — general positioning and the balance between one element and another. Then get your Cow-Gum tin and unscrew the top and appreciate that unforgettable smell. That top comes with a brush attached beneath it which you use to paste glue onto the back of your little bit of paper carrying the first line of the title. Using your tweezers lay it down in position and use your gridded ruler to ensure it’s straight, parallel with the top trim, and aligned correctly before you press down on it to stick in in position. After gluing you can move the type around a little with the tweezers to get it just right. Ditto with all the other elements. Then on to the spine, back ad, and finally flaps. If you can’t fit the entire flap copy onto the front flap you may need to cut a few lines off it and place them at the top of the back flap, moving the author’s bio down to make room. Maybe you’ll have to cobble together a line saying “Continued on back flap” — which you can probably manage because you’d always insist on two sets of repro proof.

Once your paste-up is complete, you’d cut a piece of tracing paper to cover it all, bend it a couple of inches over to the back of the board along the top and tape it to the back. When you folded it over your pasted-up mechanical it would not only protect the pasted-up type, but allow you to draw on it the instructions for the color breaks, indicating which bits of type or other design elements like pictures were to print black, which red or whatever, which were to drop out to white etc. If the graphic elements were just line drawings, they might be pasted onto the board just like the type. If the graphic was to overprint type it would be pasted onto a separate sheet of tracing paper and pasted in position in just the same way as, and below the protective tissue overlay. A halftone would be handled in the same way, except that the original photo would have to accompany the mechanical so that the printer could originate the halftone themselves, and incorporate it into the job in negative film.

Computers have simplified the job, but let us not disregard the psychic benefits of using your hands as well as your brain.

See also Mechanicals.