Archives for category: Book design

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.

We are so used to clip art nowadays that we still call it that even though there’s no longer any need to get out your scissors and clip anything at all. You just copy and paste clip art on your computer now. Clip art itself was anyway just part of an interim phase in print reproduction when people could get a little print job done on an offset press at their corner printshop. Before that there was an extra step in the process of reproducing a little picture.

With letterpress everything has to print from a raised surface, usually metal but also potentially wood, some synthetic substances and even rubber — think of that John Bull printing kit you had as a child or the date stamper in the office. Or notice next time you step in a puddle . . . the next step you take on the dry street will leave a letterpress impression: a rather evanescent one it’s true — for a more lasting impression stir up some mud while you’re in the puddle.

So, when almost everything had to be printed by letterpress, you needed to have access to a raised reversed image to receive the ink and transfer it to the paper. In order to be able to print a little picture you had to go to an engraver and create a block* (called a cut in USA). To get a block engraved cost money, so unless it was totally specific to a particular print job which was never going to reprint, you would carefully wrap each one in paper, label it carefully, ideally with a pull (proof) of the engraving on the outside, and put it into storage in case you ever needed something like that again.

Here’s a piece showing part of one printer’s collection. It is shown in two separate photos, though it is just one 12⅝” x 17¾” sheet. It was printed by The Quarto Press in Coupar Angus in Scotland. You can enlarge the pictures a bit by clicking on them.

I suspect that the main sheet is actually a reprint by offset from an earlier version which was done by letterpress from the original blocks. At the bottom of the main sheet you can see the claim that it was printed in an edition of 75 copies on a Vandercook press by John B. Easson at The Quarto Press in Feltham, quite a long way from Coupar Angus. At the top we are informed to job was done in October 1998. Their website tells us that Mr Easson returned his press from Middlesex to Scotland in 2004.

Behind the main sheet in the cellophane envelope holding it is this insert telling us about the job. Their first line is a little misleading, as it describes the original piece, not the version the purchaser is holding. The 75 copies of the original were apparently mostly supplied to The British Printing History Society,  so in order to be selling copies nowadays in Coupar Angus, Quarto (not the publisher of that name of course) would have had to have reprinted the piece. And I bet they did this by photographing the original piece and printing it by offset lithography.

Some of these ornaments are a bit odd: those aggressive policemen near the top are a bit worrying, though the ballroom dancers to their right seem to be quite unconcerned as do the three kids hiding among the flowers between them. The kid in the middle does appear to be toting a gun and this may be what’s upsetting the cops. And what are those teddy bears up to? The rugby players in the lower portion are rather good, as is the cow being milked with the real business tastefully masked by a milk bottle. And you’ve got to love the pig. Hard to imagine circumstances demanding the reuse of many of these: still some printer had paid for them and thought there might be another use for these each of these blocks, even if some may never have been unwrapped again.

The sheet draws the distinction between borders and ornaments. This seems relatively straightforward to my mind: a border would be available as a font for output by your typesetting machine along with the text, whereas an ornament would have to be created separately from artwork sent to the engraver, and integrated into the typeset page in the composing room. But Mr Easson is the printer and knows better than me.

I have discussed the flag blocks at the bottom right hand corner in a previous post.


* The note at the top tells us that some of these type ornaments precede photo-engraving which is what is shown in the second of these videos. Die sinker describes the process of engraving a block by hand, though the photo-engraving video does show a lot of hand correction work.

I’m now reading Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time, published in 1950, which is when my copy dates from. I don’t collect first editions, but I don’t discriminate against them! Collecting first editions seems to me a fairly silly mania: I would guess that more than three quarters of books published over the last fifty years never got to a second printing: though in these days of vigilant inventory control, this percentage may increase. If rarity is the collector’s motivation it would be more logical to collect second printings!

The bestselling book of 1950 was The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson: who’s read that one? World Enough and Time didn’t even make it into the top ten bestsellers of the year, but then nor did All the King’s Men four years earlier, and that must be RPW’s best known book.

The spine just tore, revealing the structure of the book.

I find this quite impressive: a lot better binding than you’d find if you tore apart a current bestseller. Down the right hand side of the broken spine you can see the criss-cross pattern which is the first lining, a mull (loose-weave cloth). That little band running across the spine at the top is the inner fold of the cloth itself, and it is covering the top end of the crash, that crinkly paper, the second lining. Hidden behind it there’s a rather elegant red & gold headband, matched by one at the bottom. To the left of the picture you can see the edge of the cloth with a paper liner which was part of the case.

The evidence for that claim can be seen in this second picture, where you can see that the paper was in place when the cover was stamped. The spine has two hits of foil, a black panel with a design motif of an hour-glass dropping out showing the brown cloth, and gold with a box and the author/title/publisher information. The pressure of the die stamping has indented the paper, showing it was there when the cases were stamped. The title is also stamped on the front cover. One might comment that that spine liner is a pretty thin and flimsy piece of “board”.

Although the book is unsewn, Random House obviously gave extra care and attention to its design. I suspect that a solid case binding like this was probably standard for a trade book back then, but not every novel got the two-color stamping treatment and a top stain which may have started out black but is now a greyish color. The book was designed by Marshall Lee, still a big name even when I hit these shores twenty-five years later. The text is printed in two colors: the chapter numbers are in a brown ink tactfully matching the cloth. Quite a neat package, though I’m not totally sold on that first line of caps — maybe it’s just the drop that makes me feel a bit queasy — I think I’d prefer the chapter number to be raised three or four picas allowing four or so more lines of text on the page. But we do have to thank Mr Lee for insisting on the excellent letter spacing in that first line.


In my post about Half-title — written almost ten years ago — I mentioned our practice of sometimes duplicating the half-title at the end of the front matter (in order to add pages to the book in the attempt to reach an even working without too many blanks at the back). What I didn’t realize at the time is that this duplicated half-title page falling between front matter and text should properly be called a fly-title.

John Carter’s ABC for book collectors describes the situation thus: “A second half-title is sometimes found, in 19th and 20th century books, placed between the last page of the prelims and the opening page of text. This is called a fly-title. The term is also sometimes used of divisional titles in abbreviated form.”

Andrew Dangelas in a recent comment on Perfect Binding suggested that there’s a distinction to be made between a half-title and a bastard-title. He writes that there will be nothing but the book’s title on a half-title page, whereas if the page contains additional copy describing the book it should be named a bastard-title. I cannot find any written support for this theory: all the sources suggest bastard and half are just synonyms. But the idea does sound internally coherent, so there may be people out there using the terms to make such a distinction. Anyone know anything about this?



The Scholarly Kitchen sends us this TEDx talk by Sarah Hyndman whose website (plus associated blog) is called Type Tasting. Her message is that typefaces are not inert designs. They are a bit like clothing that words put on. People intuitively recognize that what they chose to wear affects others’ reaction to them — you don’t wear shorts and a T-shirt to a job interview — and we ought not to be too surprised that the same effects can be detected in typeface choice.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Ms Hyndman tells us of an experiment she conducted making several people each eat a (same flavor) jelly bean while exposed to one of two different typefaces. The typeface on the left is rounded and comfortable, the one on the right jagged and threatening. Subjects reported sweeter/sourer tastes depending on the typeface they were shown. Ms Hyndman informs us that there’s more research into this effect going on at Oxford. I suppose, if, as seems undeniable, the typeface on a printed piece can alter your reaction to a message, then the typeface you use to write something is likely to affect what you end up writing. (The Scholarly Kitchen does discuss this.) In this blog I address you in Arial, an unfussy, down-to-earth face, which perhaps suits my no-nonsense, bloke-ish affect. Arial is a face I spent a long time abhorring, mainly because it was used by Microsoft’s Windows (I’m a Mac maniac), but here I am using it. (Of course I didn’t actually spec Arial: I picked up and used a template provided by WordPress which happened to use Arial. But I did choose it didn’t I?) I sort of salve my conscience by thinking that it may actually be Helvetica (Arial was allegedly designed to mimic Helvetica and to provide the look of Helvetica without the license fee!) Actually my blog may in fact really be using Helvetica — detecting the difference is rather hard and is I fear beyond me. Other stuff I write uses Palatino, a much more traditional look. I don’t think I write differently in Palatino, but who knows. I expect there may well be slight differences. I did see a tweet from someone recently objecting to setting a Jane Austen novel in Times Roman, mainly I think on grounds of anachronism — but does the businesslike straightforwardness of Times Roman actually affect the reading? These Oxford researchers have lots of material to look into.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not: Synesthesia rules — all the way down.


* Ms Hyndman says “font”. Old-school sticklers might insist on “typeface”. See Font.

Book Riot sends a link to this Epicurious story by Charlotte Druckman comparing the covers of several British and American editions of various cookbooks. The first example makes the point.

Simple, witty, British cover at the left, bland US version on the right.

The article features a lot of books by Yotam Ottolenghi, someone who I’d thought of as less well-known in USA than in Britain.

In trying to isolate the main differences between British and American approaches to design, Stephanie Jackson, Commissioning Editor at Octopus in London suggests “‘What the British market is generally aiming for’ in order to ‘make the books visible in an incredibly crowded market, is a distinctive cover — something not obvious, [that will] pique the browser’s curiosity’.” Of course there’s a close relationship between market expectations and cover design. A picture of the author/celebrity cook on the cover is not much use in a market where they are not familiar from television. I guess it goes without saying that a picture of some dish for which it’s difficult to buy the ingredients in your country is not perhaps the best choice for a cover. And then there are national preferences to take into account. Apparently you can’t put clams or tofu on a cookbook cover in America. I imagine we can all think of dishes which would put us off buying a book. Just think tripe.

I’m not so sure about the British tendency to use just type and a drawing on cookbook covers, though maybe it’s just the three examples shown, Ottlenghi’s Plenty, his Jerusalem and Sami Tamimi’s Falastin that I find less welcoming than the conventional, food-shot US versions of these three books. However it obviously works triumphantly well on Simple. Maybe the impact is greater the rarer the approach is. C. Max Magee used to do an annual round-up comparing British and American cover design in general. I did a post in 2015 which links to seven-year’s-worth of these comparisons. Unfortunately Mr Magee seems to have given up this little tradition.

That iconic lemon has eventually made it over here: apparently it’s being used for The Essential Ottolenghi, a two-volume boxed set.

In a way it’s a bit of a surprise that we can have this discussion about transatlantic design of cookbooks. One of the features of the cookbook business is that there seems to be no shortage of projects, especially in America, so you might think that importing books, and having to change the units of measurement, was unnecessary. (Maybe there really are relatively few of these both-sides books, and that’s actually why the hot Mr Ottolenghi looks like he’s overrepresented in this cover comparison project.)

I wrote about drop initials about a year and a half ago, and stand by what I said, although the evidence presented below may look like it calls for some moderation of the implied praise of Oxford University Press in that post.

These are a couple of chapter opening pages from A. C. Grayling’s Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age, a nice little book published by OUP in 2002. There’s so much wrong with these drop initials that anyone could see that including them was a really dumb idea. Maybe the designer thought that as the book is a collection of pieces written for The Guardian it would be appropriate to reach for a flavor of the careless typography often associated with that publication (in the past, let us say)! The one on the left leaves you pondering what the word Ltioning might mean, or it would if you hadn’t just been brought up short by oyalty. The second example shows just what the causes of the problem are.

  • the drop initial is too small. It needs to base align with the second line, which it does, and also align with the top of the ascenders of the first line (if the rest of the first word were to be set in Caps), or with the top of the x-height of the line (if the rest of the first word is to be set in small caps). This one triumphantly manages to top-align with neither.
  • the second line needs to be indented by some amount, to get it away from the drop initial. The only letters where the designer’s instruction in this book might work out would be F, P, T, W, and Y — the characters which provide their own space at the foot.
  • the balance of the first word needs to be tied to the drop initial so that the reader can read the word as one word. These same five Caps are the ones which would work out here as originally spec’d. Unfortunately not too many of the chapters begin with an F, a P, a T, a W or a Y.

Now, in defense of Oxford University Press’s design standards, it does look from the imprints page as if they originally bought finished hardback books for the US market from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, who published the book in Britain (and no doubt the rest of “the traditional market”) under the title The Meaning of Things. OUP’d then just shoot the book when they converted it into their Galaxy paperback line. If this diagnosis is correct then of course it’s really with Weidenfeld’s designer that my beef should be.

I do think the OUP title is better. The Meaning of Things sounds too portentous for what is a philosophy-light romp through 61 topics such as Civility, Intemeperance, Death, Hope, Privacy. Meditations for the Humanist is a slightly odd title — surely a religious enthusiast might also meditate along with Professor Grayling — but titles are often laid on authors by their publisher. I don’t understand why on the cover only the two little words in the middle of the title are italicized. One looks for italics to emphasize things, so just why we’d need to pay special attention to for and the remains mysterious. The cover designer may be the only one to know — if even she does.

A couple of years ago, shortly after Stig Abell was appointed to the editorship, the Times Literary Supplement did a bit of market research in which I got involved. They were already talking about wooing a younger audience back then, and I fear my input was probably not too helpful as I kept on saying “don’t change this; don’t change that”.

Of course every publication wants a younger and more diverse audience. I’ve often claimed that the subscription base of a newspaper like the TLS or The New York Review of Books will not really be an accurate reflection of its readership. Anyone working in publishing will get these papers at work, and we all read them. So the average age of subscribers may well look high — I didn’t subscribe till I had retired — but will be self-refreshing as people cease to get it free in the office. Still, the circulation department are not going to take my word for this and stop trying.

One of the troubles in changing the title to TLS tout court is that this combination of letters already means quite a few things on the internet. Type TLS into the Wikipedia search box, and it’ll ask you to chose between 27 different options. Is this a good thing? Google it and your search results will be all about Transport Layer Security which is “a cryptographic protocol that provides end-to-end communications security over networks and is widely used for internet communications and online transactions”. So they’d better not throw out the full title too quickly.

Now they’ve come up with a new design which according to Design Week, “aims to attract ‘new, younger and more culturally diverse audiences’”. I’m not altogether sure what’s particularly culturally diverse about having a big white space between column two and column three of your three-column layout. The old four-column layout looked too “old, white, Anglo-Saxon male” I guess! I’m not going to do the cast off, but I expect they are now getting fewer words per page. I imagine contributors must have been warned of the youthful virtues of concision. There’s quite a bit of orange type sprinkled about. It occasionally changes to pale blue without apparent rhyme or reason. Poor old JC has been banished from the back page which is now just a boring old advert — sorry, an exciting, young advert. The title of his column, now on the penultimate page, has virtually disappeared and is transformed into a tiny orange box at the top right corner. The admittedly old-fashioned NB logo made up of books representing letters is nowhere to be seen.

One comment in their correspondence columns describes page 18 (shown below) as a “typographical hot mess”. It does look a bit scatter-shot with these wobbling margins which are mainly a consequence of the decision to indent long quotes both left and right, as well as setting them in smaller type. In the old design they didn’t have that right hand indent. Cleaving to minimalist principals, I think long quotes can be distinguished by indentation or by the use of smaller type. Using both risks redundancy and in this case a messy page. And yes; it looks like they are using a whiter sheet, though my photos may exaggerate the difference — and the fact that the old issue is a year and a half old already may mean that acidic decay is responsible for the yellowing.

You can click on the photos to see the whole page of the old design.

I sound sarcastic, but I don’t really have any problem with the new design. I didn’t have any problem with the old design either though. I suppose change is necessary from time to time, and when the publication made the fairly dramatic decision to hire Mr Abell they were obviously signposting a turn towards youth. His editorial in the first issue using the new design ends up with the rather mild and middle-aged rallying cry: “Continuity and change, as ever, need to be kept in balance. I do hope you enjoy our own reinvention”. The new design grows on me as I refer to the pages while writing this. It may be damning with faint praise to say it’s certainly a lot better than The Economist‘s recent redesign. The front cover is (at least in the first example) admirably clean and attractive. The new typeface used for the title/logo is an upgrade, and is much better letterspaced than its frumpy predecessor. Not sure what if anything is particularly youthful about the redesign though, but if you can persuade younger people that the redesign is a gift to them, them persuade away, and hope that they sign up.