Archives for category: Book design

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.

I guess we can call the contest for best cover of the year now — anything to be published in December will already have had its cover designed and printed.

Literary Hub does this cover round-up every year — there’s link in the story to previous years’ posts. Why 78? Or do I mean why 26? Did each selector get to name 3 choices? Doesn’t really matter: 78 remain an odd (if even) number. Why don’t I love any of them? (Or hate any, for that matter.) Not sure. I doubt if it’s got anything to do with modern design trends though.

Readers of books should ideally be unaware of the thought processes of designers and layout people, so that nobody has to stop and wonder why this or that decision was made in setting the type in the book they’re reading. The mission of design is to facilitate the smooth transmission of the message from author to reader: not to shout out, look what a beautiful job I’ve done. For design and layout people beautiful ought to be synonymous with invisible. But of course because we remain unaware of these thought processes, when we might wish to consider them we find that we remain unaware of them.

To me, the knowledge contained in the head of a book compositor was amazing. A seven-year apprenticeship can’t have been enough to internalize everything. Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers* Oxford University Press’ guide for workers in its printing plant (which closed in 1989) contains the following instructions on word-breaks.


Avoid division if at all possible, having regard for the requirements of good typography. [Which basically means don’t set the line with too much letterspacing — i.e. don’t set the line t o o  l o o s e just to avoid a word-break at the end.] Where word-breaks are necessary, however, the following rules apply:

(a) A minimum of two characters may be left behind and a minimum of three characters carried over at a word-break.

(b) Two successive hyphens only are allowed at the ends of lines.

(c) A divided word should not end a right-hand page.

(d) If the right-hand page is a full-page illustration or table, the facing left-hand page should not end with a hyphen.

And that’s it. Following these simple rules will avoid ugly and confusing word-breaking. Too many hyphens and your eye will begin to pick up the wrong line when flicking back and forth; too few characters and misunderstandings threaten. Turning the page is always an opportunity to loose the place, so don’t make the chances higher by breaking the word. (In this context see also Catchword.) Attention should be given to the structure of the word in making the decision to split it: don’t do pr-oductive or produc-tive. These sorts of rules are now incorporated into software, and will be applied without the benefit of human intervention. But as an overriding rule In Hart states “In borderline cases supervisors are to be consulted for a decision whether an exception is to be made.”

These rules are a distillation of 500 years of trial and error. Printers arrived at this sort of consensus by discovering that doing differently resulted in poor outcomes. Each compositor internalized the rules, which would be drummed into them when they were apprentices. Actually, the thinking about all this goes back more than 500 years, as scribes writing out manuscripts developed rules about all sorts of things, including word division.

There are some word-breaks which although they are by the rule should never be undertaken. The one that sticks in my mind is pre-gnant”


* “Readers” refers here not to you or me snuggling up in an armchair to consume an OUP book — it refers to the proofreaders employed by all printers back then. When the type had been set it would go to an internal proof room where it was read against copy and sent back to the composing room for correction before a proof was ever sent out to the customer. I was at one time involved with the books of W. Edwards Deming, who held the view that Cambridge University Press was the best typesetter in the world because they never made a mistake. For an efficiency expert this was a slightly odd view as the reason for the apparent perfection was that the proof he was seeing had always been read and corrected before it was sent to him — not really the world’s most efficient use of labor. As the Press had closed the proof room by the time we were doing his books, we would send the proof to a freelance proofreader first, get corrections made, and then send the “perfect” proof to the author. I’m sure he went to his grave convinced of Cambridge’s infallibility.

Proof readers and compositors, whether they started out that way or become so as a result of years of experience, were often considerable experts in arcana. From time to time eminent professors of Greek or Mathematics in Cambridge would send notes of thanks to the compositor for saving them from errors in the subject areas in which they were meant to be the experts.

Alex Bray, @StGilesResident reports on Twitter on this improved jacket which has been wrapped round copies of David Cameron’s book in Foyles in Charing Cross Road. (Thanks to Dr Syntax for forwarding the tweet.)

Quite an elaborate effort, but of course color printing has become so much easier (and cheaper) to get done nowadays. Fifty years ago only the richest of commentators could have paid for a job like this. Now we almost  all have a little color printer in our homes: not that this job could have been done on your personal printer without taping several sheets together.

You’ve got to love the puff from our guy on the front of the jacket. The culprit has done flaps too, which you can see by following the link to the tweet.

Literary Hub brings us 25 covers of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I just read it as an ebook and thus missed out on the whole cover experience.