Archives for category: Book design

London Remembers added this blue plaque* to their collection of lost memorials as it had been left off the front of 22-23 Chiswell Street after the redesign of the entranceway. (Link via a tweet from Typographica.) The Caslon Letter Foundry had operated there from 1734 till 1936. Turns out that a couple of months later the plaque reappeared — so pilgrimages can resume. Spitalfields Life has an article about the foundry with a large gallery of photos. There’s a link there to a piece about Caslon which also has lots of illustrations.

William Caslon is, of course, remembered as the designer of the eponymous typeface.He needs however to be referred to as William I, as he came out of Halesowen to found a type founding dynasty in London. He started out as an apprentice with the Worshipful Company of Loriners in 1706. Loriners, often lorimers, make the metal parts for horse bridles. Caslon allegedly focussed on engraving metal pieces, especially gun locks, a task which also seems to have fallen to the loriner. Around 1720 the talented young man was set up as a type founder by John Watts, William Bower, and A. N. Other. Good timing. In 1722 Caslon was commissioned by SPCK (the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the third oldest English publisher after CUP and OUP) to cut an Arabic typeface. SPCK liked it, but even more did people like the Roman letter used at the bottom of the specimen sheet to identify the type founder. Printer Samuel Palmer got Caslon to cut an entire Roman alphabet, and so successful did Caslon’s Pica Roman become that very quickly England was transformed from an importer of type into an exporter. The face gained a world-wide following: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both set in Caslon type.

Caslon came to be the “British” typeface. It’s an old-style face rather than transitional like the almost contemporary Baskerville (well, fifty years later actually), and it took off from older Dutch designs, tidying them up and generating a feeling of straightforward solidity and geometrical balance. In weird slap-in-the-face mode the first biography of James Baskerville was printed at Cambridge University Press in 1907 using Caslon’s type. And this despite the fact that Baskerville’s original punches and matrices were owned by CUP. Into the nineteenth century Caslon enjoyed its continuing popularity, but gradually fell out of favor in time to be resuscitated in the twentieth century type renaissance in Britain.

Here’s a type specimen which includes down the right hand side Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Samaritan and Coptic, and at the bottom, Saxon. Keep clicking on it if you want to get into it.


*These blue plaques are quite widespread across London — there are apparently more than 950 of them. They usually note the fact that famous person X lived here. The scheme started in 1866 and is now administered by English Heritage.

Claude Garamont (c.1510-61) worked in Paris as a punchcutter during a time of rapid development in typeface design. The typeface which bears his name, Garamond, is characterized by a light elegance, and with its low x-height, a fairly compact look. His italic is less favored than his Roman, and indeed sometimes the italic cut by Robert Granjon (1513-1589 or 1590) is used in conjunction with Garamond’s Roman.* Garamond was one of the earliest type designers to insist that Italic Caps should be slanted like the lower case characters.

As an elegant, classy typeface Garamond was often favored by designers for literary topics. When first introduced it represented a shake-up in the world of type design, taking over as it did from the much heavier, German-influenced typefaces. It achieved lots of imitators, among them Caslon which ended up being used for the Declaration of Independence. Bear in mind that back then copying a typeface wasn’t as straightforward as it is today. You had to get down to it, get out your loupe and graver, and duplicate the work of the original punchcutter in metal. No surprise that your version might differ a little from Mr Garamont’s original. Some would differ more than others, and would in their turn generate different family lines of faces.

In the illustration below who can wonder why they chose to emphasize that lower case g? This must be as close as we can get to perfection of g. (I have to hang my head in shame at the version of that letter provided by the face used by this blog.)

Mental Floss brings us the startling news that the D.C. Circuit Court has written to lawyers telling them not to use Garamond in their filings. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.)This anti-Garamondism appears to have nothing to do with that flurry of anti-French sentiment a few years back which saw French fries having to be renamed Freedom fries — it’s apparently all to do with size. The court claims that Garamond “appears smaller” and alleges that using it allows lawyers to exceed length limits on their briefs. Surely they could just switch to a word count limit rather than a page count.

One possible justification for the decision is the fact that Garamond doesn’t render particularly well on a computer screen. Here’s a post from Design for hackers which explains this.

The Court should perhaps be careful about the expression of its motivation. I once spent hours going through type books figuring out what the tightest setting typeface would be — and Garamond was not the winner. The typeface allowing you to cram most characters onto a page turns out to be (maybe was then) Weidemann. We did use the Weidemann in a Bible — this may not be the most elegant Bible ever printed, but it must be a contender for the fewest pages for the largest type. It might, I suppose, be argued that Garamond’s low x-height allows you to use less leading than other faces demand, thus fitting a line or two more onto any given type area.


*However Garamond’s Italic ampersand is something to behold, and should never be lost.

Fortunately this extravagant flight of fancy is preserved in Matthew Carter’s Galliard Italic. Galliard was introduced in 1978 and is the typeface used in the Library of America volumes. Carter followed Granjon in designing his Galliard, and I speculate whether this ampersand was actually Granjon’s not Garamond’s, incorporated into the design for Monotype Garamond Italic in the 1920s when so many “lost” typefaces were reintroduced to the world of printing.

“Booksellers Against Trick Spines” was originally an April Fool’s gag, but the problem of trick spines might have some basis in reality. A trick spine is the name someone has given to book spines which don’t look anything like the front cover of the book. Brilliant Books gives a few examples. Some of these spines are indeed starkly different from the front cover art: One Long River Song has a yellow spine but hardly any yellow on the blue front; The Body Keeps Score ditto, with orange instead of yellow. One can see how this might make a spine-out book difficult to locate on the shelf: the memory of the book you have internalized is the front cover.

Well of course this is by no means cause for major concern, but I do think “good” design would tend to call for some relationship between the various panels making up a cover. After all a good design should stick in the mind, and become integrated with the overall idea of the book in question, facilitating picking it out in a crowd. Given that in most bookstore crowds the only bit of the book that’s going to be seen is the spine, that should argue for a bit of primacy being given to that portion of the design. And I don’t mean by this those annoying little boxed duplicates of the illustration on the front cover which became such a fashionable trick a few years back. I think the design of the whole cover should be one integrated whole.

The original joke, picked up in a Shelf Awareness update on recent April 1 “initiatives”, includes this logo for the supposed organization dedicated to countering the plague.

While booksellers driven batty by this problem might solve the issue by training and alphabetical ordering, perhaps we should also bear in mind the needs of the home library user with the seeker desperately trying to locate that blue cover while all that’s exposed to view is a yellow or orange strip. Almost makes you want to settle for a boring alphabetical arrangement for your books. I keep mine in serendipity-inducing randomness — constant inspection is needed to keep fixed in your mind where any individual book is to be found.

Might the trick spine be a problem, real or imaginary, which finds its origins in the increasing importance of online bookselling? All the design attention nowadays gets focussed on the need for a striking front cover, one which will be readily identifiable when reduced to the thumbnail size we are likely to encounter online, so that the spine and the back cover almost become afterthoughts.

Sounds like a bit of a joke but here you can hear this new typeface earnestly introduced by a spokesperson from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Apparently the idea is that if you have to struggle to get the information, you’ll be able to remember it better. This idea, which is dressed up with the scientific-sounding name “desirable difficulty”, may or may not be nonsense. Make the typeface hard to read, and the reader will work harder at understanding it. This rather calls into question efforts to design text pages with a typeface which makes it easier for dyslexics to cope. If there’s any basis to this desirable difficulty study plan wouldn’t it be desirable to instal 40 watt bulbs in all libraries, and few of them at that? Or set textbooks in 5 point type and print them in pale grey ink? It might also be considered wise to make students do their homework in noisy pubs: not that any of them would ever have thought of that for themselves. Or maybe to forbid them to do their homework at all, or even to prevent them from attending class. “We’re not going to tell you what it is you need to know, but the test’s next week.”

The concept of desirable difficulty was apparently invented in 1994 by Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist. It is good to know that he is also the discoverer of the “directed forgetting paradigm” — the full service: can’t get that Sans Forgetica text out of your mind, here comes directed forgetting.

Sans Forgetica makes you think of a Costa Brava seaside resort with one or two too many margaritas on board — maybe the beach is where we should all be going to study.

Notice of this story comes via The Passive Voice, where there are further links to pieces in Wired and in Science Daily. The Science Daily article indicates that the jury is actually still out on whether this desirable difficulty does or does not increase learning.

In my schooldays the preferred method was not so much desirable difficulty (Latin has that inherently anyway) rather it was “desirable fear” — the technique of beating knowledge into the brain via the backside. It never worked either.

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?