dot-font: Design in a Bind

Books are still the most common way of communicating large amounts of information to a large number of people. Book design, like typography, is one of those things we take for granted unless we practice them professionally; as readers most of us don’t consciously notice how a page is laid out unless it screams to be noticed. But our ability to enjoy and use books depends partly on the art and craft of the book designer.

A Book Is an Object
The basic unit of book design is the page spread. As Swiss book designer Jost Hochuli among others has pointed out, no matter how asymmetrical the layout of the pages may be, they always come in pairs: left and right of the same size and the same aspect ratio, centered on the gutter where they are bound together at the spine. So it makes sense to design with the two-page spread in mind, not just the single page. (This may change someday if we end up with books that coalesce page by page on a single sheet of “smart paper,” but this is a concern for the future.)

This page spread doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of an actual physical object in your hands. Book design includes the materials the book is made of — paper, ink, binding, covers, maybe dust jacket — and the size, shape, flexibility, and heft of the book itself. Too often, the designer has no control over any of these physical concerns, because the publisher has already decided on a format and on the materials to be used, but they’re nonetheless important. The volume should open easily and the pages should lie reasonably flat while you’re reading — something that’s hard to achieve with today’s binding methods, even in the “sewn” bindings.

The interior of a book is going to be viewed from a fairly consistent distance: the convenient distance for holding the book before your face or in your lap, or for laying it down on a table or propping it up on a desk or other nearby surface. The usual distance is fourteen to eighteen inches; certainly you wouldn’t normally try to read a book from a distance of less than a foot or more than two feet, unless you’re exceptionally nearsighted or farsighted. (You might peer closely at some detail of a photo or a painting reproduced in a book, or if you’re a typographer like me you might study some fine point of the text type, but that’s a special case.)

Three Ways of Looking at a Book
Before you can design a book, you need to know its purpose. How will it be used? After all, the designer’s client may be the publisher, but the ultimate user of a book is the reader. It’s hard — probably impossible — to design a book successfully if you don’t read books yourself. As with any other kind of design, you have to be able to put yourself in the mind of the user.

Most books are used in one of three ways: browsing, continuous reading, or reference. (Of course, a single book may be used in all three ways, by different readers or at different times. We’ve probably all found ourselves browsing through a dictionary just for fun, and I’ve even been known to read continuously in a book about computer software if it’s written entertainingly. The latter, however, probably marks me as an anomaly and therefore not to be trusted.) Treatment of type, use of color, and layout of the page may be quite different for each kind of book.

  • Browsing A book designed for browsing can be much looser and more flamboyant in its typography and design than a book meant to be read from end to end. Varying sizes and styles of type may be appropriate, and there may be quite a few different kinds of visual and textual elements mixed up on the pages. (The most obvious are photographs and drawings, but they may include charts, graphs, tables, and lists, as well as completely gratuitous shapes or colors.) You may choose graphic elements just for their ability to catch the reader’s attention, but you have to give that reader a reward for being caught. There’s a certain necessary hierarchy even in a book meant purely for browsing; elements that function in the same way ought to look recognizably related to each other, and the larger, more eye-catching elements should lead to finer, more detailed information in some clear way. Browsing doesn’t mean a complete lack of structure.
  • Continuous Reading Books for continuous reading, such as novels, histories, or biographies, make up the hard core of book typography. This is the test: creating plain blocks of text, page after page of them, that look inviting and that a reader can plow through happily without strain and without giving a thought to how the page is designed or what the typeface looks like. Sometimes books for continuous reading have headings and subheads and other elements that stand out from the flow, but the heart of the matter is the text itself.
  • Reference In a reference book, the reader’s paramount need is to be able to find the information, quickly and without running up blind alleys. The writer or editor is responsible for the actual quality of the information and its logical organization, but it’s up to the book designer to make that organization clear and obvious to the reader. As researchers, we may be willing to put up with ugly or cramped text in a reference book, as long as we can get to the right entry easily; after all, we’re not expecting to spend a lot of time poring over the prose. But woe to the book designer who chooses a hard-to-read typeface for the key words of a dictionary or encyclopedia!

Two Examples
A couple of books worth mentioning at this point show completely different approaches to page design — and they’re both on relevant subjects, too.

Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces,” edited by Philip B. Meggs and Roy McKelvey (New York: RC Publications, 2000), comprises a series of essays on various groupings and categories of historical typefaces that have been revived in digital form. So ostensibly this might be a book for continuous reading. But the design is anything but conservative and text-based. Every page is full of colorful illustrations and dramatically shaped blocks of text, along with captions, blown up and interwoven paragraphs, and large and small examples of type in action. Each double-page spread is designed separately, although with a consistent style. This book is highly visual, and it’s meant to be browsed.

Since I was involved in the book’s creation, as a sort of technical editor of the text, I won’t try to write any sort of criticism or analysis. Some might argue that the visual flamboyance is gratuitous, and there are certainly some treatments of the text itself that I wouldn’t do myself. But there’s no question that the look is eye-catching, or that there’s a lot of information packed into those pages.

Richard Hendel’s “On Book Design” (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1998) is also visual where it has to be, since its subject is the design of books. Yet Hendel’s book (he designed it himself) is comfortable to hold — tall but light and somewhat narrow — and easy to read straight through. The central text columns are spacious and unvarying, with smaller columns on the outsides of the pages for notes and a lot of little epigraphs quoted from various other sources (sometimes amplifying Hendel’s points, sometimes contradicting them); illustrations either fit in the text column or take up the whole width of the page, sometimes on a page by themselves. Since the latter half of the book consists of essays by (or interviews with) eight other book designers, usually focusing on how they did an individual book, there’s an obvious usefulness to enclosing such varied approaches within a consistent, continuous mise-en-page.

Further Reading
There are other books — the standard references — on book design and book typography, which I’ll mention in my next column. I will also get into some of the details of text and display typography and how a book designer makes choices about these matters, and introduce the major problems of book design, along with their possible solutions.

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Posted on: April 27, 2001

2 Comments on dot-font: Design in a Bind

  1. I truly appreciate your references in the article. As one who works as a new designer in an outfit that is about 25 yrs behind the times (we’re still trying to figure out why and who should do our web page okay!) – I’m always looking to broaden my knowledge from working profesionals. That article took me to a great reference site – Thanks!

  2. good reading about reading – and visualizing and planning layout.

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