Off and on for a while now at lunch I’ve been plowing along through Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking: Editing, Design, Production, Third Edition, an excellent overview of the mechanics of book publishing that would be a good textbook for any college-level intro class about the industry. For anyone already involved in publishing much of the information will be familiar, but I think anyone will find nuggets of interest in it.
For example, when it comes to book design, I tend toward the utilitarian. So, on the one hand, I’m usually one of those folks who think the actual content of the book is paramount and basically don’t want the layout and the design of the book to get in the way and, essentially, for it to be transparent. On the other hand, as I’ve noted before, I also have a real appreciation for books where the overall production design—Bent Ply with its plywood cover and Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things with its plastic pages—exemplify the ideas/concepts within the book itself.
Bookmaking, though, has a passage early on that has me really rethinking my position on the overall importance of book design, especially interior page layout. On page 55 Lee writes:
There are two conflicting points of view on the purpose of book design:
(a) Book design should be concerned only with making an economical, tasteful choice and disposition of the book’s material and visual ingredients.
(b) Book design is a communication problem, of which (a) is only a part.
The proponents of (a) contend that designers shouldn’t interpret the content of the book. They should keep their work as neutral as possible, so that it won’t “interfere” between author and reader. The other school (to which this writer belongs) feels that such neutrality, even if it were desirable, is impossible. A book inevitably has graphic and tactile characteristics, and these should be organized to the advantage of the author and reader—don’t ignore the reader’s senses when the author’s thoughts are being transmitted through a physical book that can and does affect those senses. The power of visual design is as properly applied to a book as it is to a play or a building.
The books of the “neutral” school are often poorly done but they’re rarely offensive. On the other hand, a clumsy or tasteless attempt to use the full range of graphic effects in a book can be monstrous. This isn’t an insignificant point, but the more important point is that a book produced by a skillful and sensitive designer can rise far above a work that aspires to be only neutral.
Several points come to mind as I read this passage once again. First of all, I owe designers in general and Steve Tiano in particular a big apology. Steve talks frequently in his blog about using design to communicate the content of the book to the reader and I never really got what he was talking about until now. (The fact that Bookmaking is a nicely designed book helps prove its point about all this.) Second, while I don’t have a design background to help me much with making aesthetic design decisions ahead of time, I have enough sense to see (and not particularly care for) those “neutrally” designed books; in particular, those that were obviously laid out with MS Word. Third, as Walter Mossberg wrote just today in the Wall Street Journal about Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device, its physical design actively interferes with the reading experience, which, in a roundabout way, emphasizes Lee’s point here once again.
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