Editor to Book Designer: Read First, Design Later!
Editor though I am, graphic design fascinates me. I think a well-designed book, regardless of subject matter, can launch some of life's greatest experiences. There is something wonderfully encouraging about the dialogue between the visual and the cerebral inspired by type on a page (or screen). Frequently I am thrilled when I read words made from well-wrought, carefully chosen type. Place it in thoughtful proximity to pictures, and it can be astonishing. Therefore, I want to know if others think it is too much to ask of book designers that they pay attention to the substance and nature and content of their raw material—text and, often, images.
"Type: nothing but blocks of gray space!" I was present when this was tossed off word-for-word by one of the world's most highly reputed graphic designers. You can guess in what esteem he held the actual words and sentences that comprised that gray space. (Sadly, his illustrated-book designs treated pictures as nothing but blocks of colored space.) But he raked in the design awards. Had he read any of the text with which he was asked to work, his designs would undoubtedly have been very different—dare I say better?
Another quote: "He would be happiest if he was asked to design a book that had no words." And you guessed it, "he" is also an acclaimed book designer who reliably wins impressive kudos and awards. When I heard this statement and the admiration it engendered, I recalled a museum publications competition I judged a few years ago. My fellow judges quickly became annoyed by suggestions (on a couple of occasions, insistence) that we take into account the manner in which the content was handled and how it worked—or didn't—with the visual component. But my colleagues couldn't move beyond assessments of each piece's "pretty quotient." Their words, not mine. Basically, my viewpoint was completely overruled within the first hour or so. (As I recall, the highest accolades went to a tasteful, neo-Romantic poster featuring a restrained painting of a bouquet of flowers with a counterpoint of tightly elegant type. It was lovely, unquestionably, but had little to do with the subject of the exhibition it promoted: the art and culture of late-1930s Berlin.)
By the time we founded Vern Associates, Peter had heard my diatribes about book designers' all-too-frequent refusal to read the material with which they were charged. His being a book designer didn't dissuade me from jumping on my soapbox, from which I could spew unfair invective and floods of generalized, less-than-complimentary notions about why reading wasn't part of their skill set. Nevertheless, Peter took it to heart, and when we began our business he became determined to show me that not every graphic designer prides him or herself on feigned illiteracy. The result, I like to think, has been books offering far more than merely surface beauty and visual intrigue. These publications actually enhance readers' experiences and facilitate their understanding of the material between covers.
Typically, simple tools accommodate this. For example, for our Princeton U.P. book—Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art—we were asked to capture the vibrance of Lothar Ledderose's brilliant Mellon Lectures by conveying in book form the blend of his lively speaking style, the information and point of view he offered, and the immediacy made possible by an illustrated presentation. We recognized right away that to do this we needed a design that "speaks" directly to the text, which our editorial/design mix provided. So, when Prof. Leddorose deals in detail with the integral character of a 12th-century BC bronze wine container, we chose to display all four sides and two views of the lid together on a single page, which faced the relevant text. The author later told us that he was delighted with this solution, which he had never encountered before.
The importance of the book designer's comprehension of the nature of the text recently struck me when weeding my library. Several discards were books whose content I treasure and return to often, but the tiny type and skimpy leading made those particular editions ineligible for future reading. I was particularly struck by the miserliness apparent in the text design for a volume of Emily Dickinson's poems and another by, of all people, Walt Whitman! Had the designers spent half an hour or so reading random selections of either one, I can't imagine how they could have prepared such cramped and crimped pages.
To be fair, designers aren't at fault when publishers' economic dictates require Scrooge-like squeezing into too few pages. But don't book publishers (and their editors and designers) owe it to readers to create as felicitous an experience as possible? From my personal perspective, I see that as the goal to which book makers of all stripes and job descriptions must aspire.