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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 4 (August-September 1952)

The Design of a Book

page 86

The Design of a Book

The designer of a book, like the designer of a house or a milk-jug, must be concerned, not only with use, but with pleasurable use; he is dealing with an article that should serve the twin purposes of ‘commodity and delight’. The manner in which these two purposes are reconciled is the test of the designer of a book.

Now the first purpose of a book is communication. It exists to enable the reader to obtain from the printed page the thought of the author, whether that thought is presented for information or for entertainment. It is true that this end of communication could conceivably be achieved after a fashion by almost any mechanically-correct presentation of the author's text—even by a photostatic reproduction of his manuscript. It is equally true, however, that a book badly designed or not designed at all can place between author and reader almost every kind of obstacle to communication. The physical features of a book—the paper, the style of the printed letters, the manner in which the type is impressed upon the paper, the imposition or lay-out of the printed matter upon the page, and the binding—all affect both the facility and the pleasure of the act of reading. The function of the book-designer is to ensure that these elements are so handled as to make the reading of the book both easy and pleasurable. He is inevitably concerned it the same time with the utilitarian and the aesthetic; but the æsthetic quality of a book must derive from the fitness of its design to the basic purpose of communication in relation to its own particular text, and must never depend upon added ornamentation, recherche letter-forms, self-consciously ‘artistic’ imposition of type upon the page, or ostentatiously expensive paper.

Although the approach to a book is from the outside—through the jacket, the binding and the displayed titlepage, the ultimate test of its design is in the manner in which the body of the text is presented. This is seen in an ‘opening’—comprising two facing pages of printed text. The proportions used in positioning the two separate masses of printed matter on the white space of the opening are either satisfactory (and therefore scarcely noticed) or they make the reader uneasy by giving an impression of lack of balance or untidiness. The paper on which the pages are printed will also probably attract attention only if it is inferior, or unsuitable for the purposes of that particular book. And a page that is too black with type may repel the reader as much as one that is too pale and grey.

Begin to read the page and the other factors become important—the clarity with which the type is impressed upon the page, the design of the actual letters of the type, the size of the type, the length of lines, the spacing between words and between lines, and the treatment of such elements as headings and page (or folio) numbers.

All these factors are capable of a very wide range of variation. With every one of them there must be a deliberate choice: and unless the choice made in each case is in accordance with a general plan—a design for the book as a whole—the result will certainly be unhappy for the reader. Because few working printers are competent to plan a book satisfactorily this task of design tends more and more to be handled by a specialist designer—the typographer. It should be noted, however, that the book designer's equipment for his task involves, not merely the possession of certain standards of æsthetic taste in relation to the appearance of a page or of a bound book, but a thorough and practical knowledge of the techniques of the printer's craft and of the resources of the printer with whom he is dealing at the moment. He cannot work in isolation: he must know that what he asks for in his design is both possible and reasonable.

Just as an architect must know such things as the living habits of his client, the length of his purse, and the environment in which he proposes to build, before he can plan a house for him, so the typographer, before planning a book, must be familiar with the author's manuscript, and know both the limitations of the investment the publisher is prepared to make in it and the class of reader who will be expected to buy it. The starting point, however, must be the manuscript—whatever else it does, the design must fit the nature and purpose of the author's communication.

Usually the first points to be decided will be the size of page and the nature of the paper on which the book is to be printed. There is no space here to discuss all the factors determining the choice of paper; the paper should, however, be strong, opaque (so that the text printed on one side does not show through to the other) and not tinted or surfaced in any way that will spoil the printing or attract attention away from the text. A glossy or ‘art-finished’ paper, which has to be used for printing photographs reproduced by the half-tone process, gives a text page which is very difficult to read. The use of such glossy paper cannot normally be avoided, however, where photographic illustrations have to be reproduced (as in some textbooks) on the same pages as text matter. The alternative of printing such books by lithography, which does not require a glossy paper, is very rarely available to the designer, because the high cost of the lithographic process can be justified only with editions of very much larger numbers than the New Zealand market will normally absorb. A further obstacle is that, of all books, textbooks are those which are most con- page 87 stantly revised when reprinted, and with lithography textual revision is more difficult and more costly than with letterpress printing. With the normal book, however, it is best to print the text on unsurfaced paper, introducing photographic illustrations on separate pages or sections of art-surfaced paper.

The size of the page must be decided at the same time as the nature of the paper, the length of the manuscript and the purpose of the book being the determining factors. A short manuscript printed on a large page in a normal size of type will make a slim book. It can be bulked a little by using a thicker (or bulking) paper—but unduly thick paper can be very unpleasant. There are limits also to the size of type that can be used. Alternatively a long manuscript printed on a small page is likely to make a fat and awkward book. Readers tend to prefer books and the paper they are printed on to run to neither extreme. They also expect the pages of certain kinds of books to be of certain sizes—popular novels to be crown octavo (7½ inches by 5 inches) and general literature to be demy octavo (8¼ inches by 5½ inches). But there is no hard-and-fast convention about this. It should be noted also that the designer's choice of the size of page in relation to the length and nature of the manuscript will be affected by his views concerning the kind and size of type suitable for the book, and the way that type is to be used on the page.

The attractiveness of a page or of an opening is very closely dependent on the treatment of margins, which determine the extent and proportion of what is known as the type area and its position on the page and in the opening. The general rules of proportion have to be followed, the margins diminishing from the widest at the foot of the page, with the outside margin next, followed by the head margin, and finally the inner or gutter margin. Although the inside margin should be narrowest, it should still not be so narrow that the fold of the page obscures the text. Unbalanced or too narrow margins oppress the reader: excessively wide ones tend to give the impression that the page is meant to be admired for itself and not to be read.

The selection of type suitable for a book, however, involves much more than a decision about size. Until differences are pointed out to them, most readers do not realise that there are many families of type, each different in design, and each producing its own distinctive look on the page, and that these differences provide one of the main reasons why some books are easy to read and others are not. Because the purpose of type is to be read—because it is an intermediary to communication—its first requirement is that its design—the shapes of individual letters, and the way they fit together—shall be unobtrusive. The letters of a book type-face should not call attention to themselves either by over-simplification or by over-emphasis, or by any other wide departure from those general features which make up the norm of our experience of reading the printed page. They should not be coarse and heavy, producing too dark a page; nor should they be grey and thin. The features or proportions of letters should not be exaggerated. In reading our own language after we have left the infant school we read, not by tracing the outline of each individual letter, but by a general recognition of the shape of words (or of word groups), being assisted in quick recognition by the position in a word shape of the distinguishing features of some of the letters—the tails and the finishing strokes (serifs) of such descending letters as p, j, g, the upper strokes of d, I, k, b, and by the backward opening of a. This is one of the reasons why a succession of full pages of sans serif types, with all strokes in all letters heavy and of almost uniform thickness, is extremely tiring to read. A page set in a type in which each letter sets out to be decorative is equally fatiguing. Types designed for newspapers, even when used in larger sizes, also make a difficult book page, because such types are usually condensed and black and have shortened or squeezed-up descenders, made necessary by the space-saving demands of newspaper typography. The use of such types is one of the reasons why books produced in New Zealand by newspaper printing works (and by other printers also) are usually unsatisfactory.

Many true book types, the outcome of the renaissance in type design that has taken place in England in the last thirty years, are nowadays available even in New Zealand. Which of them the designer will use will depend on his personal preference and his conception of the final appearance of the book, and, of course, the resources of his printer. The best way of assessing the differences between these types is by comparing complete pages of text.

After selecting his type-face, the designer must decide how it is to be used within the type area. His aims must be legibility and attractiveness, avoiding fussy ostentation as much as untidiness or overcrowding. The length of line having been determined by the decisions already reached concerning size of page and margins, he is to a certain extent limited in the size of type he can use, for the size of type must be suited to the length of the line. A long line of small type can be very difficult to read, for the eye-span—the number of words the eye can take in without shifting its focus—does not increase strictly in proportion as the type becomes smaller. Too large a type on a short line can be almost as tiring, for the eye has consciously to be shifted to the next line before it is ready.

Choosing a suitable size of type for the length of line, however, does not necessarily solve the problem of legibility. Within the type area there is still scope for variation—legibility is considerably affected by the amount of white space between the lines. The lines of type may be set closely together (solid) or spaced out (leaded). With some type-faces the letters are small but have long ascending strokes. These give a considerable amount of white space even when set solid. Others are greatly improved by a little leading between the lines. Leading is particularly useful when the designer is condemned to use very small type. It can easily be overdone, however, and then produces a page in which the type appears like thin grey lines on a sea of white. It is equally important that the words in each line should be set closely together, for wide spacing, still too common page 88 with many linotype operators, tends to produce rivers of white down the page.

A style has also to be determined for handling such elements as running headings at the top of the page and the page (or folio) number, together with any section headings or special features which appear in the text—such, for example, as quoted extracts, whether in verse or prose, and tabulations. In handling all these things the designer has to remember that, in a book, he is not dealing with a single page or even a single opening. Headings, for example, or other type elements serving a similar purpose, must be consistently styled in a similar fashion throughout the book.

The treatment of words requiring to be set in a special fashion to give emphasis is a constant pitfall. Many people seem to think that the only way to give emphasis within the text is to set words in black type, or to underline them. Fortunately underlining in a book is usually impossible for mechanical reasons. The use of black type is also in most cases an unsatisfactory solution of the problem. Without going to this extreme, the typographer has at his disposal, to give varying degrees of emphasis, not only italic and Italic capitals, but Level Small Capitals, as well as Capitals and Small Capitals, and finally Capitals. This range of five different weights of emphasis should be sufficient for most purposes—in fact, italic and level Small Capitals will provide almost all the variation of emphasis needed within the average text.

Certain pages of books, of course, require special treatment differing from that given to full pages of text. Such are the pages carrying contents lists or chapter openings, or the title page itself. In chapter openings and on the title page an element of display or decoration comes in, but always clarity and good proportion are the qualities chiefly required.

With so many variables to control, it is easy for the typographer to make mistakes. He can readily produce a page that is technically legible, yet completely unattractive. With luck, however, he sometimes succeeds in reconciling the twin aims of legibility and attractiveness. That more well-designed books are being produced in New Zealand nowadays is an indication, not only that the resources of our printers are increasing, but that people are becoming more interested in the appearance of what they read.