Reflections on design

After going through a rather lengthy process with someone over a book and its design, it seems right to say something about practice and theory. I like Jost Hochuli’s Designing Books; opening section Book design as a school of thought; On symmetry in the book, on function and functionalism in book typography, and against the ideologizing of design systems. When it comes to symmetrical and asymmetrical typography Jost is not summarily speaking but asks for a “rational assessment of typographic ways and means.” Of “enlightenment . . . as a lance against typographic dogmas,” and from Kant: “The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!”

This is a fine attitude and find solace in it as it is an opening for a breadth of integrity. Of course Kant was speaking generally about a view of the world, and Jost uses his words for a “modest and specialized level of typography” as what one might say to young designers.

It might be important to note that using your understanding doesn’t always mean being against something. Assertion with proof can also be misleading in typography. It will not always be true to use an example of an existing design, even assertion by example can become dogmatic. Space, for instance, around typography, once a system is established, once the framework of margins or grids is determined suitable for the material going into a book, it is best to maintain them. And a highly organized book of information, with a large number of illustrations and plans, can make use of three different grid systems. They may also be based precisely on the measurements of just one text area. If a pages content, such as a heading or opening or short passage of text, seem high and irregular by comparison, with all its white space and too close to the head margin, this is to be expected if it follows the plan. Typography breathes in space and we must learn to respect and see the relationship and not impose a tendency to adjust what has been set up to take into consideration a great number of elements.

Lyons:Mareschal and Chaussard 1510

In an opening discussion of symmetry we find definition; ‘symmetría’ signified measure, harmony, the right proportion. Symmetry in the ancient world must be seen in the Pythagorean view of the universe, and the mathematical concept more narrow yet precise. Still, it has a rich historical background with a number of symmetrical transformations; for typographic purposes we look at bilateral symmetry which does not function in a restricted sense. “The only thing that displays absolute axial symmetry is the open book block, in its familiar codex form.” The theoretical discussion might appear formal but asks us to see if what we think as symmetrical is really so. Only the blank pages that turn on the spine of a book are so. Printed pages are never identical. Right and left images are not interchangeable.
Marcellus Nonius

Centering lines on an axis became possible with the use of type. Scribes of manuscripts, illuminated books, all books and scrolls written by hand were done without centering. It is extremely difficult to letter, to print by hand, around a central axis, centered on the page, or for that matter, on the text block, that area designated by the margins in proportion to the open book. Type composition done by hand allows for equal spacing to be easily divided to the left and right of the word or phrase. And mechanical setting devices and machines allow for this as well. This was used primarily for title pages and used to death by the end of the nineteenth century. It is not the fault of the design principle but its ill-considered application. The relationship between printed area and white space must be worked out, between positive and negative, the figure / ground relationship. Use imagination and individuality rather than simply applying a principle again and again until it becomes dull and lifeless. One basis for this is to remember that a pages margins were never meant to be centered on a single page, the relationship is between the two pages on the spine, the inner margins to the outer margins, and the head margins to the foot margins. These can vary but should not drift without reason toward becoming equal. Mass market books for a long time used little margins, and near to equal, on part being subject to photographic stripping, high-speed presses, mechanical trimming, and to save materials, to save money, to get thousands out to “the masses” and eventually fall apart or be thrown away. They serve their purpose, but let us not use them as an example of a system to apply a priori.

The discussion with my colleague entered upon an aspect of page design known as the text block and the relative margins, and moved to the realm where page elements were taken out of the relationship under the pretense of looking odd or to busy. These elements are rarely arrived at randomly, especially if any pleasing proportion to the text of poetry is to be achieved, and if a balance of the average line length and stanza breaks are to be a priority. Floating text blocks of poetry only occur in anthologies because authors rarely write poems of the same size in line length and number of lines, except for perhaps Haiku. Unfortunately centering is often thought to be the way poetry should be designed. This gives the left hand margin and subsequent page an inconsistent, if ever the same, placement.The natural organic appearance of poetry is different from prose when in text blocks on a double spread. Though prose that is not justified left and right can be similar visually. Margins for poetry are less obvious but they exist just the same. They are to be set based on an average line length taken from all the poems, and given proportionate margins, so that the poems do not appear to be too far to the left. This can be difficult if an author writes using both short and long line poems. Still, the system best be used and never centering because then the pages look static. Truncation would be preferable if lines are very long, but not many like that either. A change in page size is a good option, and typeface and type size is also an option.

It is better a book never have misconceptions imposed upon a design process if any beauty is to be retained. Typography should have individuality. Practices that limit style, these “dogmas,” would be unrelated to the work itself. It is why the Arts and Crafts movement was begun, and the fine press movement carried on. The designers and crafts people of those times sought to rescue the book from the effects of industry and bad materials, if nothing else, to keep alive a culture begun by the scribes, an almost sacred geometry, and later maintained by the presses of the Renaissance.

Eventually the industrial revolution for book production forced a block, a dual consideration for publishers; use imagination, or get the word out. Dissemination, mass production, ruled design, dictated beyond the question of individuality, beyond the nature of culture, machines could produce the parts of a book in greater numbers than a team of workers. many inventions improved the decoration of book clothes, the sewing of signatures, and some editions from some manufacturers were even pleasing to hold and read.

Aldus Manutius, the Aldine Press, was one of the first (c.1500) printers to consider the ability of the printing press to reach wider audiences and even educate. Imagine, if ever you have seen books from the Aldine Press or any of the period, they were all composed of handset type and printed with hand presses on dampened handmade paper, later hand sewn and bound by hand into hard cover books.
several greek texts


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