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 Continue reading


If in doubt

Typography should be allowed individuality; this is to appear as different as the people around us, just as there are girls and men, fat and thin, wise and stupid, serious and gay, easily pleased and fussy.
—Jan Tschichold

Reading & roses

If you don’t read poetry, you won’t find the roses while looking for the puppy jobby. If you don’t read poetry, you won’t notice the lace wing that lands on your window, or suddenly appears on your bedroom wall in the late winter. Someone I was working with smirked when I told them I was writing a spoof piece (after the Onion) about reading being good for the brain, and said that music is what stimulates all parts of the brain, don’t you know, you’ve heard them speak of the music by Mozart? Of course, and I was a musician for many years, and know of the way different pitches, bass, mid range, treble, etc, stimulate different parts of the body. I also know a student that told me she felt inclined or inspired to write when she read a good book, or got an idea to make an image in paint, or was inspired to make up some music, after reading poetry.  Does it seem so far-fetched that reading inspires writing as well as doing other creative things? Being creative does not only come from the creative genius of an individual mind above all others. Creative writer Scott Hartmann ( page 25, Why We Write, July-August, Poets & Writers) writes, “I’ve never found an art form that touches me—or that I can touch people with—more powerfully than the written word.”

Reading can be difficult when a book is poorly designed. An author and I were talking the other day, and he told me about a book of poetry that was designed using a typeface something like Gothic Bold or Helvetica Bold for the text. This is something that should never be done. Most typefaces were designed for reading, most text or book faces, are designed with reading in mind. Every letter is designed to integrate with the rest of the alphabet. The eye has adapted to reading these faces. Even new faces that are designed using some older form has reading as it’s purpose, either for display or for text. Text should never be composed of display faces, or all caps, or faces that were designed for signage, or subways, or for advertising. Display faces are what newspapers use to head articles, or books use for titling, chapter openings at best.

Most book faces are based on ‘old style’ or ‘transitional faces’ from earlier centuries. Originally these faces, take Bembo for instance, were designed for printing books, and the styles were based on earlier innovations in hand writing, and took into consideration how they would appear when printed on the laid paper used in printing books of the time. Their display faces were usually larger sizes of the face in Roman or Italic, and every size was designed, drawn and cut in metal punches. The designer and punch cutter knew that each size had to have individual adjustments made to it. The metal punches were then punched into the copper matrices to be used in the hand-held mold for type casting. Each individual piece of type was cast in this way, usually quantities of each letter being cast while the mat or matrix was in the mold. Bembo also has a short alphabet length, and so it was used quite often because it actually meant you could fit more text on a page and make the book a bit shorter. Not to mention that it is a very good-looking typeface.

After casting, each type had to be cleaned and planed to be as near to exactly the same for setting by hand in composition sticks. The text would be set on a line length determined for the entire book, except in the case of marginal text or extracts, and placed in galleys, later to be made into pages, according to the book design. The pages were then imposed according to the size of the sheet of paper and how it would be folded into signatures, gathered and sewn for the binding of the book. A lot of people spent a lot of time making books this way for a lot of years. So it kind of comes down to “don’t fix what’s not broken.”

A stick of Ludlow mats ready for casting

And there is more to this integrated topic of type and book design. You may have noticed that the New York Times Magazine changed its look sometime over the past several years, so that now much of it is set in two columns or maybe three to a page, instead of four or more, like a lot of magazines and newspapers did for a long time for various reasons, partly due to the limitations of metal type machine composition. So when the New York Times Magazine determined, or a designer of stature recommended this change, it was due to the rule of thumb that designers for over a century or more knew about, good designers know, that a sentence is most easily read when it has at least nine words in it. Anything less and the eye is quivering around on the page and this kind of reading has the effect on the eye similar to what they warn can happen while playing action computer games. I never liked reading magazines much for this reason, and found out why when I studied book design and printing history.

Look at these books, to name a few: William Morris – The Ideal Book page 75, (University of California Press); Jan Tschichold: typographer by Ruari McLean (Godine); Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing by Joseph Moxon (Dover)