Thursday, October 4, 2018

Books, Functional Parts

One of my minor perceptions in digging in to The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" zine, which I tried to pass along to all of you, was how text comes in functional pieces.

We think of text as body text, and then a handful of other stuff, to be dealt with catch and catch can. That's not true. There are titles, heads, page numbers, various kinds of asides, and so on. They should work together to lead the reader through the book easily, simply, clearly. Done well, all you notice is the body text, the actual content. Everything else is a guidepost, gently and invisibly assisting you. You don't even notice the (See plate 29) and the corresponding caption on the corresponding plate. It just works.

I attended a webinar put on by Blurb's Dan Milnor some time ago, and in it he emphasized that pictures work the same way, at least in narrative style photobooks. He identifies a bunch of roles for pictures: "Scene Setter", "Portrait", "Portfolio Image", "Transitional Image", "Detail", "Landscape" and talked through how to assemble these into story-like things.

He also talked about captions, and how they work with -- or against -- pictures.

Every mark on the page needs to be set down with purpose. You should be able to speak to why you put that ink there. Maybe it's just "it felt right" or "the page needed balance" which is fine, but this begs the question of what the page is doing.

This is one of the failings of social media and photography. flickr, 500px, instagram, facebook, and so on. Almost all of the marks on the screen are controlled by someone else. You have almost no control over anything. The only thing you can do, and even this not always, is control the order your pictures are looked at. That's it. That's remarkably limiting.

But back to books, magazines, any multi-picture print publication.

Every element, text, picture, decoration, has a job, it plays a role or perhaps several. If it's not working, what the hell is it doing in there?

Some jobs are simply to tie things together.

Consistency from page to page matters, and is in almost any care a requirement. Normally, my attitude to these things is "well, whatever, just be aware of the effects of your choices" but in this case I land firmly on the side of consistency. The reason here is that you need to hold change back as a device. Consistency page to page, spread to spread, allows you to introduce change as an attention getter. It becomes a tool you can use to wake your reader up, to point out things of interest.

This in turn is necessary because of the structure of these things. They are inherently long form, your reader's interest will wax and wane, and you need to attend to that.

Some jobs are to mix things up, to re-ignite flagging interest. A change of pattern can do that, or a particularly arresting picture. Or both.

Most of the jobs are about carrying content, though, within that ebb and flow of interest and attention. You are, ideally, weaving a pattern, telling a story, building up some kind of edifice. From the top-level view on down through the details, you are managing attention, managing the path through the work, leading the reader.

Pictures and various pieces of text all exist together, interacting. You can prioritize them with sizing and styling. You can point out the next step with anything from a drop capital to a big red arrow. Usually the next step is to turn the page, but where then should the reader pick on the next spread? What is the important bit? Are we transitioning from one theme to another here, is there something special about this spread, or are we taking a breather, filling in some background?

It feels almost but not quite as if one could write down a system for doing this. But I don't think you can, quite.

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