Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Notes on Typography & Publishing

I happened the other day to be working on a book. Not a visual one, its contents do not matter to us here. It happened that I was designing a title page, something simple and foresquare. A bit like this one:

and I thought well that's very nice, quite the look I was going for of course. But then I spent some time with a book on design, and decided to try making the more important words larger. So the next iteration looks like this:

which is better, I think. At this point we're enforcing a kind of cadence to the way we say it. It's the CAT who is wearing a HAT. Not, for instance, a cat who IS WEARING a hat. Be that as it may, let us stick to this. It looks a bit cramped though, don't you think? Let's open it up a trifle.

That's quite nice. Vertical spacing is a bit ragged, though, don't you think? What we really want, I think, is some sort of fixed spacing.

Ah, that's what we're looking for.

Okay, you're probably thinking holy cow, what a dweeb, who cares about this sort of thing?

Well, the thing is, somebody's got to decide this stuff. Sometimes when I look at an object, like an automobile, it hits me that every little bit on there was thought up by someone, specified to the ten-thousandth inch. Someone drew a picture of that fiddly little bit of trim that doesn't do a thing but dress up the handle, someone selected a material to make it out of, and wrote up a procedure for installing it, and so on. Hours of work, dozens of choices, for a bit that does not consciously register but which when well done absolutely affects the way you perceive the car. Each little bit partakes of and contributes to the car's design language.

Books likewise.

When you do a book, someone is going to select a font for the title, they're going to select a weight, a size, and they're going to place it on the page. You can do these things badly, or you can do them well. You can, at least, think about them a little bit. There are five elements on this extremely simple title page. Three text items, and two horizontal rules. I thought about all of them. I placed and sized them with at least a little care. I'd probably tinker with the vertical spacing of elements on the page if I kept at it, but I was focused on getting the title right.

This, fundamentally, is why you need to do your own books. You have to take some time to decide these things, to think about how each trivial detail is going to interact with the whole, to create an overall impression.

With what cadence do you read your title? Which words should be bigger, and which smaller?

If you don't have at least some rough grasp of at least some of this material, when Steidl, or MACK, or Phaidon come around with a contract, you're going to end up not doing a book at all. Someone else is going to do the book, using your pictures.

Further, if you are aware of these details, you can go examine the house styles with a more skilled eye. MACK, for instance, favors a very specific set of design tropes, which extend to text. Very skinny outer margins with enormous gutters. Frontmatter as often as not is just a single word or two per page, often printed very light, often placed near an outer margin. There's a very specific look going on here, and it if doesn't suit your vision, your pictures, you don't want to get a deal from MACK.

It's likely that MACK also doesn't want to do a deal with you, but if you do somehow get together and you don't like the house style (or it doesn't suit the project) you're going to end up sad, or compromised.

Self publishing a book, and doing the design yourself, is going to force you through all these choices. It's all on you. It doesn't matter if the results are shit, the point is that you have done it. You know, albeit slightly, what the issues are, what choices need to be made. You will, if you're paying attention, have developed some ideas and opinions on all this ancillary stuff.

You are now smarter and wiser. Whether publishers will like you better or not at this point, I cannot speculate. I suspect strongly that a publisher that doesn't want anything to do with you is maybe a publisher you don't want to deal with anyways, though. If, as someone with some well-formed ideas on these points, you get pushback it's possible that you're an asshole, but it's also possible that the publisher doesn't want to help you do a book.

It may be that the publisher would like instead to do their own book, using your pictures. Are you OK with that?


  1. "It doesn't matter if the results are shit, the point is that you have done it."

    It does matter, because people judge a book by its cover.

    Maybe you will learn something by DIY (and that is iffy, more likely you will only pick up bad habits), but you will still be a lousy, amateur designer, and damage all your future books' prospects with whatever false confidence you may gain from the exercise.

    You see, being a designer is difficult. No really, it just is. It's an actual profession. It takes a lot of education and experience to get any good at it.

    Owning some fonts and page layout software doesn't count for shit, even if you learn how to work it.

    If you aren't a designer, better off getting one to do it for you. A book publisher will be able to provide one. If you look over their catalog and don't like their designs, try another one.

    1. There are many disciplines in which knowing a little bit about it will in fact enable you to do a little bit of it. Joinery is a complex trade with many details, many of which I do not know, and most of which I am pretty bad at. Still, I can make a pretty fair, if plain, bookshelf.

      More importantly, knowing a little joinery makes me a smarter buyer of furniture. I can tell the difference between a crap desk and a good one, beyond "it's made out of particle board" because I know a little joinery.

      Designers, I swear to god, are convinced that their perfectly learnable discipline, is fucking brain surgery, and nobody should unlock that Pandora's box because all manner of horrors will escape. Just hire a designer, for it is a black art, beyond the ken of man!

      It ain't brain surgery. I am no designer, I know a little of this and that, and I can do a little of this and that. I can make a book, for instance, that doesn't look like shit, as long as I stay inside some pretty narrow confines.

      If I am ever stuck in a room with a designer, working out a book, I will actually have enough understanding to do more than sit there nodding dumbly. Probably I will be a bit of a handful as well, but if the designer is, you know, a gronwup, I think it'll work out ok. Unless, of course, the designer *really* *really* wants a compliant idiot who will just nod a lot.

      I learned once that advertising firms will always show up with 3 concepts. 1. A throwaway 2. The award winning one. 3. The one you want. If you don't know anything, you're probably going to pick #2, which is the wrong one. You will be paying for the advertising firm's entry into a competition, but you won't be selling any products.

      There is a difference between "learn a little design so you can make informed choices" and "you should learn a little design so you can never ever use a designer, because it's super easy and designers are all dumb" and I think my remarks above fall pretty clearly on one side of that line.

    2. Hey, leave us gronwups out of it!

      I've been looking forward to telling MACK and Steidl to go make books out of someone else's pictures, thank you very much. However, I think they must have lost my number.


    3. There is a tiny Pakistani lady living around the corner from you, whose phone number is the same as yours with two digits swapped. They are driving her insane.

  2. Coincidentally, I've been working on a photo book for the last few days and I started making the layout this morning. A designer with a lot of experience and education could certainly do a much better, or at least more interesting, job than I can do. But I enjoy making books and I know I can create a book design that more closely aligns with my goals and intentions than some online print stores templates ever would.

    On a more general note, knowing how to use InDesign doesn't make you a designer much like knowing how to cook a few dishes doesn't make you a chef. Still, a little bit of knowledge goes WAY further than none in both cases.

  3. Publishing a book is somewhat analogous to performing a musical concert. If you were to pick up a ukulele and a "Learn To Play The Ukulele In Three Days" booklet, then put up flyers for a ukulele concert, $15 admission...

    I just want to clear up one more myth you're flogging, then I'll leave you to do your worst, as you appear wantonly determined: design isn't about 'self-expression'. Certainly not the designer's, but also not the client's -- that part is very important, if the design is have any success whatsoever.

    It is way more complex than that, but to boil it all down to one word: communication (there's this thing called 'communication theory' -- look it up).

    The thing that qualifies as 'self-expression' in books, is what is called an 'artist's book'. It's a one-off, and not some half-baked InDesign project sent out for digital printing, but involves some fairly laborious handwork. Ewwww, eh? Some very few are actually rather good, the vast majority range from appalling to meh.


    1. You seem to have grossly misread my remarks.

    2. I do so enjoy a good pissing contest!

    3. I observe in my own books [of photos, of words, of drawings, of paintings, of poetry] that design indeed DOES aid in my self-expression - I choose font and page layout to elicit a certain era and to complement the writing style, I choose the book-cloth to resonate with a particular culture, I choose paper and binding style to complement the paintings,a particular ink colour for the calligraphy... the design of my books is part and parcel of, integral to, how I express the concept I'm working on... I suppose my things are what David refers to as "appalling-to-meh"? But I certainly enjoy making them, and I certainly appreciate the freakishly always-spot-on guidance and assistance I get from the blogger as I thrash happily and busily about in my "artist's books". [stone seal]

  4. Here are some brilliant book designs:

    (the photos themselves mostly don't do anything/much for me. TBH I think his book designs are a lot more original and compelling)

    1. Thank you, those do indeed look very nice.

      I am curious, though, as to why you see them as "brilliant," since to me they look very nice, but there is no "holy shit, wow!" moment for me.

      Can you point to specific things or combinations that are pushing your buttons?

    2. The balance of color, texture, and type matter are sublime, not shouty or fussy. There's a consistent sense of serene exactitude.

      Stuff's allowed to happen, like a controlled accident.

      In a sense you could call it (the book, as a totality) 'reverse good design,' or TBH, just another form of bad design, because the covers are so good, they set up an expectation that the photographer simply hasn't got the chops for.

      It's crystal clear where this individual's talents and interest lie, and it's not with photography.