Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Content vs. Form II

A contemporary theory of book design, whether it is the only one, the dominant one, or merely a major one I do not care, runs something as follows.

The design of a book, especially the covers, spine, endpapers, and front-matter, are intended to capture the reader, to bring the reader to the book, and to ease them into the content of same. At that point, design ought to drop out of consciousness, to disappear, and to become a set of silent gestures which ease the consumption of the content. Design in the text block should not, as a rule, be noticed, which is not the same as to propose that it should be absent. Rather, the indications and information that serve the reader are simply clear and present at all times.

Book design, in general, can intrude, or absent itself from the consciousness. On a separate axis, design can help, or hinder the process of reading the book.

In general, contemporary theory proposes that all design should help rather than hinder, and that exterior design should intrude (in good ways) while interior design ought to disappear.

In short: when I approach a book, I am conscious of its book-ness and find it attractive; when I am reading a book, I am oblivious to its book-ness, and am captivated entirely by its content while finding it easy and pleasant to read.

None of these categories, of course, have hard boundaries. Grey areas abound.

Photobooks appear to be mostly made by designers. What happens when you give designers their head is that you get a lot of very intrusive design. All but the very best designers seem to be incapable of trying to make design that's invisible. At one end of the cash scale you get Apple, and at the other end you get photobooks.

A gatefold, like a crease in an automobile's bodywork, is essentially an admission of defeat. Which is not to say that you shouldn't ever do either of them, but you should be aware that you've been beaten by the content because you're not good enough at the job.

In the comments on the previous article in this series, a commenter made reference to the experience of the book-as-object, which is a common conceit in the photobook community. Nobody talks about the experience of the book-as-object when they're talking about Tolstoy, unless they're talking about some absurd collectible edition bound in alligator, but this sort of talk is essentially de rigueur in the world of photobooks. "Ooo, lookit the embossing on the cover, Marge" and so on.

I could argue that this is just wrongheaded, and in a way I kind of am. But the point I want to emphasize is that this is a difference, a characteristic of photobooks which is different from the ways we think of normal books. Photobooks are, by design, frequently made specifically so that the design is intrusive. The form of the thing constantly intrudes, which is the exact opposite of what people do who make books that other people actually want to buy.

It can, obviously, work very well, at least in theory. American Origami uses an absolutely maddening design which essentially dominates the experience of reading the book, making it almost impossible to focus coherently on the content (my review can be read here if you don't recall it.) The design creates a book-inside-a-book structure which plays pretty well with the content, which emphasizes and clarifies the content in interesting ways. It's not a perfect book by any means, but the idea has some merit, and it's a good illustration of what the photobook design crowd is going for.

If you're going for this level of design!!!! you better have some pretty beefy content, or it's just an exercise in design and then who cares? Gonzales has some pretty beefy content, so it works or at least comes near to working.

In general, though, photobook people haven't got any content that demands, or is even aided, by any kind of intrusive design. Mostly, they haven't got any content that should be committed to paper at all, to be fair, but given that they're committed to printing something we have to consider design.

For the most part, the exercise of forcing the content into the form of a codex (or a scroll, or a web page, or whatever) is just going to improve things. If you absolutely have to use a gatefold, or varnish, or a cutout, you should probably go back to your content and reconsider it. You might still need whatever it is, but it's because you lost that round.

Fundamentally, the idea that design, that form, should intrude is a bad default choice. It's not always wrong, but it's one of those ideas that you should visit, and revisit, and be really double-plus sure about before proceeding, and even then you're probably still wrong.

It is not an accident that most "photobooks" do well to sell a few hundred copies, whereas lots of "books filled with photos" sell a great number more. Photobooks as we understand them tend to be form-forward and content-light, and the only people who like that shit are the aficionados who are a) broke and b) not very numerous.


  1. For a lot of those who enjoy their photobooks I know personally, 'form' is usually taken to be part of content, and people's judgments attack both separately and together. If the design seems 'intrusive', we're usually talking about it in much the way you acknowledge design can do something for American Origami, even if that particular book has some pretty serious problems. I often find myself thinking, ESPECIALLY about books like AO with all the extra text and flappy bits, that they're not really working in a traditional "Images Only" kind of way, or really squarely in photography as a niche at all, but are more awkwardly fence-sitting between other niches.

    I bought a kid's story-cum-picture book for a friend a while ago. Tens of text-intruding drawings, some clever fold-outs, elaborate page numbering, etc. Many of the pictures were more illustrative than actually interesting in their own right, but they added a little to the narrative. The kid liked it, put it like that, and not just because kids are easily entertained by any old shit -- it was a pretty cool book, even by an adult's standards. The bookstore actually had some illustration-only ones which, again, weren't that visually special, but basically told a passable story. they were about as expensive as a generic photobook too.

    And I am implying that this is because a lot of photobooks nowadays are sort of the adult's version of that kind of thing, especially Big Serious Projects like AO where it's obviously not just about the pictures being pretty or even interesting, and more like an artist's book with photographs, or a more arty version of a coffee table book. A bit like how Grave of the Fireflies is technically just a cartoon and therefore a parent might reasonably presume a story that is friendly for kids and puts big emphasis on dumb superficial sellable characters -- a cartoon! But if you showed it to a kid and they had the emotional maturity to understand it all, they'd probably be mildly traumatised, which is what happened when it was first shown to an unexpecting audience.

    While I agree that most photobooks - regardless of type - are a bit shit and really don't need to exist, from my point of view, this is often more a matter of a different way of approaching things that rubs those with different and non-corresponding oughts/expectations the wrong way.

    1. Ultimately I have my opinion which is that design should sink below conscious notice, but that's just my opinion, right? I think it shines through despite my efforts ;)

      You can make the objective point, though, that "photobooks" are often conceived of as these design-forward book-as-object experiences, which is not the same as the dominant contemporary book design consensus (maybe).

      They're both a thing, which exists, and has a perfect right to exist, etc and so forth.


      That's kind of what I'm going for here, anyways.

  2. A few random observations.

    There is a certain crossover between the "photobook" and the "artist's book". The latter are almost always over-designed for over-design's sake, with pop-ups, cut-outs, etc., all intended to "subvert" and "challenge" the glorious edge-bound codex format, for no apparent reason. A book that has to exist in a glass case is not a book.

    Faced with a collection of "meh" photos that explore My Grey Soul, what designer isn't going to try to breath some life into the thing?

    There is an ineradicable belief that photographs are inherently illustrations, not works of art in their own right. Magazine- and scrapbook-style design tropes are attracted to book-length quantities of photos like fleas to a dog.

    Book design, like typography and packaging, has fallen into the hands of the wrong people.


    1. Desktop publishing -- remember when that was a thing? -- can be blamed for a lot of publication design gone wrong. But you don't need a license to dabble in creative pursuits, not even desktop publishing.

      Some people try their hand at it for the experience, or to learn something about it. Not any different from beginner art in various media, from wretched oil daubs to ceramic ash trays, and yes, photo books.

      It's almost guaranteed to not yield a good result, but it might start somebody on the long, arduous road to better, or the self-awareness that maybe they need to contract out the design part. If the content/photos suck, all you will get is a gilded turd. There's people who like that sort of thing.

      To be a good designer of anything, I maintain you have got to spend a lot of time just looking at good design, and be open-minded about what forms it may take.

  3. Problem with many photographers (and photogs that turn into book designers) is that getting something is so easy. And then many of them think to themselves, they think, It’s good because I did it.

    It’s a very low bar indeed.

  4. So Andrew, what's your take on that porn -y book of drug-addicted women in Tulsa that @jblaustein just reviwed on his blog? It looks like a pop-music fanzine layout, but with relatively conventional journo shots of sordid lives and sordid acts (hello best-seller!). Seems to tick all the designer photo book tropes you address here.