Designing Books

by | Jan 22, 2010

working with computerI’ve tried to explain to people why I enjoy designing books, but somehow descriptions elude me. When I talk about it, it never comes out right. But today I’m going to try again.

Right now I’m designing three books for different clients, all in distinct genres whose requirements and expectations vary. Like sketching with a pencil, the sample designs that I’ll create for these books represent possibilities more than established historical fact. They exist for me in a world of latency. Before any decisions are made, all the designs are possible, but only one design will eventually embody the complete, published work.

Into this field of possibility I pull the elements of the book together. Text, image, structure, typography: they are the ingredients, but I’m still discovering the recipe. I move the elements around. I’ll tell you what I’m doing, even though I know it will sound strange: I’m trying to discern what these ingredients want to be, where they fit together.

It’s Like a Dance

One of the books I’m working on is self-help. Another is a book of poetry.

The third is all in formal spreads, a horizontal format, photographs facing short texts. Each spread is a tableau, the repetition as you turn the pages reinforces the formal roles each element plays. Typefaces become critical because the abundant white space will thrust the type design directly into the reader’s field of view.

Subheads slide to the left, slide to the right, float up and down looking for their spot, the place they contribute best to the whole layout. Typefaces appear, only to be replaced by others. Images shrink, stretch, run off the pages. Everything is fluid, malleable, but most arrangements feel wrong.

If this was an article with bullets and numbered lists, I would here enumerate the different conditions that vary while the design is forming. But it isn’t, because the process I go through is much less direct than that.

Actually laying out books after the design is set is an entirely different type of work. Marketing on Twitter, following conversations on blogs I admire, writing Design Reviews for Self-Publishing Review, running invoices and doing bookkeeping, they are all different. Here, I’m open to the stream of possibilities, new connections that I sense around me, even if I usually forget it’s there.

Sometimes this whole process is wrestling, sometimes it’s a dance. Sometimes I have no idea what’s going on, and sometimes I get bored out of my mind. Then I have to get up, stretch, walk away, connect with someone, another human, just to bring myself back to life.

It’s All About the Book

Something happens, the pages start to take shape, the page elements begin to settle down, find their place. A form emerges that uses all the elements to advance the book, not suck energy away from it. Something new, something I hadn’t seen about the writing, often shows up during this phase.

Throughout the process the author is my companion. I need to have an idea what’s behind her writing, where she’s coming from.

When the book clicks in, when the author (or the publisher) and I come to a consensus on the final layout, I can almost feel how the energy flows, unimpeded, from the manuscript to the reader, delivered by the typographic design. Something inside me has reflected the ideas in the book and embodied them in the design. Helping the text connect with readers while still “getting out of the damn way.”

At the same time, I realize that the page designs I’m working on come together in an idealized form. They exist only on my screen, where they emerge, the software’s tools lying around as if my screen were a book garage, and me the mechanic. But the page achieves a kind of seductive perfection on screen that really is an idealization of its other life.

No, it will be much later, when the corrugated shipping package arrives, scuffed from its travels, and I slice it open on the counter—that’s when reality runs backward for me. I look at the printed book, feel the weight of it in my hand, smell the paper, the fresh glue, and notice the little imperfections that are inescapable in physical life. Then it almost seems as if the book I’m holding caused all the actions that brought it here, into being.

I have a shelf for these samples and, after my examination, it will join its mates. But first I’ll see whether the chapter openings worked as well as I’d hoped, I might wish I had added some space here or there, or argued one last time with the author about how those bullet lists should look.

But not for long. There’s a memoir by a Vietnam veteran, the first chapters just arrived, and I have an idea for the page layout I want to try . . .

Photo: Stock.xchng Vangelis-Thomaidis

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5 Comments

  1. Joel

    Christy, no bowing here, please! I had the same experience recently looking at a book I designed long ago, wondering “What was I thinking?” Better late than never.

    Reply
  2. Christy Pinheiro

    Joel, I bow to your superior book design intellect.

    I just went back and spent two days cleaning up the book design of an old book on bookkeeping. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in a year.

    Reply
  3. Joel

    Cheryl, thanks, you nailed me. Maybe it was from reading the terrific post on your blog yesterday. And yes, at it’s core, there really isn’t one form of creativity that differs from other forms, because they trace to the same root.

    Chris, thanks for your great and consistent support, you make it a pleasure.

    Reply
  4. Chris

    There’s a reason why you’re the best! I’m always excited to see what you come up with.

    Reply
  5. Cheryl Anne Gardner

    Ah … the artist’s love of the process. Book design is an art, and the process is not so far removed from how a writer writes the book, and I quote you with a few minor changes:

    “Something happens, the story starts to take shape, the symbolic elements begin to settle down, find their place. A theme emerges that uses all the elements to advance the thesis, not suck energy away from it. Something new, something I hadn’t seen about the story, often shows up during this phase.”

    See … That’s why when an author makes a decision to hire a book designer, the hire one with an artistic understanding of the process. Like minds.

    Reply

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