Archive for May, 2007

One of the Tough Issues

Add comment May 30th, 2007

I found myself taking a long, hard look the other day at the issue of just what kind of books I help into print after finishing layout on the sixth over the last year or so of a string of World War II histories. Interestingly, they were punctuated somewhere in the middle by a page design and layout project, an illustrated children’s storybook.

Four of the seven World War II histories, all of which are—or are to be—published by Stackpole Books, relate details from the German side of things. Not making the case for the Nazis being the white hats during World War II or anything like that, but, rather, narrating the particulars. Seeing the book in print made me look at it as more than just my work.

The first book, Exit Rommel, tells the story of the Desert Fox and his Tunisian campaign. Eagles of the Third Reich chronicles the story of the Nazi struggle for air supremacy during the war. German Order of Battle, Volumes 2 and 3—somehow Volume 1 escaped me—lists and describes all the various battalions and fighter groups of the German military during World War II.

The eye-opener came when I found myself thinking again how Field Marshall Erwin Rommel did not seem to be the monster we know all Nazis to be. I thought again about how Rommel got into trouble pausing the fight in North Africa to allow the Allies to remove their wounded from the field of battle. And how he was forced to commit suicide—as opposed to his other choice, execution—for participating in a failed plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. My recitation of Rommel’s merits were not greeted warmly.

This led me to thinking about whether there were books I should feel obligated to not help toward publication. Is there such an obligation? Is there some equivalent to the example of falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater?

I’m loathe to say someone’s freedom of speech needs to be limited. But I guess I can reasonably draw the line at books that advocate cruelty to children, say, or how to cover up a murder. On the other hand, I probably do not want to include novels that tell such stories on my “Don’t Touch” list.

This whole argument still makes me uneasy as hell.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Freelancer

Add comment May 26th, 2007

No matter how long a person works as a freelance graphic designer—in my case about seventeen years; fourteen straight on books alone—the best feeling in the world springs from hearing a client say they have chosen you for a job. If that is so, then the worst feeling comes from finishing a project and knowing that there is no “next project” lined up yet, no new job ready to start.

Right now I sit with a broken leg, a little stir crazy even though the news yesterday was that I can put the crutches away and start putting full weight on my bad tibia plateau. Finding myself in-between books just adds to the squirrelly feeling.

I have here a whole list of frustrating recent replies from publishers:

  • “Not yet”
  • “We’ll get in touch when we need a freelancer”
  • “The project has been delayed”
  • “Sure, we’ll use you, but at a fraction of your usual rates”

My point is that staying busy creates as much of a job as the work I do when I have a book in production. In fact, the only part of freelancing that can really feel as if it’s work is the marketing of my services.

The Kick to Children’s Books

Add comment May 18th, 2007

The page design and layout of an illustrated children’s book is as interesting as freelance book design and page composition projects get. Completely beside the strong emotion you feel from showing such a finished book to, say, your grandchildren, there is the unexpected complexity to the job, and how that complexity makes your creative juices flow.

An illustrated storybook for children begins with—no big surprise in this—the words the author uses to tell the story. That would be the lead that an artist follows when creating the illustrations: he or she must first and foremost follow the words and the storyline.

The page designer starts by giving thought to choosing a typeface with some visual interest. It needs to be a typeface with more than just a Times Roman kind of utility, a typeface with not too many flourishes, and one that will hold a child’s eye. Then, when laying out the book’s pages, the page designer must allow the art to advance the story—tell it, really—flowing the text so that the words keep pace with the illustrations. The text must neither jump ahead of what the pictures say, nor fall behind them. Either one would throw off the story’s pacing and let go of the reader’s attention.

The whole thing, odd as it may sound, is really quite musical, kind of a dance. The words need to flow rhythmically from page to page, on the beat established by the illustrations.

Page Sighs

Add comment May 14th, 2007

When I work on a book’s design, the first think I think about is the page size. Many times these thoughts reach a rather quick end, as the client has already decided that for me, usually long before I begin. This kind of thing often happens when a publisher wants to continue a long-standing house-style or when the book is one in a series. Smaller publishers may be guided strictly by cost. Page sizes that result in the least waste on the large sheets on which commercial printers print will be the most economical to use. Unusual page sizes will result in higher paper costs.

While the idea of “unusual” page sizes might sound like an interesting line to follow, the truth is that I find the notion of “usual” page sizes to be of far more interest: both what these sizes are, as well as how they became usual.

Currently, in my own work, the size 6 x 9 inches seems to be the page size my clients call for most often. In pursuing the reason why, I found a great book that spoke to the subject, Designing books: practice and theory, by Jost Hochuli and Robin Kinross (London: Hyphen Press, 1996, 2003). The authors make a rather concrete statement, “The following proportions of width to height have proved themselves” and go on to give details.

First, there is the Fibonacci-series proportions. This is a list of numbers that begins with 0 and 1 and continues by adding the last two numbers to get the next one: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34, and so on. The ratios 2:3—this is where 6 x 9 inches comes from—and 5:8 are the two proportions that jump out at me from my own experience. But I doubt the wealth of other proportions would have occurred to me if I did not see the diagram in this book. It displays the following proportions: 1:2, 1:1.732 (the square root of three), 1:1.618 (also called “phi” or “the golden ratio); the “perfect face,” for instance, has this ratio for the following parts—the width of the mouth to the width of the cheek, the width of the nose to the width of the cheek, the width of the nose to the width of the mouth), 1:1.538, 1:1.414 (the square root of 2), 5:9, 3:5, 5:8, 2:3, 3:4.

As to the judgment calls that help me to decide which proportion to use and what specific page size to derive from the proportion I choose, well, I still need to dope those out individually each time I begin a book’s design.

Work to Live, Live to Work—Oh, Who Cares?!

Add comment May 10th, 2007

There are times in this life when something you are doing blissfully runs headlong into non-something you are doing. For me, it just as easily happens that I am in the middle of good times—my wife and I seeing good friends; enjoying good wine, fine food, and great conversation; and a book arrives with special needs and a tight schedule—as that a particularly fertile period of work is punctuated by life.

The latter has just occurred.

Last year I produced a bumper crop of books. Books that I really felt reflected the great care I and everyone else involved took in making them. This extended into 2007. I began the year finishing a World War II history layout project that had begun at the end of the previous year. This was quickly followed by another in the same series. Next I did page design and layout on one of the best-illustrated, nicest children’s stories I know of. After that I began a third World War II history.

Then, in the space of two days, life issued its wake-up call. A circular saw’s blade shattered, and a piece of it entered my older stepson’s face just under the cheekbone, where it pushed its way up towards his right eye. Luckily, the cheekbone stopped it. The next day, a Saturday, I stupidly took a serious misstep that resulted in a fall. I was transported to a hospital emergency room in an ambulance. I thought I had broken my leg and a rib or two. X-rays, thankfully, proved negative.

I got around to scheduling a follow-up just a week or so ago. At this follow-up the orthopedist directed me to begin physical therapy as quickly as possible and to schedule an MRI of the knee.

The MRI took place Monday. My first rehab session was to have been yesterday, Tuesday, at 6:00 PM. At about 3:00 PM, the orthopedist called. I was out. He told my wife that I was to immediately schedule an appointment for the first thing today: by his schedule, at noon. And cancel the physical therapy. I had a hairline fracture of the tibia plateau.

In fact, I have five hairline, but significant—the orthopedist’s word—fractures. I broke my leg in five places! Despite some purists insisting, “It’s fractured, not broken.”

So I find myself housebound for two weeks, till the next follow-up. I’m wearing a brace from my ankle to the top of my thigh most of the day and hobbling around on crutches. I hope to all that is good, powerful, and holy that I will get an okay to drive, walk with a cane instead of crutches in two weeks, and otherwise start to feel normal again.

Good news came today. A layout project—you guessed it, a World War II history—begins next week. And the third quarter’s schedule is starting to form. I always regard work as a blessing. I mean, it is wonderful to pay bills on time and have some extra to finance good times. But it will be great to have a book to help make while my fractures mend.

I said to my wife just a while ago, “Well, as long as we’re doing things we’ve never done before, how about for our next trick one of us sticks our head into a lion’s mouth?”

Fonts and Fonts

Add comment May 6th, 2007

For certain people, possessing a collection of fonts is a real kick. I am not embarrassed to admit that I fall into that category. I realized this when, after getting my first Macintosh computer, along with a LaserWriter NT and the accompanying resident typefaces—Avant Garde, Times, New Century Schoolbook, and all the rest—I made my first font purchases. In fairly short order, I bought a Futura collection, Adobe Garamond, and Bodoni. The anticipation with which I awaited the arrival of each of those fonts reminded me of a child waiting up late for Christmas Eve to turn into Christmas Day. There was no way to download fonts, or anything else back then.

It was easy for me to use the same fonts repeatedly in those days. I simply had so few; and I was not yet doing real production or design work on a regular basis. Palatino became my first favorite serif font. It looked strong yet graceful to my eye. And not too tight on a line, the way Times seemed to be. I still use it as a text face in all my print—as opposed to email—correspondence. Avant Garde was my early favorite sans serif typeface. Even then, Helvetica struck me as overused. (After seventeen years of experience, my respect for Helvetica is at a much higher, and more appropriate, level.)

I used those fonts relentlessly. And then, not long after, I turned on a dime one day and—still in the infant stage of my design and production work—replaced Palatino and Avant Garde in my pantheon of favorites with adobe Garamond and Futura.

Sometime after that, something unexpected occurred: thanks to the largesse of Adobe, I suddenly possessed many fonts—enough to speak of them as my very own “font library.” What happened was that I purchased software—a version of Adobe Illustrator, perhaps—and one of the “Extras” on the CD was a chunk of Adobe’s Typeface Collection. Choices, choices! That’s when I instituted a rule: Just because you have a lot of fonts does not mean you are obligated to use them all in one document.

By this time I was beginning to get some steady, and paying, book layout work. Mostly, clients provided templates with the font choices already made. New Baskerville was a popular choice. So, too, was Times. The first time I designed a book’s interior and was able to choose all the fonts, I selected Sabon for main body text. I felt like quite the big deal.

Recently I finished page design and layout of an illustrated children’s storybook. I consciously tried to consider all the typefaces I own but had never used for a project. I used something called Usherwood. More clean lines and a good x-height, both especially important if there are to be young readers of the book.

That’s how I want to proceed from here on, giving thought to unused of little-used fonts I own. And I always wonder what leads other book designers to choose the fonts they do for their work.


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