Is Book Design Dead?

October 7th, 2018

I mean, obviously, books continue to be designed and laid out for print. And even fixed-page layouts of books are produced for e-readers. But a curious thing has happened in the way we speak of book production. Rather than looking for book design, many people, and the ads they post, ask for book “formatters”.

As if all we need to make a book is to arrange the words.

I prefer to assume that we’ve reached this point because ebooks read on electronic device such as Kindle, Nook, iPad, and even smartphones are so ubiquitous many don’t think of print books anymore.

I’ve said many times before that I would have loved to have had all my textbooks on an e-reader when I was in college. But the plain fact is that, for me, an ebook will never carry the same sense that it is an object of art independent of the content of the book the way a print book does.

And, yes e-devices not having been around when I was a child, I grew up with the anticipation of cracking open a new book and sniffing that new book smell. So I’ll admit to a certain amount of nostalgia. However, my objections to reducing book design to mere formatting go beyond that.

There’s something about approaching a book project with an eye toward serving the reader, not just the client who hires me. I always aim to bring the author’s work to print in a way that is easy on the eyes, presents pages that somehow look appealing to readers, and yet are not distracting.

It’s a balance I try to strike with each book. It begins with looking over the material, words and pictures (if there are any pictures), and choosing typefaces that somehow marry with the material, that are appropriate for the reader, and that just plain look nice, do not annoy the reader, and do not irritate the reader’s eyes.

Initially, this means matching typefaces sometime from being from the same era and/or place as, say, a story is set in. But it also requires taking into account the reader—for instance, children or older readers may benefit from and often prefer typefaces with larger x-heights. Beyond that, I always think about the balance between providing enough white space on a page that invites readers in without seeming to “pad” a book’s page count. My preference for such generous white space stems, I think, from memories of slogging through books of densely typeset pages that were dark with all the ink coverage and seemed to tax the eyes.

So even though I wouldn’t trade in any of my e-devices, I lament the tendency not to think of book design and layout as a thing the same way it used to be. I’d even prefer hearing more about the designing of ebooks and not merely formatting them. I hope the train hasn’t left the station on this.

Entry Filed under: book design

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