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Archive for the category ‘book design’

Designers of books


“Who’s your favorite book designer?” That was the innocent-seeming question that Deborah Iaria, an Italian typographer based in London, asked me yesterday, during one of TypeThursday’s one-to-one “coffee” chats on Zoom. We had just established that we both loved designing books, so that question didn’t come out of the blue. But it’s a question I haven’t been asked very often, unlike the much more common query, “What’s your favorite typeface?” (My reply to that is usually, “It depends on what I’m going to use it for,” followed by naming a few perennial favorites like Verdigris, Dolly, Profile, and Beorcana.)

After a long pause while I pondered the question, I decided on an answer: the late San Francisco printer Jack Stauffacher. Not only had I learned a lot from Jack in person, but examples of his aesthetic and his craft, even before I met him, had taught me a lot of what I know about placing text and image on a page. And about the importance of books as carriers of culture.

But since that conversation, I have kept coming back to the question. There are lots of excellent book designers, both historical and contemporary, but which ones have influenced me the most? Which ones are my “favorites”?

From the first half of the 20th century, I would cite Jan Tschichold, W.A. Dwiggins, and Bruce Rogers as primary influences. And Jack Stauffacher’s old friend, whom unfortunately I never met: Adrian Wilson. From my own time, I greatly admire the work of the late Steve Renner, long-time art director at the University of California Press, whose spare, modern style always seemed in direct contradiction to his passion for restoring old hotrod cars.

Two more recent designers whose work I have tried to emulate are David Bullen and Tree Swenson. David Bullen established and maintained the high standards of the Berkeley-based North Point Press in the 1980s (the initial templates owed a lot to Jack Stauffacher), which was a model to me of an independent book publisher of works worth reading. Tree Swenson was the long-time publisher and designer of Copper Canyon Press, the eminent international poetry publisher in Port Townsend, Washington. After Tree left and Sam Hamill asked me to take over as house designer, it was Tree’s established standards of quality that I tried to live up to. (I was very happy when she seemed to think that I had succeeded.)

Others who leap to mind are Valerie Brewster, who later took over much of the book design for Copper Canyon and has produced many, many subtly and elegantly designed books, and Saki Mafundikwa, who was an art director at Random House before returning to Zimbabwe to found the visual/digital design school ZIVA, and who wrote and designed the seminal book Afrikan Alphabets. And John Hubbard, whom I worked with at Marquand Books in the 1990s, and who has continued to design exquisite art books ever since. No doubt I’ll think of more the moment I commit this post to pixels.

I haven’t even considered anyone from before the turn of the 20th century, and I’m not reaching beyond the Western world of printing and publishing. I’ve seen some brilliant book designs from Japan and China, but since I can’t read either language, I can’t really consider them to be influences on my ideas about text typography.

So: who’s your favorite book designer?

Visualizing with text


I had fun recently collaborating with Richard Brath, the author of Visualizing with Text, on a cover for this upcoming book from CRC Press. It’s part of the AK Peters Visualization Series, a line of books from Routledge that focuses on different ways of visualizing information, largely scientific or technical. Brath has written a specialized yet informative study of the many ways that text can function as an element of visual design.

Not surprisingly, the book is richly illustrated, so we had lots of possibilities when it came to pulling images that might be used on the cover. But first I tried out a number of dramatic single images of type or letters that did not come from the book. Richard responded with a very dense collage of images from within his own text, which I found fascinating but probably overwrought for a book cover. Especially for the cover of a book that would most likely be seen as a thumbnail in a catalog or online, rather than displayed lavishly on the front table of a bookstore.

The process, as I said, was fun, going back and forth and trying out different combinations to find one that would both be dramatic and reflect the diversity of techniques that his book covers.

I also got the publisher’s permission to replace the ITC American Typewriter that they had been using on the covers of this series with David Jonathan Ross’s recent revival of Dattilo, a typewriter-inspired Italian typeface of the early 1970s that was originally issued by Nebiolo. Like American Typewriter, Dattilo is not actually monospaced at all; it just reminds us of a monospaced typewriter face. But Dattilo has a much richer variety of weights and optical sizes, enabling me to take the same series design and give it a much more dramatic typographic treatment.

Richard Brath has written his own informative blog post about designing the cover of his book. The book will be published this fall.

Trouble in Tiny Town


We’re all locked away from our favorite bookstores during the current pandemic, so I haven’t seen the trade-paperback edition of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel The House of Broken Angels in printed form. But I did see a little thumbnail image of the cover in Moira Macdonald’s recent book column in the Seattle Times. That image didn’t quite have the effect it was meant to have: I burst out laughing the moment I saw it.

The symmetrical arrangement of the principal words of the title, and the small size of the ancillary words, turns the title into what appears to be a stack of three words. And the tiny “OF” next to “HOUSE,” at this size, can easily be mistaken for a hyphen.

So you end up with “THE HOUSE-BROKEN ANGELS.” Which would no doubt be a very different book.

The paperback cover looks just fine at full size, as it would if you saw it displayed on a table in a bookstore. And the very different design of the hardcover jacket isn’t so symmetrical, which makes it less prone to this kind of misreading.

I’m not showing this to make fun of the book-cover design. I’m using it to point out how important it is for a cover designer to look at their design in all the contexts it may be seen in, including at Lilliputian size on a newspaper page or on a website on someone’s phone. How can it be misread? If it can be, it will be.

[Images: trade-paperback cover (top) and hardcover jacket (bottom) of Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels]

Hanging by a serif (again)


The visual concept behind Hanging by a serif came from something I was playing with for our 2012–2013 holiday card. “The stockings were hung by the serifs with care…” read the front of the card; inside, the text continued, “…in hopes that typographers soon would be there.” On the front, a wild cacophony of huge serifs barged in from the outer edges, with little green Christmas-tree ornaments appended to a couple of them. The background was a pale-green image of a potted conifer, drawn in stained-glass-style, taken from an image-based “Design Font” that Phill Grimshaw had designed in the 1990s for ITC. (The inside also featured a pale background image from the same font, this time of a wrapped package.) It was fun, though I wondered what our non-typographer friends and family would make of it when we sent it out.

Later that year, I began experimenting with the concept, juxtaposing short snippets of text from my own writing with big details from various serifs. I found that I had a lot of statements or fragments on the subject of design that seemed to fit into this format. Eventually, these epigrams and serifs took the form of the first edition of the book Hanging by a serif.

That first edition caught the eye of Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, whose Mainz-based company, Hermann Schmidt Verlag, has published so many excellent books on typography and design. Bertram wanted to do a German edition of my little booklet, which would be a nice calling card for his publishing program and might even sell a lot of copies. (It didn’t.)

Bertram’s approach to publishing is thorough, and he wanted to include notes about which typefaces all the serifs had come from. This sent me back down the rabbit hole into my own production process, since I had been working with truncated images for most of the design of the book, and I hadn’t kept very careful track of what typefaces my serifs had originally been attached to. It took quite a bit of retrospective detective work to find all my sources. (Hint: a couple of the images had been reversed.) In this sense, the German edition is more thorough than mine. It also has a couple of serifs or serif-like glyphs that are different from the ones I used.

But one of the epigrams bothered Bertram: “Most graphic designers never get more than rudimentary training in typography.” While true, this struck him as too negative, and he suggested coming up with a replacement. In the end, we went with a statement in German that translated as, “Typography is never an end in itself, it targets the eye of the beholder.” (Probably pithier in German.)

When it came time to do a new English edition of the book (since I was running out of copies of the original), I decided to make two changes. The serif I had used on the cover of the first edition was taken from Justin Howes’s ITC Founder’s Caslon, a digital reproduction of William Caslon’s original types in which Justin attempted to re-create the exact effect of the metal type printed on hand-made 18th-century paper. The outline, therefore, was rough. This roughness around the edges bothered a number of people, some of whom asked me if perhaps the image had been printed at too low a resolution. It hadn’t; this was precisely the effect that the typeface was designed to have, but blown up to extra-large size like this, it was distracting. So for the new edition I searched out a new serif that would work well on the cover. (The serif I chose is from Matthew Carter’s newly released type family for Morisawa, Role.)

And I did replace the problematic epigram that had bothered Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, though not with the one we used in the German edition. As I had mentioned once in this blog, a quip of mine had been making the rounds of social media for some time, being quoted repeatedly out of context, and I thought it really belonged in this compendium. So if you turn to page 16 of the new edition, you’ll find this: “Only when the design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible.” It really wanted to hang with the other serifs, and now it does.

Adieu, W.S. Merwin


The wonderful poet W.S. Merwin died two weeks ago. I had the pleasure of meeting him once and being in his presence twice, and I had the honor of designing one of his books (Flower & Hand: poems 1977–1983, a reissue of his early work by Copper Canyon Press) and designing the cover of one more (East Window: the Asian poems, also for Copper Canyon). I came to his poems from designing the first of these books, but his work has become a touchstone for me and an example of what poetry can be.

The time I got meet him was when he was in Seattle for a reading at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (in fact, it might have been so long ago that it was still the Seattle Art Museum, before SAM opened a new site downtown and the Art Deco building in Volunteer Park became the Asian). After the reading proper, Merwin was ready sign books – but the art museum was strict about its closing time, so we ended up on the loading dock at the north end of the building, in chilly weather, with Merwin gamely signing books for everyone who had bought one and wanted a signature. I’m sure he later remembered that somewhat trying moment.

He came back to Seattle for a later reading, at the Seattle Public Library’s main branch downtown, and afterward there was a party at the tippy-top of Smith Tower. It was hosted by a patron who was living in the almost-secret apartment at the top of Seattle’s oldest skyscraper (for a brief time, around the turn of the last century, the Smith Tower was the tallest building west of the Mississippi), tucked into the top, above the level formerly known as the Chinese Room (now an observatory and bar) that everybody thinks of as the highest part of the tower. The family that lived there was well-off, obviously, or they wouldn’t have been there; and they welcomed a bunch of artsy types into their home to celebrate the work and the presence of W.S. Merwin. Details I remember: the Dale Chihuly glass-sculpture chandelier (bottom left) hanging down from the pointed top; the mezzanine/balcony level running around the interior of the pyramidal space; lots of very fine food and wine catered on tables on the main floor; and the ladder to the actual tip of the tower, where you could crawl out into the night air and view the lights of downtown Seattle (I decided that I was probably not svelte enough to make this ascent, and declined). I never did actually talk with Merwin at that event, but I think he had sufficient attention from the other admirers present.

Merwin’s elegiac poems from his later years speak volumes to me, and fit my own autumnal sensibility as my friends and I age and as the world seems (sometimes) to be descending into darkness. But then, the world always seems to be doing that, at least when you yourself have gotten old. I take Merwin’s late-in-life poems as a guide and a voice in the mist; and I appreciate all of his words, recent and old, as an expression of what it means to be human. Thank you, Bill Merwin.

Flexible typesetting


As soon as I saw the title of Tim Brown’s new book, Flexible typesetting, I knew it was on a subject that was close to my heart.

I spent more than thirty years perfecting the art and craft of text typography using digital tools, showing that if you knew what you were doing you could create every bit as fine a book page digitally as you could with metal type. (Not to mention exceeding the low standards of phototypesetting.) And I’ve spent more than a decade translating that craft into pages of fixed typography for the screen, trading concerns about ink and paper for the strictures of resolution and screen size.

Now we’re at the next stage. The challenge today, as I’ve pointed out more than once, is not fixed pages at all, but flexible ones. Tim Brown’s new book focuses clearly and tightly on how to meet that challenge.

Instead of talking about pre-set margins and fixed point sizes, Brown speaks of ideas like pressure, tempo, and focus, creating what he calls “a pattern language of typesetting pressures.” His approach to typesetting for the screen deals with variables rather than fixed values, and he gives a finely detailed look at how to set those variables and how to think about them. Much of the book deals with those details, but his main point is to make people aware of the problems and of the tools we currently have (or will have soon) to solve them. It is, first and foremost, an introduction to how to think about flexible typesetting.

One of the tools that Brown presents us with is the modular scale, which is a concept that takes a little while to get used to. It’s a set of numbers that you can use in setting the sizes of both type and other elements of a design. Obviously, if the design is to be flexible, those sizes can only be starting points; but you can use the modular scale to set the rate at which sizes grow or shrink as conditions change. This scale-based system is designed to make the variables all feel naturally related. Brown offers several different modular scales, for different kinds of projects.

This book is full of very specific recommendations and explanations, with links to useful tools created by himself and other web designers; it will be a very pragmatic guide to anyone sitting down to practice flexible typesetting in a hands-on environment. It’s also an eloquent plea for developing better and more finely tuned tools for the future.

Tim Brown’s conclusion: “Typography is ours to shape.”

[Flexible typesetting, by Tim Brown. A Book Apart no. 27. Copyright 2018 by Tim Brown. New York: A Book Apart, 2018.]

Sam Hamill


Sam Hamill would have turned 75 on May 9. He had planned to celebrate his birthday with a publication party for his final book, After Morning Rain, on May 15, but in the end he realized that his health wasn’t going to last long enough to do it. Sam died a month before the planned event. It went ahead, however, on a more informal basis, as a remembrance and celebration of Sam and a welcome for his last book.

I’m now reading that book. I’ve been reading it slowly, parceling out the poems, making it last. It’s filled with little gems, of feeling, observation, appreciation, lament – the distilled sensibility of a poet at the end of his life. Sam always felt that he was in conversation with the great poets of the past, especially those of ancient China and Japan; some of the poems in After Morning Rain explicitly echo that:

Coming to It

A midnight cup of sake,
a strange solitude.
Is this all I’ve become?

Old and alone, bending
over a poem
written in loneliness
by some old Chinese
bag o’ bones
more than a thousand years ago.

The book is a small, beautiful volume, designed by and with a cover painting by Ian Boyden.

Sam was an evocative, insightful, lyrical poet, like his mentor Kenneth Rexroth. He was also, like Rexroth, a world-class curmudgeon. There’s bitterness, but also love, in Sam’s last poems. He transcended his own life through his work and his art.

Sam was an exacting and generous editor, and that’s where his greatest influence may lie. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press and was editor there for nearly thirty years, bringing innumerable books of fine poetry by greats and unknowns into print in the United States. That has been an important part of our cultural life.

I’m not sure when I first met Sam, but I came to know him when Loren MacGregor and I were publishing the short-lived Pacific Northwest Review of Books in 1977 & 1978. Sam was enormously helpful and encouraging to us in our efforts. I well remember the interview with Sam and his then-partner Tree Swenson that was conducted and submitted to us by a new writer; when we showed Sam the draft, he exclaimed grumpily, “I speak in paragraphs, dammit!” and insisted on correcting it – to the great benefit of our readers.

I’ve had the pleasure of designing several of Sam’s books, beginning with Passport, a collaboration with the artist Galen Garwood, which was published by Broken Moon Press in 1989. I’ve designed books of essays by Sam (Basho’s Ghost, A Poet’s Work) and poetry (Destination Zero). I always tried to give his work the typographical clothing that it deserved.

In 1993, I got a call from Sam, out of the blue. “Would you like to help me design a book?” He and Tree had just split up, and she had been the designer of Copper Canyon’s books. That early casual-sounding request led to my designing all of Copper Canyon’s books and collateral for the next five years (and several more at various times after that). As I said at the time, I was trying to live up to the standards that Tree had set, making each book recognizably a Copper Canyon book while letting each one take its own form and shape. And I was trying to maintain Sam’s vision with each book, often working with paintings that he had chosen for the covers. I like to think I succeeded reasonably well. I felt that those were books that would be worth reading a hundred years from now.

Ars longa, vita brevis.

[Images, top to bottom: After Morning Rain, designed by Ian Boyden; Sam Hamill; Destination Zero, designed by John D. Berry; Sacramental Acts, Kenneth Rexroth, designed by John D. Berry.]

Farewell to Jack the printer


“The splendid dawns — how many more of them will the gods toss into your basket of days?”

– Horace, Carminum Liber IV, trans. Michael Taylor

Jack Stauffacher died on Nov. 16, a month shy of his 97th birthday. He was both fiercely opinionated and self-deprecating; when he called you up, he would simply say, “This is Jack, the printer.” But what a printer!

I saw him for the last time just three weeks before he died, when Dennis Letbetter took me and Rob Saunders over to Tiburon for lunch with Jack and his wife Josie at their small house. The conversation ranged all over the place, as it always did, from ideas to reminiscences to literature and craft, but I was there for a purpose: to ask Jack questions about his life and career, for the biographical essay I’ve been asked to write. This essay will appear in a book by Chuck Byrne about Jack’s experimental prints, to be published next year by Letterform Archive. And, of course, I was there because I suspected that it might be my last chance to see Jack.

While I was there, Jack gave me a copy of his last book, a beautifully designed volume of “fragments from a Tuscan diary, 1956–1958,” which he had entitled Oxen. Plough. Bicycle. It is fully in the tradition of Jack Stauffacher’s long book-design and printing career, simple and unadorned yet exquisitely arranged. Its contents consist of photographs that he took while bicycling around the countryside outside Florence when he was living there on a Fulbright scholarship; the photographs are complemented by notes, almost poems – phrases and sentences of reflection on where he was and what he was seeing. It’s a fitting culmination to a publishing career, and I’m glad I got it directly from his own hand.

When Jack turned 90, seven years ago, his friends put together a spectacular celebration at the San Francisco Center for the Book. We won’t be able to celebrate his 97th birthday, except in his absence, but ideas are being floated for a fitting memorial sometime in the new year.

Several obituaries and moving reminiscences have been published already: by Chris Pullman in Design Observer, by Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Chronicle, and by Pino Trogu in Domus. Dennis Letbetter has been putting together a photographic record that he’s taken of Jack over the years (from which the photos at the left are taken).

Web Typography


At TypeCon last week in Boston, I picked up a copy of the newly published book Web Typography by Richard Rutter. While I have certainly not had time yet to read the whole thing, I’ve been perusing it haphazardly and joyfully. I’m impressed. It’s living up to the recommendations I was hearing in Boston.

It’s fitting that the largest section of this book is the one called “Typographic Detail.” Rutter has obviously absorbed a wealth of typographic knowledge; the resources he cites in his bibliography include not just Bringhurst’s Elements and Cyrus Highsmith’s Paragraphs but Dowding’s Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type, Tschichold’s Asymmetric Typography, and Jost Hochuli’s Detail in Typography. (It also includes, to my appreciative amusement, Erik Spiekermann’s 1987 Rhyme & Reason: a Typographic Novel.

Rutter is adept at explaining and demonstrating the fine points of typographic composition, and doing so in the context of responsive design for the web. His writing is fluid, direct, and informal; even when he’s making a technical point, it’s never less than clear.

Writing about choosing robust typefaces for text onscreen: “Although modern screens have a pixel density capable of rendering intricate glyphs, the nature of emitted rather than reflected light eats into those forms. Robust forms stand up to this bullying, leaving high resolutions to render any subtleties, thereby rewarding you and your reader in tempering the ruggedness of the type.”

I don’t always agree with Rutter’s aesthetic opinions, but they are always well thought out and defensible. He recommends tightening up the letter-spacing of Univers (“Tightening Univers by 1% gives a more contemporary feel”), while I think it crams the letters together and loses the woven texture that was at the heart of Adrian Frutiger’s type designs; but it’s arguable, and in shorter lines than his visual example, it might work. Disagreements like this, however, are rare as I’m reading through the book; on the whole, and in detail, I would trust Richard Rutter’s taste and typographic choices.

This well-made, well-printed 330-page book is also well designed and well thought out. The body text, set in Thomas Gabriel’s Premiéra (which I hadn’t encountered before), is inviting and comfortably readable, although I think it would have been even more so with the line length a pica shorter. The organizational hierarchy is easy to follow, the illustrations are clear and to the point, and the book is full of useful cross-references.

There’s a good bit of back matter, but for a reference book, there’s one thing obviously missing: an index. Rutter provides a “CSS Index,” which is logical given the subject matter, but that’s only helpful if you already know the name of the CSS term you’re looking for. A regular index of subjects or even of terms would be helpful in a printed book (“Where was it that you were talking about letter-spacing Univers?”). But there is one very useful thing tucked into the back pages: a list of “Guidelines,” in sequence by chapter, with page numbers. “This book is written as a series of guidelines,” says Rutter, and this list serves as an excellent guide to the book’s essential information. It really belongs up front, as a sort of expanded table of contents.

My only production quibble is that the physical book is heavier than it needs to be. A somewhat lighter stock would have made it lighter in the hand, feeling less like a tome.

One little surprise that I discovered was a short section at the end, “Communicating your design.” If you’re not doing all the coding yourself, you’ll have to communicate accurately all the details of your typographic design to the person who is going to implement it in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and perhaps more arcane languages and tools. Which brings us back around, full circle, to where I came in: as a phototypesetter in a small Seattle printshop in the early 1980s, offering workshops to our clients on how to spec their type properly so they would get back the typeset results they were hoping for.

You could quite easily use Rutter’s book as an introductory guide to typography, not just to typography on the web. It is aimed squarely at the most flexible and problematic area of publishing today, but its advice is grounded in principles drawn from five centuries of typography in print, and it’s applicable to any form of visual communication that uses words.

[Images: cover and a couple of page spreads from Web Typography.]



During last year’s TypeCon in Washington DC, FontShop’s David Sudweeks videotaped interviews with a number of type designers, and with at least one non-type-designer: me. He asked questions about how I’d gotten started in the field of typography (“sideways”) and about book design, which gave me an opportunity to set out my ideas about the typography of onscreen reading, and the nascent Scripta Typographic Institute. (That’s a subject that I’ll be taking up again at ATypI 2015 in São Paulo next month.)

Now that interview has been published. The parts about book design & e-book design start at 1:25, after some introductory material.

All of the FontCast interviews are short, focused, and well edited.