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Archive for the category ‘book design’

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.

Translated serifs


My little book Hanging by a serif caught the eye of Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, co-owner of Hermann Schmidt Verlag in Mainz, Germany, a fine small publishing company that specializes in books about typography and design. As a result, my book has been translated, revised, and slightly expanded, and is about to be published in Germany. The German title is Thesen zur Typografie (the someone whimsical “Hanging by a serif” proved resistant to translation), and its release coincides with the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens today.

I haven’t held a copy in my hands yet, but I know it has a sewn binding and two-color printing – more ambitious than my original self-published edition. And a few different serifs. Perhaps it will see a more ambitious American edition, too.

Thesen will join other new books in the Hermann Schmidt line at their display at the Book Fair this week.

Display of new Hermann Schmidt Verlag books

Sprinting into the future


My e-book essay “What is needed” has just been republished on the website of “Sprint Beyond the Book,” a project of Arizona State University’s remarkable Center for Science and the Imagination.

In May, Eileen and I met up with nine other invited guests to participate in CSI’s third “Sprint” event, a workshop/conference focusing on “The Future of Reading.” CSI’s first Sprint, with a theme of “The Future of Publishing,” had taken place last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the participants worked in the midst of the hurly-burly of the world’s biggest book festival; the second (“Knowledge Systems”) took place in January on CSI’s home turf at ASU. This third one was held at Stanford University, in conjunction with Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel.

The mix of people and ideas was invigorating, and the fruits of that brainstorming are intended to be published. (One description of what the Sprint was all about was “creating and publishing a book in three days.” But what kind of a book, exactly?) The other participants at the Stanford event were Jim Giles, Dan Gillmor, Wendy Ju, Lee Konstantinou, Andrew Losowsky, Kiyash Monsef, Pat Murphy, David Rotherberg, and Jan Sassano. The whole project was organized by its instigator and ringleader, Ed Finn, and his talented and indefatigable staff members Joey Eschrich and Nina Miller. I’ve been working with Nina, when we each have time, on the format for eventually publishing the results of the Sprint.

In the meantime, in somewhat kaleidoscopic form, parts of our conversations and digressions, and the texts that we created in the course of the three days, are available now on the “Sprint Beyond the Book” website.

“What is needed,” which I wrote more than two years ago as a post on this blog, is essentially a high-level technical spec for the missing tools that we need in order to do good e-book design. Most of these tools are still missing, two years later, despite the rapidly changing nature of digital publishing. Some of the ideas have made their way into various proposals for future standards, but not much has been reliably implemented yet. I’m still looking forward to the day when everything I was asking for will be so common as to be taken for granted. Then we can make some really good e-books; and our readers will be able to enjoy them.

Type to be read


While I was relaxing in one of the comfy chairs in Typekit’s temporary Pop-Up Library, at TYPO SF in San Francisco last spring, I spotted a small booklet that I had never seen, displayed on the shelf. It was one of the series of booklets produced in the 1960s by the Canadian typographer Carl Dair for West Virginia Pulp and Paper (Westvaco), “A Typographic Quest,” each one of which covered a particular aspect of typography. These little booklets are among the best guides to the basics of typography that you can find; Carl was a master of explaining by showing, and his book Design With Type is justifiably renowned for its clarity and usefulness, despite being by now hopelessly outdated in terms of typesetting technology. (The principles don’t change, only the means.)

The book I spotted was A Typographic Quest Number Three, subtitled type to be read; it was the only one of the series that I had never been able to find in my bookstore spelunking. As it talks about exactly what fascinates me in typography – making a page or paragraph of text easy to read – I had kept looking for a copy, but the last time I had checked, the only copy available was fabulously expensive. I resisted the illicit urge to slip Typekit’s copy into my pocket and spirit it off, but I did come away from the conference with a renewed impetus to seek out a copy of my own.

Which, of course, turned out to be available from several sources, and not at ruinous prices; my earlier searches must have been conducted at infelicitous times. At any rate, I now have my own copy of the excellent Number Three in Carl Dair’s series, complete with its own plastic-coated insert, the “Alphacast,” which is a handy tool for “casting off,” or “estimating how much space a typewritten manuscript will occupy when set in any given size and style of type.” Tools like this are pretty much unneeded these days, when we set type digitally and can simply apply the relevant type size and style to the text and see exactly how much space it takes up, but in the days of handset type or hot machine-set metal, there was no easy way to do this.

The Alphacast

In the sort of detail typical of Dair’s work, his Alphacast even deals with the variance created by texts that are full of narrow letters (illicit still) versus those full of wide ones (mammal); the typewritten copy would treat all letters the same, since typewriters typically use fixed-width alphabets, but typeset copy is almost always set in a font with variable widths.

Now the set of A Typographic Quest on my bookshelf will be complete.

Big on the web


This week a pithy statement of mine has been making the rounds on Twitter: Only when the design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible. I first noticed this quoted by Graphis, but when I googled it, to remind myself where and when I had said it, I was amazed to see how many times it’s been quoted and requoted over the past seven years. It even appears as one of “50 Inspirational Quotes on the Art & Science of Design.”

When I wrote this, in a 2007 column for Creativepro.com, I was talking about something very specific: designing the table of contents for a book. But obviously this sentence has struck a chord for many people, and it’s certainly applicable to many aspects of design.

If I ever do a second edition of Hanging by a serif, my small book of aphoristic statements about typography and design, I’ll have to include this one too. I wonder what serif I’ll decide to hang it from?

Covering books


Edward Rothstein’s review in last Friday’s New York Times of the current exhibit at the Morgan Library focuses attention on the book jackets that make up an obvious part of the exhibit. The show, “Gatsby to Garp,” is about 20th century American literature, and one of Rothstein’s points is that the book jacket embodied – and sold – that literature in book form. “Jackets were the way books announced their significance in the modern bookstore — an institution that had this single century of hearty life.” It was, as he says, “the jackets’ golden age.”

Another of Rothstein’s points is that any public exhibit like this cannot convey the content of the books; by its nature, a display is about the form. You might show several copies of the same book, open to different pages, but that’s only a series of glimpses at the interior, where the words live. Reading is a continuous experience; viewing a staged exhibit is a series of observations. “This is usually one of the difficulties in literary exhibitions: it is impossible to offer the actual substance of the books, so the curator must make something of their presence, use them to illuminate one another, show why they are gathered in one place.” The Morgan’s curators seem to have dealt with this inherent contradiction in imaginative ways, but it’s still a conundrum.

Book jackets are the most obvious representation of a book, yet they aren’t really part of the book itself. The older term “dust jacket” is telling: the first purpose of a book jacket was simply to protect the book’s actual cover, which might be a highly decorated binding. In the development of commercial bookselling, it didn’t take long for publishers to realize that they could use these functional paper wrappers as advertising for the book inside.

That’s the primary function of a book jacket. It’s meant to attract the attention of the potential reader. But since most books for several decades have been paperback rather than hardcover, the distinction between the jacket and the cover has been obscured. Instead of an advertising wrapper that you could strip off once you’d bought the book, the paperback cover remains an integral part of the book when it’s on your shelves. The packaging, in effect, stays with the product.

Today, the book cover – or book jacket – has to function in a new way: as a small image on a digital screen. It’s still meant to attract the eye, but it has to do this at thumbnail size; and the hoped-for action by the potential buyer isn’t to pick up a book off a table but to tap or click the image on the screen.

How, I wonder, will a future collector like Carter Burden, whose collection forms the basis of the Morgan Library exhibition, commemorate the complex interplay of reading, writing, marketing, and bookselling that makes up publishing in the 21st century?

A measured response


In on online discussion recently about book design, someone with long experience in print design made the claim that it was a proven fact that unjustified text was harder to read than justified. This was presented as an indisputable conclusion. That got me curious, so I made an effort to get hold of a copy of the source he cited: Colin Wheildon’s Type & Layout: Communicating – Or Just Making Pretty Shapes?. Obviously I would be in sympathy with a book with such a subtitle, but I was skeptical about the claim to hard data.

Wheildon first published this in Australia as a slim booklet in 1984; the version I found was the American edition, revised and expanded, published in 1995 by Strathmoor Press in Berkeley, with a cumbersome new subtitle: How typography and design can get your message across – or get in the way. (There’s a yet newer edition, from the Worsley Press in 2005, which I haven’t seen; happily, it goes back to Wheildon’s original subtitle.)

The heart of the book is the controlled experiments that Wheildon carried out, with as much care as possible and all the expert advice he could get, to test different typographic treatments, and try to find out, scientifically and measurably, which worked better and which didn’t. He came to this question from magazine publishing, with experience in both advertising and editorial design, so his examples are all from the pages, either real or made up for the experiment, of magazines.

Since Wheildon spells out in an appendix exactly how he conducted his research, it’s possible to judge the results. As far as I can tell, his methods for measuring comprehension after reading an article make sense, as far as they go; comprehension of facts may not be the only thing that’s important in reading, but at least it’s measurable.

Basically, he tested comprehension of articles that the participants had read, using a randomized series of questions that would tell him whether they had read all the way through the article or just read the first part and skimmed or skipped the rest. He also mixed this with anecdotal responses to particular features of his sample layouts, which he probably found irresistible but which renders many of his results dangerously subjective.

The real problem, though, is that in too many of his experiments, he didn’t measure comparable alternatives. It doesn’t really tell you much about the difference between serif and sans-serif text typefaces if the serif face you’re testing is Corona, a workhorse newspaper face, and the sans-serif is Helvetica, which was never intended for long text – and you’ve set both examples at exactly the same point size and leading. Testing a sans-serif typeface that was designed for text, and adjusting the size and spacing parameters to make them appropriate and comparable, rather than literally the same, would have been a much better comparison. Similarly, in a section about optimal text sizes, he made no allowance for varying x-heights and the difference in apparent size of different typefaces; he just compared 10pt to 10pt, no matter what the font. Even his test of ragged-right versus justified text tells us nothing about the details of how the text was typeset; it was just the same layout with either justified or unjustified setting.

I showed my borrowed copy of Type & Layout to Kevin Larson at a recent type pub in Seattle. Kevin is Microsoft’s researcher into typographic readability and legibility, so this is right up his alley. Naturally he refused to pass judgment based on just browsing through the book, but he did ask some pertinent questions about the specific test conditions and methods, which I found useful in thinking about Wheildon’s results.

What I found missing in Wheildon’s examples and his tests was the fine points of text typography that I’ve been dealing with for the past thirty-five years. In comparing serif and sans-serif settings of the same text, he used typefaces that, while indeed serif and sans, do not otherwise have much in common. Not surprisingly, the test subjects had a harder time reading a column of 8/9 Helvetica than they did a column of 8/9 Corona.

That’s the most obvious failure, but there are all too many places in Wheildon’s examples where he’s testing gross differences rather than well-adjusted settings in each format. He wrote this in the 1980s, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t reflect the current state of typesetting technology, but it doesn’t even reflect the state of the technology in the 1980s: I was amazed that in his discussion of letter-spacing he confused kerning with tracking, and he seemed to think that letter-spacing in digital type could only be adjusted using one to four rather large units. (Perhaps he was thinking of the four pre-set tracking values in Aldus PageMaker?) Even at that time, typesetting systems were spacing in tiny fractions of an em.

Nothing in his trials had any way of measuring how much of a reader’s response was inherent and how much was just a matter of what they were already used to. (“We read best what we read most,” as Zuzana Licko famously quipped.)

What I came away with, after reading this book, was disappointment. I appreciated what Wheildon was trying to do; I just wish he had done it better. Some of his data is useful; some of it, unfortunately, is useless, or even misleading.

The focus of Wheildon’s attention was on magazines and advertising, rather than books, though most of what he says about reading text would have some relevance for books too. This 1995 edition of Type & Layout is not itself a very good example of book typography; the publisher and editor, Mal Warwick, makes it clear in a note that he is no typographer, and this is borne out on every page. Too often, Warwick’s re-creations of Wheildon’s examples use a different typeface, usually the light digital version of Goudy Old Style that he’s using as the text face of the book. That makes the examples impossible to judge. (Most of the examples that are reproduced directly from other sources are shown much too small to read, so we have to take the author’s conclusions on faith.) The general text typesetting is perfunctory, not carefully considered and adjusted. It’s a shame that the book itself doesn’t set a better example.

This edition is decked out with a foreword by David Ogilvy, an afterword by Tony Antin, and an introduction by Warwick, all of whom make much more grandiose claims than Wheildon himself does. Where Wheildon offers his conclusions modestly (though not without strong opinions), his promoters put them forward as proof positive of everything they hold dear. I don’t blame Wheildon for that, but it undercuts his book’s effectiveness. And it certainly doesn’t help that the publisher added two chapters of his own, which just show bad examples and make snarky comments about them; those two chapters can safely be ignored.

It’s the subtleties of composition, not just the broad strokes of layout or the size or choice of typeface, that make a page of text easy and inviting to read. Anyone who works professionally with book pages and text composition spends all their time on these fine points; and they don’t do it by rote or rules, but by intuition, experience, and paying attention to the text.

The allure of hard numbers – what software companies love to call “metrics” – is that you can quote them to clients or managers as a justification for your design decisions. But when the metrics rule the design, the tail is wagging the dog.

Rules of thumb can be very handy, but all they are is useful patterns; if you treat them like imperatives from on high – or from a few limited tests that others have inflated into ironclad laws – they’ll trip you up every time.

It would be interesting to see the real subtleties of readability tested, but it’s very hard to do, and it would take a lot of time and effort to come up with anything meaningful.

Questionable practices


Many of you know that I live with an author: my partner and wife Eileen Gunn is a well-respected short story writer, whose first collection, Stable Strategies and Others, was published in 2004 by Tachyon Publications. Not surprisingly, I designed and typeset that book (and ended up doing a good bit of design for Tachyon, sometimes covers, sometimes interiors, over several years). We also developed a visual identity for the book and its marketing campaign – a necessity in today’s publishing world – where I had fun putting the incendiary cover image to work in other contexts.


Now I’ve designed her second collection, Questionable Practices, which will be out in April from Small Beer Press. The interior text design echoes the earlier book, but we gave this one a distinctly different cover design – though one that I think will sit comfortably on a bookshelf next to Stable Strategies. The publisher has just sent out ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to reviewers.

The cover for Questionable Practices went through three entirely different versions, as these things often do (not counting the innumerable iterations of each still lurking on my hard drive). It’s in the nature of commercial book publishing that the publisher needs a cover image, for publicity and marketing purposes, long before they need a finished book; indeed, often enough the text isn’t finalized until long after a cover image has been widely distributed. When I was working as a typographer at Microsoft Press in the mid-1980s, we used to get outside “designs” from a local studio that simply provided cover sketches and sample pages with typical interior design elements; these were done long before the book was even written. Not only did we have to execute the final covers, but we often had to invent designs for new interior elements that came along as the books were written and edited. Eventually, since we were doing half the design work anyway, we took the interior design in-house.

Eileen’s stories don’t fit into obvious categories; they’ve almost all been published as science fiction, but she refuses to ever repeat herself, and her work rejects easy classification. When I designed the cover for her first collection, I was trying to do something that would stand out both on the general-fiction table and in the science-fiction section of a bookstore. As I discovered, though, few bookstores were willing to shelve copies of the same book in two different sections; it was always one or the other. Today, with online marketing and bookselling, perhaps it’s easier to place a book in multiple categories at the same time. In any case, today a book cover needs to be clear and work well as a little thumbnail image, not just at full size on the physical book.

Naturally, each of the three cover versions for Eileen’s book seemed perfect to me at the time, but in the end the one you see at the left worked best – and will be on the book. As a completely objective and nonpartisan observer, I can say: watch for it.

[Update, Jan. 16: I just sent the book to the printer today. Publication date: March. Typeface: Dolly Pro.]

Structured writing for the web


At the end of June, at the Ampersand conference in Brighton, Gerry Leonidas gave a shout-out to an early version of the prospectus for Scripta (“Typographic Think Tank”) in his talk. I had somehow missed this until Tim Brown mentioned it in an e-mail recently inquiring about Scripta. I can highly recommend Gerry’s talk, and not only because he quotes me (7:07–7:49 in the video). Although he starts out with a disclaimer that “this is a new talk” and he’s not sure how well it will hang together, in fact it’s extremely coherent; Gerry is both articulate and thoughtful about the wide range of questions (and, rarely, answers) involved in typography on the web.

Gerry used my “wish list” from “Unbound Pages” (in The Magazine last March) as a jumping-off point for his own ideas about the structure of documents and the tools that he wants to see available. He wants tools for writers, not just for designers, that will make it easy to create a well-structured digital document, one that will maintain its integrity when it gets moved from one format to another (as always happens today in electronic publishing). Gerry’s own wish list begins at 20:47 in the video, though you won’t want to skip the entertaining steps by which he gets there.

What he proposes is a way to separate the sequence of information from its relative importance and interrelatedness. “This is what I really want: I want someone to go out there and take Markdown, which I use constantly, and take it from something that clearly has been written to deal with streams of stuff with some bits thrown on the side … and allow me to have this extra intelligence in the content – while I’m writing it – that will tell me how important something is, what sequence it has with other things, and will then allow me to ditch quite a lot of this stuff that is happening there.” The “stuff” he wants to ditch is all the hand-crafted formatting and positioning that makes a digital document cumbersome and difficult to translate from one form to another.

The problem is, as Gerry admits, training people to write with structure in mind. (Every editorial designer who has tried to get writers to use paragraph and character styles will break out into a hollow laugh at this point.) What he’s advocating is tools that will make this easy to do, instead of something that only makes sense to experts. I think he was a little disappointed that nobody leapt up at the end of his talk to say, “We’ve already done that!” But perhaps he has planted the seed.