The Art of Book Design
How creative, smart designers make “form follows function” a beautiful thing
Whitney Moran and Christopher Reynolds
Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press
Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press
Good design is in the eye of the beholder. Graphic design exists in the service of content. Form follows function. The clichés are many. Like most clichés, each contains a kernel of truth. The specific elements that cohere to make a book pop out among its fellows on a bookstore table are unique to a particular title, and impossible to quantify.
No sooner has one made that observation than Andrew Steeves disagrees. He is the co-founder of Kentville, Nova Scotia artisanal publisher Gaspereau Press. “I don’t think good design is mysterious,” Steeves says.
The statement may come more easily to Steeves than others. The writer, editor and designer has won more than 50 citations for his work from the Alcuin Society, a collective dedicated to the promotion of excellence in graphic book design. Steeves has won so many Alcuin awards that in 2015 he stopped submitting his work for consideration, wanting to give other designers an opportunity.
Having developed the cohesive look for Gaspereau’s books—involving type-based cover design on paper jackets (sometimes handmade) and Smyth-sewn interiors—he is better placed than most to demystify the process of book design for a general audience.
For Steeves, asking what constitutes good design is like asking how deep is a hole: the answer changes depending on the purpose. While Gaspereau strives for aesthetic cohesion between and among its titles, there is a recognition that each book has unique demands that will be determining factors in their individual designs.
A book like Alexander MacLeod’s Lagomorph, an unusual (for Gaspereau) hardcover release with a letterpress-printed jacket and an original wood engraving by Ontario artist Wesley Bates, exemplifies a minimalist design (which won the Nova Scotia Masterworks Art Award) that would be entirely inappropriate for a work like Stephen Marche’s novel Love and the Mess We’re In, a heavily designed 2012 Gaspereau title that included a fold-out map of New York City.
Regardless of any specific idiosyncrasies in a given title, the overall significance of good design involves providing a reader with an entrée into a particular work and making the reading experience frictionless. So says Heather Bryan, production manager at Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press.
“The function of good book design is to present the content in such a way that the reader can absorb it with ease,” Bryan says. “Legibility is more important than decoration.”
It’s a sentiment Julie Scriver, creative director at Fredericton’s Goose Lane Editions, ascribes to.
“I am not what I would call a ‘loud’ designer,” she says. “It’s not my job to be present. I am providing context and invitation.”
Scriver describes her approach as more evocative than illustrative and points to a book like Almost Beauty, the recently released volume of Sue Sinclair’s selected poetry, as an example. That book features a reproduction of Vancouver artist Amy Stewart’s acrylic on canvas “Wise Woman” printed on textured stock that provides a tactile experience for readers.
“I really love doing that for a reader,” Scriver says. “There’s the experience of seeing it, and then there’s another layer of experience when you pick it up.”
Certain principles come into play that can help inform good design choices regardless of the specific project or brief. First among these is the centrality of design itself, which Steeves sees not as an adjunct, but as essential to the function of a book.
“We make a mistake in our culture when we align design with something extra, like bedazzling something or adding sparkles,” Steeves says. “If these are things that come to mind when you think of design, you cannot begin to understand what design is.”
Understanding what constitutes good design, according to Steeves, involves engagement with the world outside a studio. It also includes a deep knowledge of design principles steeped in an understanding of what has worked in the past. “If it seems like you’ve never read a book then you probably can’t design one,” he says.
Or, as Bryan puts it, “Design is not just how the book looks, but how effectively you have put all the elements together to make an engaging product.”
In our attention-deficit culture, this is more difficult than it might once have been. Scriver talks about the “nanosecond seduction”—that instant in which a design must capture a viewer’s attention among a sea of other visual work. How this is achieved represents the culmination of a process that involves numerous people from different parts of the publishing and bookselling ecosystem voicing competing, often contradictory, ideas about what will catch on in the marketplace.
“The work that I do has to please a lot of people,” Scriver says. The various individuals who might have input into a given design include the writer, the in-house team at Goose Lane, as well as sales and marketing teams and buyers from key accounts such as Indigo. Each of these may have differing opinions about what works, what doesn’t, and what changes to a particular design might help improve it.
Each also has different priorities, some of which may be in conflict. It is up to Scriver to determine how best to incorporate these differing approaches into a final design. “I run the gauntlet every season,” she says.
That means making several successive attempts at putting together a design that will pass muster with as many interested parties as possible. “For every cover that gets published, there are two, three, six, eight versions that didn’t make it,” Scriver says.
The advent of digital technology makes the exploration of different ideas and approaches easier, according to Scriver, who says when she started out, she was using Letraset (a proprietary form of analogue text and art design) for setting text.
At Nimbus, Bryan says digitization has made it easier to customize designs and has allowed designers to experiment in a more hands-on way than was true in the past. “Decades ago, book designers relied heavily on pre-press to execute what they envisioned for the design,” she says.
“Individual pages of a book on paste-up boards would be given to the printer along with photographs and slides marked up with notes on position and enlargement for the graphics. Now the designer supplies the final finished layout to the printer as a complete book.”
Things are a bit different for Gaspereau, where Steeves is designer, typesetter and printer. His artisanal approach is a throwback. It’s unsurprising to hear his take on technology as it applies to book design. “We are up to our eyeballs in technology in here, including X-acto knives and pencils,” says Steeves. “When did we suddenly decide that technology was something that we invented in the mid-80s?”
The hand-crafted attitude underpinning Gaspereau’s output mitigates against fashion, and Steeves admits that, while he is no Luddite, he is uninterested in chasing trends when it comes to book design. He acknowledges the broader ecosystem that will result in certain kinds of design catching on at a given time—last year it was blobs of colour appearing on book covers; in previous years it has been books with red covers or yellow covers.
“There is a zeitgeist that happens—I don’t know how it happens,” Scriver says.
One problem with trying to chase trends is publishers work six months to a year out from when the book will actually appear on store shelves; trying too assiduously to remain current could backfire and the result will look old-fashioned or outmoded before the physical book ever hits bookstores.
“We are mindful of trends when designing our books,” says Bryan, “but the constant challenge is to make your book stand out on the bookshelf and fit in at the same time amid all the other titles in that genre.”
Asked to name a particularly successful Nimbus title from a design perspective, Bryan points to 2017’s East-Coast Crafted: The Essential Guide to Beers, Breweries, and Brewpubs of Atlantic Canada, a book co-written by Christopher Reynolds and Nimbus managing editor Whitney Moran. “It was the first comprehensive guide to breweries in Atlantic Canada, with so many design elements to work into the layout,” Bryan says. “It came together in a useful and really beautiful book.”
The combination of utility and beauty—form following function—is as good a shorthand as any for what constitutes good design. Though technology has offered opportunities to expand the range of what can be done relatively cheaply, the core principles remain the same. If there is one challenge in the realm of design in the second decade of the 21st century, according to Steeves, it has less to do with technological advances or short attention spans, and more to do with a lack of curiosity.
“It’s a failure of the imagination, it’s not a failure of the pocketbook or even a failure of intelligence,” Steeves says. “It’s just a failure to look around at other things and try to understand why they work or why they don’t work.”