Good book design is silent

by / Filed under Thinking

The job of book design is to make a text as easy to read as possible. Once it’s done that, it should retire gracefully.

What is it with designers and the physical form of books?

Take A Craft Of Consequences: Reader, Writer And Emotional Design. Note the hushed tones, pseudo–scientific language and camp imperatives (must be pieced together indeed.)

As in so many of these articles, the author affords an absurd degree of importance to the role of design in conveying the meaning of a text:

When a visual component accurately represents the ideas of the writer, it becomes a source of emotional information. This aids in the transferral [sic] of ideas, and promotes and persuades the reader that the content is worthy of their precious time.

So the next time you’re debating whether to read Anna Karenina or not, make sure you check out the cover, typeface and weight of the paper. You might even want to test the aroma.

The truth is that the printed book is an essentially democratic, mass market medium. Movable type allowed writers to communicate ideas to millions of people. Beautiful, hand–written manuscripts were the reserve of rich people and monks.

(Possibly useless fact: the 19th century London émigré communist scene boasted many typesetters, and The Communist Manifesto came with a brand new gothic typeface.)

Yes, the typesetter’s role is important. Without good design and typography the text is difficult to read. Books shouldn’t fall apart after one reading.

But the designer’s main job is to honour the text and get out of the way of the author’s words. It’s a skill, perhaps even an art form, but it’s absolutely secondary to the meaning of the text. It’s the author’s language that aids and forms the meaning of the content, not the designer’s efforts.

So the best textual design is both readable and interchangeable. Take the Penguin Classics range:

Photo of Dracula and The Idiot

The design tells us about the publisher rather than the text itself. Even better, Penguin’s Swiss era:

Photo of Franny and Zooey by Salinger

In fact you could argue that this silent design reaches its apogee with the e–reader, when the text has become completely decoupled from its container.

Of course , there’ll always be a place for pleasing literary objets (coffee table books, if you like). But good book design is fundamentally silent. And long may it remain so.