As I contemplate my huge design library, I often ask myself which books I would keep no matter what. It’s an interesting exercise because true excellence is surprisingly rare. Often design books are actually promotional “portfolios” camouflaged as coffee table books; they do a good job of showcasing a designer’s work but have few lessons to teach.
There are a few exceptions, though. Let’s take a look at three outstanding examples.
Richard Hendel’s On Book Design (Yale University Press) should be required reading for book designers, as well as for a broader range of graphic designers and for writers interested in self-publishing.
In contrast to the pedantic nature of many design books, On Book Design takes the form of an extended conversation with the author. You get the feeling you’re sitting down with a happy, friendly design teacher who is anecdotally recounting his career and the lessons he’s learned over the years.
More Than One Voice <subhead>
On Book Design
is an accumulation of design insights from many sources. After discussing and showing examples of his own designs–and an extended discussion of the design of On Book Design itself, along with discarded alternatives–Hendel presents information from interviews with several other book designers. These designers give their take on the challenges of book design and their individual approaches to the book.
Adding even more spice to On Book Design are the numerous epigraphs; short pullouts in the margins that either support or refute the ideas discussed in the adjacent text. These add a great deal of richness to the text (as well as visual variety). The comments are like mini-conversations playing unobtrusively in the background.
A great deal of Hendel’s personality emerges in On Book Design. One of my favorite sections is his comment that he originally wanted to title the book It Depends. Hendel considered It Depends because so many design decisions depend on the manuscript content (including the author’s style of writing, length of titles, subheads, and captions, etc.), the book’s message, and the context in which it appears.
Several Levels <subhead>
On Book Design
is more than a book for book designers. It’s valuable for beginning designers and others because it not only reviews the basic tools of typography and page layout but also emphasizes the importance of carefully analyzing the source materials designers work with.
For example, when given a copyedited manuscript to design into a book, Hendel immediately heads for the extremes, looking for the longest and shortest titles, the longest and shortest subheads. These form the starting point for designing the Table of Contents page and the title pages of the individual chapters. He then analyzes typical sentence length. Hendel doesn’t read the entire manuscript, but takes the time to retype a page or two to get a better “feel” for the author’s style–a feel that can be gained only by re-keyboarding text rather than copying and pasting. A nice concept.
On Book Design
does more than just simplify advanced concepts. It’s a fine read.
Typography Made Simple <subhead>
Several years ago, Hartley & Marks published the first edition of the classic The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. Since then, several editions have appeared. Available in both hardcover and softbound, The Elements is so well written and laid out that you’ll want to purchase the hardcover version. This one, too, is a keeper.
begins by discussing the page architecture: margins, headlines, subheads, and body copy. The second part of the book covers the major typeface designs. Although there’s a nod to the history of each typeface, Bringhurst pays more attention to practical applications.
Often called “a basic manual of typesetting,” The Elements is as well written as your favorite novel. It’s also one of the most beautifully laid out books I own. It would be a bargain at twice the price.
Need a Logo? <subhead>
Doyald Young’s Fonts & Logos is the latest and best example of the “personal statement/work of art.” Fonts & Logos is a major achievement, a labor of love; it’s required reading for type lovers and designers who want the equivalent of a year-long, college-level class delivered by one of the world’s leading logo designers.
The key to the success of Fonts & Logos is that it was written to satisfy the author’s internal standards of excellence and produced to the author’s own timetable. More than three years of work went into the writing and painstaking layout of the book.
For the privilege of “putting his money where his vision is”–i.e., paying for printing himself–Young was able to create a book that not only teaches how to create art, but also is–itself–a work of art.
Working to satisfy his own standards of excellence without compromise, Young went so far as to visit the printer in Asia to make sure each page came off the printing press just right. In doing so, he has created a legacy book–one that provides graphic designers with hundreds of pages to read, admire, and learn from again and again. It’s a book to be passed down to your children when you hang up your mouse.
Like the best graphic-design books, Fonts & Logos is relatively short on words but long on illustrations. The book is designed in spreads, with most topics covered on two facing pages (many spreads are worth matting and framing, to be hung on your wall).
The characteristic design features of many familiar typefaces (i.e., Frutiger, Optima, Adobe Garamond) are discussed and illustrated at huge size, permitting you to appreciate the art, effort, and disciplined technique that went into their design.
What makes Fonts & Logos fascinating, and deserving of so much of the reader’s time, is that the book shows numerous “alternate takes” of particular logos, as well as the version that was finally accepted. Comparing the characters in a logo to the original alphabet shows how simplifying letterforms (like removing the crossbar of the upper case A) can enhance readability at low sizes as well as project a unique image at large size.
Numerous guidelines and call-outs draw attention to the concepts described in the text at the top of each page. Afterthoughts, when present, are discretely placed in italics at the bottom.
A Complementary Threesome
Fonts & Logos
is an ideal companion to my other two long-time favorites, On Book Design and The Elements of Typographic Style. Its emphasis is less on choosing and using text and headline type and more on what goes into designing a typeface and how to identify those qualities that make for readability and legibility.
Roger C. Parker is President of Guerrilla Marketing Design, Dover, New Hampshire
(www.GmarketingDesign.com). Over a million and a half readers own copies of the 24 books he’s written, translated into 37 languages. His first book was “Looking Good in Print,” which The New York Times called “The one to buy when you’re only buying one.”