Reading & Writing
It's What We Do / Article
An essay about the nature of Editorial Design published in the catalogue of the 46th Laus Spanish Graphic Design & Visual Communication Awards, 2016.

There’s a small coffee shop near my old studio that I used to frequent almost every day. I got to know the guy who worked behind the counter and some of the locals who used to hang out there. And they got to know me. The novelty – for them – was that I was a foreigner – Dutch or English they thought – Northern European at least. I never told them what I did but they must have made assumptions, based on appearance I guess, like we all do. A professional, but not, say, an engineer – not conventional looking enough, nor a lawyer, not neat or smart enough. It seems the conclusion they reached was architect.

One day the guy behind the counter asked me.
“I’m a designer” I said.
There was a pause – as there always is – followed by the inevitable question of qualification.
I pre-emptied it.
Graphic designer” I added.
Another pause.
I pre-emptied the next question too.
“I design a lot of books”, I said, trying to think of something that would connect with him that wasn’t packaging or advertising.
“Ah” he said, “you design covers”.
“Yes. But not just the covers” I replied, “I also design the inside”.
Now the pause was much longer. He raised his eyebrows.
“You mean you write the books too?”.
“No, no, I just do the design”.
The next pause contained an added factor – perplexity.
“The inside...? But ... it’s just text isn’t it?” he replied.

Editorial design has always been one of the areas of graphic design that has given me the most pleasure and satisfaction yet for the uninitiated it’s an unexpected area of expertise. After all, what particular skill or knowledge could one need in order to place words on a page, with or without pictures? I have to cast my mind back over thirty years to recall the state of ignorance that make sense of such a question – to a time before I knew anything about typography, grid systems, pagination, narrative sequence, picture editing, and all the printing variables that can make or break a book. Like any practice, whether it be design or film-making or cooking or carpentry, close scrutiny and experience reveals layer upon layer of knowledge and nuance and over time we discover just how much there is to know about something that once may have seemed to contain almost nothing. And as we learn and deepen our skills we loose sight of what it is to look innocently.

So what can we say about designing a book? Well, we can say that every time we engage in the design of a book we are immersed in a journey of discovery. One that demands many questions. Answering them requires the use of both intellectual and technical skills because the journey involves thinking and making. These are not alternatives to each other. We make as a result of thinking and we think as a result of making. Both are ways of exploring ideas and testing solutions. Both are forces of reciprocal power within the design process. Reflection, analysis, and critical thinking is informed by technical knowledge and skill, and vice versa. One cannot take place without the other.

In the majority of cases graphic design is a process of intellectual organisation and discovery before it is a form of visual organisation and expression. Editorial design is no exception in this respect. We are given content by the client. Normally this comes in the form of text and images. But we also receive ideas from them that relate to their expectations and objectives, that tell us about the purpose of the book, its context and an idea about the intended audience. This too is content that has to be woven into the outcome. Understanding what you are given is the first step in the process. From this we piece together a first panoramic view. It leads to the next step – understanding what you haven’t been given – because what you are given is not the total of what the book will be – the whole is other than the sum of its parts in Gestalt speak. And thereby starts the designers journey of construction, filling in the gaps towards building a coherent narrative. Design is not a piece of the puzzle, it’s a way of putting the puzzle together.

For myself, I always try and imagine the emotion the book will induce. Once I have an understanding of what it is about I try and imagine how it should make me feel when I hold it in my hands – what sort of response it should provoke. Is it busy with lots of detail or is it calm and controlled? Does it allow for long pauses or is it a stream of visual information? Is the narrative linear and repetitive or is it constantly changing? What is the relationship between the text and image? Do they accompany and reinforce each other or do they work as separate narratives? Is it a big or a small book? What does the cover say about what I might find inside? What sensation does the paper stock provoke? What does this tell me about the content of the book? How does the mechanics of the book reveal or direct the content? In short, how does the physicality of the book (which includes it’s visual language and organisation) express what the book is about? Literally closing my eyes and imagining this is not simply an intellectual task, it’s a search for an aesthetic response because in the act of design we are not simply navigating what the world contains, we are navigating the perception of what it contains. Put as simply as possible, everything we absorb is mediated by the nature of its delivery. And that is what graphic design has to offer – the opportunity of modeling delivery systems that affect the significance, meaning and impact of ideas, knowledge and information.

But is there more to book design than this even though this seems enough? Is there more than what the countless books and texts about editorial design tell us in the form of technical manuals and theoretical reflection? Perhaps. Despite the large range and variety of both visual and conceptual approaches that can be adopted when designing a book, they are nevertheless finite objects that have tangible limits. Perhaps in this lies another reason that make books such an appealing and satisfying challenge for us – their physicality. A book is not an on-going project subject to change and whose parameters are in a state of flux. The decisions a designer makes about size, format, number of pages, layout etc, are permanent. There is a beginning and an end. And in a world where so much is in a state of flux, where limits and parameters are subject to constant change, perhaps there is a refuge of certainty in producing an object whose edges we are able to define.

And I confess to other more simple pleasures beyond the evident professional challenges and responsibilities. I find satisfaction in the many mechanical tasks that book design involves. I enjoy the typographic exploration, of testing typefaces set at various specifications, printed out and laid next to each other. I enjoy the process of pagination, of calculating the grid and of placing blocks of texts and images on the page. I enjoy the pleasure of organising, of taking ingredients that arrive in disparate forms and styles and unifying them within a common identity. I enjoy turning crappy images into quite good ones ones through careful retouching and cropping. I like looking through paper catalogues and envisaging how the quality of the paper will affect the reading experience. I am rewarded by being able to take a cluster of badly presented data and turning it into something which is clear and pleasing to read. And best of all I love the anticipation of the book being delivered from the printers and taking it almost secretly into a corner by myself so that I can finally be confronted, in a mixture of apprehension and delight, with the manifestation of what I had imagined.

These things would have little resonance for my friend in the coffee shop. Neither would the intellectual satisfaction of knowing that we have understood and made sense in an intelligent way of the content we were given. Nor the parallel aesthetic satisfaction of knowing we have done so through a visual expression that reflects and enhances the meaning of the content. And in the global scheme of things, is any of this important? Ellen Lupton once told a story of a student who, newly exposed to all the nuances of typographic detail and specialist concerns of a minority profession such as ours, asked this same question. “Well,” she replied, “it’s what we do.” It is indeed, which is why I celebrate the book in which this text appears so that those outside of our profession can take a step closer to what we know.  

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