Sensitive opinion: The value of designing prose?

shessler's picture

Hello,

something that has been bothering me recently is the discussion of the value of designing prose. Throughout history, the designer has always been a necessary part of the production of prose. The working method is usually choosing a typeface and setting the type. And by tradtion, typography in modern prose is in most cases what Beatrice Warde would call the Crystal Goblet – a perfect transparent vessel in which the fine wine (the writer's text) is contained.

But with the rise of the digital book, where the reader can freely choose his/her typeface of choice, decide a typesize that suits the reader etc, the role of the designer in prose becomes quite tricky.

What can the designer actually do for prose that cannot be done by a robot for example? Is all he/she can do is apply typographic "rules" and conventions to a text? Does an "informed choice" of a typeface affect the reading process?

What is your opinion?

Nick Shinn's picture

The designer designs the default format, which is not tied to a particular text.
This is not much different from a print publisher’s house style.

There are no robots involved in determining a default design, all the typographic variables have to be addressed—and more than those for print, if the rasterizing device or end user is enabled to modify the typography.

oldnick's picture

AFIK, most airlines do not give passengers the option of flying the jet as they see fit…

JamesM's picture

> What can the designer actually do for prose that
> cannot be done by a robot for example?

I'm not aware of any computer programs existing today that can do sophisticated graphic design, but I believe they will exist someday. (Hopefully after I'm retired.)

Any process that can be broken down into a series of definable steps has the potential to be done by a computer. And much of the design process is teachable and follows well-established principles.

What will be much harder — perhaps impossible — will be for a computer to bring creativity to the process. But that doesn't mean that a lot of everyday design will be done someday by automated systems. It's happening in lots of professions and will happen someday in design, too.

PublishingMojo's picture

When I taught a course in book design, the first assignment I gave my students was to bring in a book that they thought was especially well designed--or especially badly designed--and tell the class why they thought so. The purpose of this exercise was to show that books don't just happen. Books look the way the do because somebody made a series of decisions, some better than others. The goal of my course was to equip students to make those decisions well.

Graphic designers have not, in fact, been necessary throughout history. The term "graphic designer" was coined less than a century ago by W.A. Dwiggins. All the decisions associated with book design--choosing a style and size of type and arranging it on the page with suitable linespacing, margins, headers, etc.--were made quite competently by printers until the introduction of the Linotype and Monotype machines in the 1880s.

The Linotype and Monotype were the first steps toward automating page production, a process that has evolved to the point where these decisions can be made, if not by robots, then at least without human intervention. It's the typographic equivalent of fast food: Quick, cheap, and good enough for many customers.

But there will always be customers for whom the one-size-fits-all product isn't good enough, and they will want professionals who know how to make custom-tailored designs for specific works of prose.

shessler's picture

Nick, agreed. I was not particularly giving credit to robots for designing eBooks – merely speculating in a future where the graphic designer needs to compete with more and more intelligent robots, just like in a lot of other professions.

This "house style" that you speak of is interesting – would you consider that choosing a typeface for a particular text, say Dracula, would be equally suitable for Fifty Shades of Gray, for example?

shessler's picture

"What will be much harder — perhaps impossible — will be for a computer to bring creativity to the process."

James, good point! The question is though, how creative is the design-process of designing prose? Does "creativity" belong at all in prose?

One could perhaps argue that the last five hundred years have created a "standardized" way of designing prose (and most poetry) that most designers would fear breaking. And one can of course say that typography SHOULD not be particularly "visible" in prose – and let the writers' text be in the first room.

But do you think it's time for designers to show a bit more of what can be done with a text, utilizing a more interpretative/creative design-model? A good example would perhaps be Visual Editions. And Four Corners Familiars-series, designed by John Morgan.

Delete's picture

Ebook standards are currently a mess. Mr. Bringhurst briefly discussed this in defending why the fourth edition of his book gave little information on type for web. Those of us who have tried ebooks have found that not only does it limit typographic choices, but images (particularly vector based) and tables (especially with rotated cells) are very limited. PDF documents look great (assuming a very high resolution monitor) but have no reflow options with current standards. Although technically one can embed fonts in an ebook, most readers cannot use them. I think the whole thing will be resolved with some future standard, but currently, ebooks are not a good medium for professional typography. (not to mention the issues of reading them on computers, iPads and other devices and even smart phones, and competing standards for delivery)

sondre m's picture

"One could perhaps argue that the last five hundred years have created a "standardized" way of designing prose (and most poetry) that most designers would fear breaking. And one can of course say that typography SHOULD not be particularly "visible" in prose – and let the writers' text be in the first room.

But do you think it's time for designers to show a bit more of what can be done with a text, utilizing a more interpretative/creative design-model? A good example would perhaps be Visual Editions. And Four Corners Familiars-series, designed by John Morgan."

My two cents is that, both in this case and generally, designers should enter the process at an earlier stage. The best solution was that if a graphic designer would work with an author on prose, the designer shouldn't sit in his studio and work on it isolated after all the writing was done, but work IN the process, WITH the author.

shessler's picture

"My two cents is that, both in this case and generally, designers should enter the process at an earlier stage. The best solution was that if a graphic designer would work with an author on prose, the designer shouldn't sit in his studio and work on it isolated after all the writing was done, but work IN the process, WITH the author."

I echoe that. I read somewhere that James Joyce were writing straight into the galley-proofs on press when the first edition of Ulysses was being printed. It's quite rare that authors have any input in the design of their text but are usually quite opinionated about the covers of their work.

JamesM's picture

> James, good point! The question is though, how creative is
> the design-process of designing prose? Does "creativity" belong
> at all in prose?

I was speaking more of graphic design in general, but I'd agree that in novels, poetry, etc. most of the designer's creativity is typically shown by the book's cover, not the page layout.

Nick Shinn's picture

Creativity is one thing, good taste another.
What one looks for in a well designed book is every page just so.
While the plain text pages don’t offer much scope for creativity, that puts more of the focus on chapter headings, contents, title page, and index.
This is assuming that the book is text only.
However, illustrated books have a long history, and it is to be expected, especially for “reprints” of works in the public domain, that publishers will attempt to make their offerings enticing by employing novel design and illustrations.

When new media comes along, there’s always a dreary beginning as old content is shoveled onto the market in a protean, artistically immature technological genre, low price and novelty its appeal—but then the market for this peaks and stabilizes, and the product benefits developed by creatives, engineers and marketers become more sophisticated (thankfully!)

Rather than despair at what would at first glance appear to be diminished typography and bemoan what’s lost, isn’t there a huge opportunity here to innovate, and fill the void with something new, different and wonderful?

We’ve been here before so many times, this is the fundamental dynamic of graphic communication.

hrant's picture

I think it's easier to express yourself on a cover. But easiness is over-rated... and the difficulty of subtle/useful innovation is under-rated.

hhp

charles ellertson's picture

+1 Nick.

* * *

Mr. Shessler, let's not revise history too much.

Throughout history, the designer has always been a necessary part of the production of prose.

You mean the 20th century, right? "Designers" before then were compositors. And one large reason the owners of printing establishments gave way to the new layout men was economic -- the owners got more work out of their typesetters when a lead comp didn't have to (get to) spend time designing.

Give the first couple chapters of Steer's Printing Design and Layout a read sometime...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Steer

As for digital editions, it is early days. Where it is all going, who knows? The worry about robotic design is the least of the interesting issues that will be resolved. More interesting, for example, is what will happen to *publishers*? It always amazed me that the initial pricing for ebooks was a bit higher than for the mass-market edition. What happens when that changes?

We could even see a time when you buy the digital edition for the text only, have it printed out to taste -- maybe after your own personal designer has selected typeface, measure, trim -- have initials drawn in (by hand or computer), choose your own binder...oh, wait, we've sorta kinda done a portion of that a couple hundred years ago...

hrant's picture

Actually to me the application of AI to typography is extremely interesting; much more interesting than matters of legacy economics, and certainly more interesting than finding yet more ways to help readers express their lack of taste in design.

hhp

JamesM's picture

> The worry about robotic design is the least of the
> interesting issues that will be resolved

Since it may someday put some designers out of work, it's certainly of interest to some folks.

shessler's picture

Charles – thanks for pointing that out. I was indeed using a fairly general term when I said "designer". I am aware that the term "graphic design" wasn't used in print until something like the 1920s. But wouldn't you argue that someone like Aldus Manutius was, at least to some extent, a graphic designer? Or further back, the scribes (or their masters), illuminating manuscripts for the church to convey a certain message in a certain way?

And I agree with hrant and JamesM – I think the question is crucial and very interesting as a lot of people make a living out of it. And it can be expanded to a lot of other fields of graphic design as well. If it's only a process that requires so much intelligence, and in the long run can perhaps be done using AI, of what use are you and what will you do in the future?

shessler's picture

Nick – "Creativity is one thing, good taste another."

How would you define the difference? What is "good taste"?

charles ellertson's picture

It's been almost 50 years since I wrote a term paper. How about you?

As for the definitions of creativity and good taste -- read Wittgenstein. The engineers haven't adopted the terms "creative" and "good taste" yet. In the meantime, try this as an observation: people who we say have good taste are almost never people we call creative.

As for But wouldn't you argue that someone like Aldus Manutius was, at least to some extent, a graphic designer -- I'd never argue that. If I was going to argue, I'd argue that *graphic designers* have been the bane of books since the beginning.

hrant's picture

Much of this is terminological bantering. I certainly do think that most people we call "graphic designers" are no good at book design. But it remains that anybody who designs a book well is also a "designer", and in fact a "graphic designer".

people who we say have good taste are almost never people we call creative.

That's actually the opposite of what I believe. Most people with lack of taste in graphic design aren't necessarily inherently "defective" in any way, it's just that their life does not require them to have developed taste in graphic design. The problems start when they deny that. The problems start when society tells us we can be president if we merely want to.

hhp

JamesM's picture

Graphic design is like any other profession in that you have people with varying degrees of talent, experience, etc.

Also, while some people are clearly more talented than others, "good taste" and related concepts are mostly subjective. Vincent Van Gogh only sold 1 painting during his lifetime. Was he a bad artist, or a good artist whose sensibilities were just different from those prevailing in his day?

During Alfred Hitchock's life he was widely viewed as a lowbrow director, but now he's regarded by many critics as one of the best directors and the British Film Institute recently named Hitchock's "Vertigo" (which got mixed reviews and poor box office at its release) as the best film of all time.

Similar examples can be found in the fields of architecture, music, etc.

5star's picture

+1

n.

shessler's picture

"I certainly do think that most people we call "graphic designers" are no good at book design. But it remains that anybody who designs a book well is also a "designer", and in fact a "graphic designer"."

hrant: agreed but surely same thing here – a matter of subjective opinions of what is considered to be good and bad taste. As JamesM points out, what is considered to be good or bad taste today was seen completely different not too long ago. This must surely apply to the design of prose as well, even if the nuances or variations are smaller and perhaps less noticeable for the common reader?

Charles: "As for But wouldn't you argue that someone like Aldus Manutius was, at least to some extent, a graphic designer -- I'd never argue that. If I was going to argue, I'd argue that *graphic designers* have been the bane of books since the beginning."

Very interesting view indeed. Could you ellaborate a bit on the "bane of books since the beginning"-argument?

hrant's picture

That's why I'm not saying "good/bad taste", I'm saying things like "lack of [developed] taste"; non-designers don't know what "design taste" is because they haven't had to know. The ones that realize this hire a designer.

Not to speak for Charles, but: book design is super subtle, while graphic designers are generally trained to be "in your face". Doesn't mesh - which is why it's often a good idea to have the covers versus the content designed by different people. BTW this is quite parallel to the difference between the design of display fonts versus text fonts; when a text face designer tries to explain what he does to a display face designer, usually the latter will say: "Huh? Whatever, dude."

hhp

JamesM's picture

> "graphic designers" are no good at book design

The average graphic designer seldom gets involved with book design (unless they work for a publisher). So lack of experience would be a factor. You'd want to get a designer who has extensive experience with books.

PublishingMojo's picture

In 1983, Philp Meggs summarized W.A. Dwiggins' 1922 explanation of graphic design as "[to bring] structural order and visual form to printed communications." This is still the clearest and most concise definition of graphic design that I know, although the profession has grown to encompass other media besides print.

Book designers are just graphic designers who specialize in long-form documents that require content to flow over multiple pages in a clear, consistent, and easy-to-navigate way, and who normally work with an author's preexisting text, i.e., not written to fit the layout.

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