Typographic design / theatrical design / music / etc

Joshua Langman's picture

A continuation of an off-topic conversation that started in a different thread:

A very off-topic note to Joshua -- Just looked st your web site. Wonder if you know my cousin, David (Ellertson)?

(No, Charles, I don't know David. Maybe I should? Googling the name didn't seem to find the right one, but then I don't know who exactly I should be looking for.)

(Boy, to really go off-topic in the thread -- David is a set designer at the Met. Believe the official title is: "Resident Assistant Scenic Designer at Metropolitan Opera."

I noticed on your web site that in addition to type, you were involved with set design. Before becoming involved with type, I was a recording engineer, with some involvement in theater, esp. dance. I've long pondered the relationship between type and music; they seem so disparate, in that with music you control time. Very difficult to control time with graphics. And yet in ways I can't explain, there are similarities. I'm always fascinated to find people involved in both.)

(Yes, I'm actually a professional lighting and sound designer in the theatre in addition to a graphic designer. I don't know about time in graphics per se, but books certainly have a rhythm to them. As do performances. But I feel like we should take this to a different thread, so I'll start one.)

… and here we are.

Joshua Langman's picture

Anyway, to expand on this, yes, I'm also interested in the similarities between typography and theatrical design. I actually don't know that much about music in a technical sense, but I know that Bringhurst for instance uses many music metaphors to explain typography.

Music, however, is an art in itself, whereas typography isn't. No one ever argues that music should be a "crystal goblet"; no, the point is to be expressive, unless you're making muzak for elevators.

And things like sound and lighting design, in a theatrical context, fall somewhere in between: they are crafts more than fine arts, existing only to serve a performance, but they often can — and should — have a very noticeable presence.

And of course, in a live setting, you're dealing with events that happen over time. Typography also deals with time because it takes people a measurable amount of time to read something, but typography's impact on this operates on a much more subtle level. As I said recently in a different thread, you can do things like put in lots of letterspacing and widely spaced lines in inscriptions to try to force readers to slow down and savor the words. But this is on the level of typographic treatments, not type design itself. Do type designers ever think about rhythm and time? Does visual rhythm operate the same way or serve the same end as musical rhythm?

In regards to book design, I do find very well designed books to be satisfying in a somewhat visceral way because they create an experience that the reader goes through over time as they turn the pages. There's a fantastic children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that demonstrates this wonderfully. It is a book that is meant to feel like a silent movie, and it does. Comprised of about 80% illustrations, you feel the motion of the movie as you flip through the pages. And some books can create suspense and release and tension and conclusion just by forcing an important part of the text onto the next page, inherently building in a pause as you turn the page before revealing what it is.

I designed a book of short stories where one of the stories was about a woman who decided to write out by hand all the numbers from one to a million: ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE …

There's a line that describes her sitting down, picking up a pen, and beginning the task. The line is followed by all the numbers she wrote, spelled out. This creates a visual and narrative hiatus in the storytelling — the whole world freezes as you just stare at the pages of numbers and try to understand the significance of her task.

When I designed it, I made sure that the sentence about her putting pen to paper fell right at the bottom of a righthand page because I wanted there to be no visual hint of what was to come until you turn the page and suddenly there's this sea of numbers staring at you. In the theatre world, the stage manager would be waiting breathlessly for that pen to touch the paper, to call the sound cue that would start a new piece of underscoring as we delve into the character's obsession with writing down all the numbers.

That moment in the design of the book felt like a theatrical cue.

In the end, we had to change the trim size on the book and I couldn't make the page break fall right anymore. But while it worked, it was an example of a visual design choice that played with time. You didn't see the monotonous stream of numbers ahead of time; you couldn't prepare yourself; they caught you by surprise when you flipped that page. I regret not finding some way to pull it off in the end. It was like a light cue on a zero count or a piece of music that comes in without warning: a defining moment in the rhythm of the visual design of the book.

charles ellertson's picture

Yes, rhythm. I don't trust trying to control that in a book. The reader is too free to create their own rhythms.

Here's a short conundrum: In most art, tension and release play a key role. In music, these can occur because the composer, and to a small extent, performer, controls time for an audience. This just doesn't happen in a printed piece. I think both the tension and release has to occur on the same spread. Think about designing a title page (usually page iii). Try to set up some tension that isn't resolved until page iv or later. I've never been able to get this to work, such a title page is always a disaster.

However, if you use a two-page spread for the title, you can do it. Much easier than with a single page, too.

* * *

I do think that character fit and word spacing can be rhythmical, but not in any terribly important way. If they are poor, they break any hope. If they are good, they properly go unnoticed.

Joshua Langman's picture

"I think both the tension and release has to occur on the same spread. Think about designing a title page (usually page iii). Try to set up some tension that isn't resolved until page iv or later. I've never been able to get this to work, such a title page is always a disaster."

Could I ask how specifically you've tried to do this?

The half-title sets up some tension that's resolved on the title page, but no one looks at it anyway, so it's a little bit pointless. Which doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

You can set up some tension with a small quote from the book before the title page, so that the reader is intrigued by a sample of the text before the title is revealed — like how the title of a movie is always the last thing the narrator says in the trailer. Though of course the reader knows the title already.

A second half-title after some prelims is not really a release of tension, but is still a part of the rhythm (like the house lights going down after the curtain speech). It says, "We didn't really start yet. But NOW we're starting." Again, like a movie whose title isn't shown till after the prologue. I wonder if anyone's designed a book where the title literally doesn't appear till after the prelims, or, if fiction, the prologue? Maybe with the right book it could work.

And then there are experiments like Dave Eggers's novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, where the text of the book starts on the bare binder's board of the front cover and continues uninterrupted over the endpapers and into the body of the book. There are no prelims at all; the first printed word on the cover is the first word of the story. The title appears nowhere. That has to have some effect on how the reader experiences the book's rhythm, regardless of any choices the reader makes.

But when an author designs his own book, the traditional roles of writer and typographer break down and we come very close to the territory of artist's books — though in this case, the book was a successful novel destined for mainstream distribution, which makes it all the more interesting.

charles ellertson's picture


What you're talking of relies on content, and that's fair enough. My old friend and mentor Richard Eckersley use to do this, see Bill Regier's Book of the Sphinx, esp the part title and chapter pages. The link below has a "look inside," not as good as having the whole book, but...


I was speaking more in a graphic sense. Things I've tried include starting the title on the recto and continuing it on the facing verso (not overleaf), or most of the title page type on the recto but a couple key words on the facing verso -- not simply the author name, or complete subtitle or publisher's imprint. The verso does not balance -- hence the tension -- but the spread does.

But if you don't graphically balance the title page & try to rely on a graphic balance with a later page -- say the dedication page -- the title page just won't work.

An image with a series page & title page is easy, for a "look inside" see


( The cover -- jacket -- is not my design) The Amazon "look inside" doesn't show the other FM pages, which also have pieces of images from the book on what would normally be blanks. With the right images, this lets you presage the story just a bit, maybe even generate a little tension the text can resolve.

You can take an image and spread it over three pages, say beginning with the bastard title & ending on the title. If you start on the title, you've got image on the copyright page, where it doesn't belong. But this is a trick, and usually not a good one (aka "cheap trick"). I've had more luck with a second half title facing & followed by a blank -- then you can run the image across the spread & finish overleaf.

Still sort of a pointless trick unless you've set it up with other images in the front matter. I did use this in Retreat from Getysburg, but it looses it's effectiveness in the "look inside," it needs the open pages of the book. Or perhaps it never worked & I'm deluding myself.

I find this sort of thing is best done using smaller pieces of images from later in the book, perhaps cropped to have tension, perhaps highly posturized, usually full bleed, etc. etc. No blanks at all in the FM. You can continue the theme if the text allows, but you never have the control you have in the front matter.

The idea is the reader turns the page to see the complete image, then turns back for the content. There is an element of control here, unlike the Book of the Sphinx; there, you have no idea how the reader will progress, at best what's been done is to set up a promise, which is not control.

Joshua Langman's picture

I do like Richard Eckersley's designs; I've been meaning to get a copy of The Telephone Book.

But yes, I think we're talking about similar but distinct things. To follow your train of thought, about creating and resolving tension in a graphic sense — well, it's tricky. And unless you're working with an unusual book and have an author (and publisher) who's willing to play along, your most striking choices will be confined to the front matter.

But maybe we're working with the wrong metaphors.

Yes, music has timbre and stresses and fermatas and changing rhythms: but that's an elements of the art of music. Writing has all these things too. The text that you're designing when you typeset a book has all these things, because writing is an art. So what is typography, then? It's sort of a performance of the writing, and maybe it has a similar impact on the receival of the text as an individual musician's (or conductor's?) interpretation of the score. It colors the content, but only that. Obviously, in the world of artist's books (in which I have spent some very enjoyable time), the design is the content, but that's book design as a fine art, not a craft.

But a conductor can choose to lengthen and emphasize pauses, or to speed by and overlook them; so can typographers. When you choose to start each chapter on a new recto, or to run them all together with only subheads in between, you're making the same kind of choice, right?

But I'm meandering. To respond more directly to your examples, I probably wouldn't run an image over pages i – iii, because I would usually want the full title to be dramatically different from the half title. I would want to not unify them, for fear that it would weaken the title itself. But I believe that it worked for the Gettysburg book (it's kind of hard to tell online).

For a different way to build some tension across different spreads, what if you put half a title on the top of page iii and the rest of the title (or the subtitle) on the bottom of page v? With nothing in between? Then you're not only separating the parts of the title with space, but also with time, because you need to turn the page to finish reading. But again, this would only work for an unconventional book. It would need to be part of a "concept," which might carry through in ways like putting chapter titles at the top of rectos and starting the chapter text on the bottom of the following recto. You could even print the first part of the title and the chapter titles on translucent vellum or something so that both pages can be seen at once. But obviously, I'm really reaching here. This would fly in the book arts world, but maybe nowhere else.

I get the sense that there aren't actually that many typographers on Typophile, but it would be great to hear some other opinions as well — on type, music, theatre, motion, time, tension … This doesn't need to stay a two-person conversation.

charles ellertson's picture

Off topic, again...

I do like Richard Eckersley's designs; I've been meaning to get a copy of The Telephone Book.

What would be most helpful coming to terms with The Telephone book would be Michael Jenson's (he was the compositor) writeup in the book Remembering Richard, published on Richard's death. There were only 300 or so copies printed. I gave Richard's son, Sam Eckersley, the print-ready pdf and he was going to post it on line, but I don't believe that happened. If you're interested, I suppose I could email you just the Jesnon article.

charles ellertson's picture

double post deleted

Joshua Langman's picture

I would indeed be interested.

[e-mail address deleted; thanks, Richard]

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