Why is it that so many books on design are iritating to read?

russellm's picture

Type so good it's bad?

It's OK, really... I only read them for the pictures anyhow, but...

blank's picture

I think I know what you mean; some authors just try a little to hard to look cool and it spoils the reading. Books like Thinking With Type where images and footnotes are popping out all over the place, creating a series of segues that make it impossible to just focus and read the text, drive me nuts.

But I also know a lot of designers who look on such books in the same way Scientologists see Dianetics. In a field where people are visually inclined, a little nutty, and “learning disabilities” like ADHD and dyslexia abound, it’s probably good that there are alternatives to books by Robert Bringhurst and Harry Carter.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Thinking with Type is a beautifully designed book, with plenty of good type... I would hardly call it irritating to read.

russellm's picture

It is a beautifully designed book.


Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Russell, I suppose you were talking about books where the lines are too long for comfortable reading, or with careless typesetting... that sort of thing.

russellm's picture

I think, overly "precious" typesetting, usually too small, and, as if playing self consciously to an audience. : "Hey, look! I'm really good, huh?" The book that set me off was set something the looked like 6 point compressed Helvetica light to my poor overworked eyes. I left the microscope at the office.

Often when I'm "reading" a design book, I am really just looking at the pictures and scanning the text in the briefest way possible. (that's how come I knows so much)


blank's picture

Ok, now I see what you mean. Yeah, those books irritate me too, right up there with the design annuals full of images the size of postage stamps, with captions arranged elsewhere on the page in a way that only barely coordinates with the arrangement of the images.

pattyfab's picture

The worst design annual I ever saw was one of the AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers about 10 years back in which they photographed the books in a way you would never treat a book you care about - lying splayed open, viewed from the top. I'm having trouble describing this but it felt - to me - very disrespectful of books as objects. Then they shot the interior pages from weird angles, cropped and such. Again, disrespectful to the designers and totally useless as a resource. I wrote to complain which means they will never give me an award again (not that they do anyway since I let my membership go).

Greg Stanton's picture

The most irritating book on design I've found is "The Complete Manual of Typography" by James Felici. The advice within ranges from good to questionable -- but that's not the real problem. It's set in 11pt Perpetua. Now, the 11pt size of most faces is easy to read. Perpetua, however, is so tiny within its em-square that at 11 pts it's comparable to 9pt Times New Roman. Even at 11 pts, Perpetua is positively anemic. All in all, extremely difficult to read for any length of time.

Steve Tiano's picture

As a book designer, I wonder whether it’s only those of us in the know who even notice badly designed books. That said, however, I think it's the trend to sans serif types for body text in design books.

Just pulling a handful of such books from one of the shelves in my studio ...

Look no further than Karen Cheng’s Designing Type or Jan V. White’s Designing for magazines, 2nd ed. Timothy Samara’s Publication Design Workbook is another offender. That much the sadder because they’re good books as far as their subject matter goes. On the other hand, Rich Hendel’s On Book Design and Jost Hochuli and Robin Kinross's Designing books: practice and theory practice what they preach.

As cool as sans serifs look—I’d still like to find a project on which I’d be willing to use Optima as my body face—my eyes get tired more quickly than with serif type. I’ve read as much. Interestingly, there’s someone on the Freelance Publishing maillist (of the Yahoo Group of the same name) who, if I understand correctly, is making the case that all this about sans serif being tougher on the eyes is a fallacy.

Pity the designer who would sacrifice readability for cool.

Dan Gayle's picture

I hate a lot of books about design, because they dwell on the fluff and never get to the meat and potatoes. They all focus on the "this is what good design looks like" but nary a word on "this is how you do good design".

Greg Stanton's picture

Steve, the trend toward sans serif types in design books may be a reaction to the many badly-rendered digital serif types available. I know that when letterpress types were adapted for phototype, no consideration was given to the natural ink spread that occurred when the metal pressed the ink onto the paper. Also, the largest available sizes were used to create the negatives, and as we know these sizes of metal type are considerably different than the smaller text sizes. The result was type with rather pronounced contrast, anemic and not at all pleasant to read.

Unfortunately, in the early days of Postscript, most digital foundries used the same misguided tactic. Many of these fonts were actually digitized from the phototype negatives. Of course, designers (as opposed to technicians) know that digital Centaur looks nothing like the original metal version. The readability problem is compounded when white, coated, glossy paper is used — the stock of choice for photography-heavy art books. In such a situation, relatively mono-weight sans serif types that come in a variety of weights (to compensate for the smaller sizes looking too thin) are a much better choice than many popular serif types.

Thankfully most type designers now understand this issue, and are producing text-sized serif type with reduced contrast and more weight. And thankfully, also, book designers have ceased to set their work in Linotype Didot and Bauer Bodoni.

However, for continuous reading — novels, long articles — nothing beats a well-judged serif printed on off-white or ivory-colored paper. This is why you will rarely see a novel set in a sans serif type.

charles ellertson's picture

Skipping over the design of these books, what bothers me are the ones I think of as prescriptive -- "you gotta do it this way to get a good book." Dowding comes to mind, as well as some still living (& hence unnamed).

The kind I like are descriptive. Rich Hendel's book is this kind. But my personal favorite is Art of the Printed Book 1455-1055 by Blumenthal, Morgan & Godine. Once you learn to look through the peculiarities of time, place & technology, it is wonderfully instructive.

Zennie's picture

A self published design journal has started here in Australia that is both fascinating and a beautifully book to read.


blank's picture

Dan, I don’t think that the meat and potatoes can be put into a book. That’s what Paris is for.

Dan Gayle's picture

The meat and potatoes CAN be put into a book. For instance, there are several books about oil painting that I've read that were awesome at describing both the theory, technique and application of the craft in a way that made it seem as if Mr. Rembrandt were right there in the room instructing me.

I have a hard time believing that the same couldn't be made of a design book that makes it feel like Paul Rand or Saul Bass were there teaching me.

I feel that a serious and technical critique of a work from start to finish really helps create a discerning eye. The majority of design books just throw out a bunch of designs with a generic caption, and never bother telling us just what it is about a particular design that is so dang noteworthy to be put in a book that I'm shelling out my hard earned clams on.

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