The dire state of book typography

Nick Shinn's picture

There was recent mention of the Bringhurst "bible" and its focus on book typography.
I looked at the book I'm presently reading. A somewhat anecdotal approach for generalization, but a pretty typical example of what's out there.
The book is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, and made the New York Times Bestseller list, so there is absolutely no excuse for the cheap and shoddy typographic design, which, according to Mr Bringhurst, dishonors the text.

It severely pains me to read the damn godless thing, which is frustrating, as it's quite interesting, and I would like to finish it.

Here are a few of the issues.

1. The cover. A bit dreary, but nothing terribly wrong, apart from a bit of sheep shagging. The question that must be asked though, is why this bears absolutely no relationship to the design of either the title page or the main text. Isn't there something horribly wrong with this institutionalized norm?

2. The very first page. Right off the bat, faux small caps!

3. The title page.

4. Main text. Where are the margins? There's nowhere to put my thumbs! It's incredibly dysfunctional to be holding the book at the top as one reads the bottom of the page, causing shadows, and making one's arms ache.

5. Tabular lining figures. This is a book with a lot of numbers in the text, so wouldn't that be a tip-off to the publisher that it might end up looking like a technical manual? Didn't they notice? There's nothing inherently wrong with the Century style of face for text--except that surely, in this day and age of InDesign and all the marvellously-featured fonts that Adobe bundles with it, a book publisher would use a typeface that has old-style figures, or at the very least, proportional figures? Finally, a small thing; it would have been better to not break lines between the numbers and "Hz". And wouldn't ff ligatures be nice?!

blank's picture

Maybe someone should start a blog comparing the crap type in printed books with the crap type in ebooks, so that the publishers realize how little consumers will really be losing when they make the switch. I love real books, but if a time comes that I have to choose between a $10 eBook download and a $15 trade paperback typeset by someone who barely speaks english printed on paper I wouldn’t wipe my ass with, the book loses.

twistedintellect's picture

Imo, the cover is terrible, too. At least compared to the UK version

You’re absolutely right, this isn’t anywhere near an atypical example; and it is physically painful to watch…

dezcom's picture

It looks like another case of "one from column A, one from column B" design. Rather than hire decent designers, they just trow together any damn thing from a recipe book and have it printed. There are plenty of capable designers out there but the bean-counters can shave a buck by not hiring any of them. It is also common practice for cover designers to never see the interior and vice versa.


nmerriam's picture

Interesting that you pointed out that the cover design bears no relationship to the contents. I've been puzzled by this as it relates to movies the past decade or so -- now that trailers and posters seem to be made by folks who have no relationship or even contact with the people making the actual movie, it's quite jarring to have a really strong poster design for a particular title, and then have that identity totally thrown away during the title sequence, and then have the title sequence identity totally thrown away during the film.

nmerriam's picture

Wow, the UK cover is so vastly superior. I hope someone in the US publishing office prints out those two covers somewhere and asks "why the hell are we using this cookie cutter design on a bestselling book?"

ebensorkin's picture

Very Very Dire. Too right.

Oisín's picture

The UK cover ‘design’ is horrible, too—design-wise much worse than the US cover—though at least it draws the eye, which I suppose is the ultimate goal of any book cover.

nmerriam's picture

Well, I think design-wise, the UK cover is better, though the type is difficult to read. The UK cover is more emotive, unique, and eye-catching, as well as I think conceptually representing the subject of the book better. The sheet music on the US cover looks like a generic stock photo they found in 20 seconds looking for the keyword "music", and the overall tone seems almost...depressing.

I'm curious, other than the legibility of the light, reversed type (which is certainly no minor thing when you're talking about a book cover, I agree), is there anything else about the US cover you think is better?

ebensorkin's picture


I would go straight there. It is a depressing horrible cover. The UK one while being a sort of visual riot - does look fun.

DTY's picture

Maybe the designer of the US cover mainly listens to music like shoegaze or drone metal.

Typical's picture

Mediocre book design is becoming commodotized. I have recently seen a number of books by a reputable academic press: they were all designed by a company in India, using TNR and TNR bold as the main design elements. The pages weren't ugly, but they were definitely underwhelming.

claaspb's picture

I just recently heard, that book covers often are designed long before the rest of the book is layed out, since the covers are used by the publishers to promote their book to bookshops for pre-order. So the idea that cover design and layout of the book were done by two different designers who had no idea how the respective other part would look, –while not being an excuse for bad design– might not be so impossible...

dezcom's picture

In the old days, designers actually read the books to know what they were dealing with.


BlueStreak's picture

“ E n d l e s s l y   S t i m u l a t i n g.  ”

I'm not going to judge **** relations this Sunday morning because I've sinned many times in the name of expedient productivity. But the letter spacing between the period and the closing quotation mark makes me think the designer doesn't wipe after a poo either.

(I saw in the preview that **** was censored by the system. It's a word for relations between humans and beasts. Admins please remove this explanation if censored word is cleared/edited.)

russellm's picture

My inner curmudgeon asks: Are books these days designed by people who don't read? There seems to be an increasing disconnect between making things and actually using them. Like Christmas decorations made in China.

That cover is truly appalling. It seems like object was nothing more than "find a stock photo with blurry music notes with the blurry bit where the title would go". In a book store, I'd pick it up just to see how bad the rest of the book is.


elizabeth_355's picture

And the title page seems to have no relation to either the (depressing) cover or the (crowded) interior text. I wonder if three "designers" were involved ...

pattyfab's picture

Most trade publishers have completely separate departments to design the cover and the interior of the book. It's one reason I like to design illustrated books - I control every aspect of the book's design from typography to head and tail bands.

Here's an illuminating story - I was hired to design the interior only of a trade cookbook. I asked to see the cover so I could try to match the type. They told me it wasn't necessary for them to match, so I did a sample design on my own. Then they came back to me and said yes, why not try to match the cover. They sent me the cover design. It was hideous, but I was able to patch together something passable using the fonts they'd used (fonts I would never have chosen on my own). When I got the final book, they had changed the cover completely. The new cover was equally awful and I had done an interior I didn't like to match an ugly cover that never got used.

As Claas said, the cover is considered (in trade publishing) a marketing tool, and subject to much more scrutiny than the interior of the book. It is often done way in advance and can change a lot. Trade book interiors are basically churned out. That said, there is no excuse for bad typography. I just read a book set entirely in Rotis. It was pretty painful.

I prefer the UK version as well - at least it's trying to say something.

blank's picture

I just read a book set entirely in Rotis. It was pretty painful.

My boss recently asked me to help him design a 200+ page book set completely in 10/14 Helvetica Neue overlaid on images. I haven’t been back to the office in a while…

Hiroshige's picture

On the margin, I just watched this 100 minute video on book and book cover design featuring Glaser, Kidd, and Eggers...

I agree, the UK's splash kitch version is in contrast to the US's moody broody version. But if both designs are so horrid, why then is the book a best seller?

Si_Daniels's picture

Computers - faster, cheaper and more reliable
Mac OS - "best ever"
InDesign - makes quality typography easy
Photoshop - missing a glyph palette but apart from that rock solid
fonts - more features, more styles, more weights, more characters
Graphic design graduates - more than ever

So how does this square with the falling standards of book typography?

dezcom's picture

"why then is the book a best seller?"

Because so many books are badly designed that nobody pays a hoot of attention to cover design anymore. They buy books on what reviewers have said or what their friends have said or what Oprah has said.


dberlow's picture

One book?

blank's picture

So how does this square with the falling standards of book typography?

It doesn’t and that’s the part that seems to piss so many people off. I think the poor design of mass-market books is particularly glaring because at a time when so much effort and money are poured into designing really complicated stuff—often just to make it seem simple!—something as simple as books is often ignored. Why aren’t the interiors of mass market books treated with the same simple, elegant design systems that publishers manage to put into every cheap collection of classics, or series of crap video game tie-in sci-fi stories? Wouldn’t it cost less?

pattyfab's picture

I think most people are basically inured to ugliness. Why is so much contemporary architecture tasteless and hideous? I'm not talking about Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, but your basic home, office complex, mall. We have the technology surely to make them look halfway decent. Look at warehouses or industrial buildings constructed early last century, they have interesting surface detail - you almost never see that nowadays. Or take your average chain restaurant - boring furniture and generic lighting. And let's not even talk about the menu design.

I think in general people don't really care how things look, and as long as ugly books continue to sell the publishers won't care much either.

ebensorkin's picture

David I like your new icon. It's a bit more gussied up now - but in quite a pleasant way. It reminds me of a satsuma wrapper. Or a furoshiki.

as ugly books continue to sell

The thing is publishers will say the reason they are ugly is that books don't sell enough so they have to cheap/careless to turn a profit etc etc. I am sure you are far more familiar with that line of reasoning and the details. When an entity is used to doing something a certain way, they will defend doing it that way if they have high or low profits. Either can be used as an excuse. Which is what is is.

AGL's picture

"The book is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, and made the New York Times Bestseller list"

I absolute agree it does not look good. The thing is, sometimes some stuff get printed...Probably the author did not realized, but saved a few bucks and designed it himself?

The cover doesn't emphasize the word Music, but the title page does...

blackhat's picture

The New York Times Bestseller List is a horrible litmus test for literary merit. Simply because a lot of people buy a particular book bears little indication of it's quality. Once in a while, truly good literature ends up on the list, but usually it's Dan Brown or James Patterson. That being said, it's little wonder why the typography is lackluster, if not terrible.

The books on the NY Times list are always from major corporate publishers—Harper-Collins, Houghton-Mifflin, etc. Conversely from Britain, i.e., where for a long while, publishers were regarded the standard-bearers of a literary tradition steeped in timeless mastery of the written language, US publishers seem to consider themselves not unlike any other manufacturer of consumer products. The care and artistry once put into producing books (ironically enough, at a time when the process was far more labour-intensive, and required far greater skill) are now but vestiges, on occasion loosely mimicked in contemporary design, ultimately mocking the technological advances which, by all accounts, should in turn have advanced the craft.

This has become the norm because the people in decision-making capacities at these publishing houses are MBAs, not literati (to say nothing of designers or typographers). Of concern to these people are movie-rights and marketing—the literary value (much less the design quality) of the books is almost negligible. i'm certain i'm not the only one here who's had the awkward experience of trying to convince a client to spend an extra hundred bucks or so on a typeface, or a few more hours to lay out a book correctly. i'm convinced that desktop-publishing has caused people to consider speed an ample substitute for quality (or that the two are equally interchangeable). Furthermore, nobody in design school ever seemed to care about traditional typography...everyone was attracted to the edgy, David Carson stuff. Don't get me wrong...i delight in breaking the rules as much as anyone—particularly when the project is gagging for it—but anymore, i notice that when people pick up a book that doesn't look like it was printed straight from Microsoft Word, they definitely take notice—usually, they say, "It looks old!" The problem with corporate, MBA types is that—in my experience—they can't tell the difference, even if it was in fact printed directly from Word. Though i'm tempted to digress—into what large-scale failures in education, or the modern propensity to study only the discipline in which one intends to make a living, willfully neglecting all other aspects of culture and knowledge, and how these relate to the current hideousness of printed —i'll spare you my further waxing philosophical.

pattyfab's picture

The thing is though, that there are LOTS of beautifully designed books out there. Just not this one. But walk into any bookstore, especially in the Fiction department and you will see some remarkable designs. (Open the books and it's a crap shoot).

Nick Shinn's picture

Yes, there are many well-designed books.
But the issue may be considered the Bringhurst Irony: that the main style guide of professional typography does not, for various reasons, connect with the major constituency it addresses, ordinary books--of which This is Your Brain on Music is assumed to be representative.

Commodification might not be such a bad thing, if it means better templates which default to fonts with the features (old style figures and small caps) that are good for book text.

Eluard's picture

I agree that this book is terrible in every aspect but its awfulness is completely standard. It doesn't matter whether it is Britain, the U.S. or Australia, book design is at a terrible low: a combination of economics, trash imitates trash, and a disconnect between design and function. With many paperbacks produced by simply photo-reducing the hardcover design and printing it on rougher paper, the result is often actually unreadable. At least in Nick's example the book can be read; certainly that is not always the case. People complain that the young don't read enough: we should try to make books that can be read. (Thank God for Knopf — the exception to the rule!)

The very same complaints could be made about the music industry. The trash-imitates-trash aesthetic rules there as well.

In the end it's stupid: you sell less, and because you destroy the consumer's confidence, everyone sells less in a downward spiral.

jupiterboy's picture

I think Patty gives good insight into the failed process. The business model of publishing is a bit of a wreck and the books themselves are not even a tertiary priority in many cases.

So many editors and designers now have no office, and the imprints are bought and sold multiple times during the development of any given book. It is often the case that managers don't keep up with who is on the payroll and what they are doing. People are taken on and off projects to manipulate the quarterly stock results in anticipation of another buy out. It is considered that simply having "product" in the ”pipeline" is enough on paper to make the company appear legit.

Maybe it is like cars in the '70s—quality will hit a low point and then slowly return to some smarter, faster more efficient model that doesn't match what was but is better than what is. I would be happy if there was some sense that a cover should relate to the interior, and that communication between the crafts people making a book was worth fostering.

Oisín's picture

«I’m curious, other than the legibility of the light, reversed type (which is certainly no minor thing when you’re talking about a book cover, I agree), is there anything else about the US cover you think is better?»

That was the main thing, as well as relevance. Generic thoug the US stock photo sheet music may be, it’s immediately relevant to the title of the book.

The UK cover doesn’t even have that. It’s got flowers (overused and completely irrelevant), pink-red-orange-yellowish splash patterns (look nice, but completely irrelevant), and a semi-hard-to-make-out human head (semi-relevant to the ‘brain’ part of the title, though not directly so).

I agree the UK cover gives off a much better immediate impression, and it’s much more likely to catch someone’s eye sitting on a book shelf (the book, not the eye); but if you look at the details, the design says next to nothing about the book, or at least its title. Dreary and shoddy though the US cover may be (okay, is), it at least gives an immediate link between design and book title, and doesn’t have any real design hara-kiris like the small-white-on-bright-orange text of the UK cover.

pattyfab's picture

In truth, you can blame marketing for ugly book covers - they really can be "design by committee" but there is no excuse for poorly typeset book interiors. There are people for whom that is a profession (which seems to me incredibly boring) and they really should know their trade.

Ehague's picture

Not to sound unduly xenophobic, but it's going to be terrible when in a few years' time there are no stateside book design and comp jobs. And in a Twilight Zone–esque turn of irony, I won't even be able to enjoy my unemployment because all the books I could be reading are set so poorly.

Theunis de Jong's picture

There are people for whom that is a profession (which seems to me incredibly boring)

Ehhh ... it can be. But so can be branding cows, or whaling whales. Or designing graphics.

and they really should know their trade.

The little pride I've left (after >20 yrs in typesetting) comes from creating nearly invisible work -- "invisible" in the sense of people not noticing it's "bad", as opposed to the original example.

I find myself in the book stores more and more rejecting books based on their looks. Next thing, I'll probably scoff'em when there aren't any "Th" ligatures in them. When it's all so easy!

russellm's picture

In truth, you can blame marketing for ugly book covers

GRRR marketing!!!! What is it with those people?

... and they really should know their trade

B b but, Trades people are so expensive, and no one has, as yet, been physically injured by a lousy book design (paper cuts aside) , and little or no property damage results from bad typography, so where's the incentive to hire someone who knows or cares about the trade? The connection between a badly designed book and poor sales hasn't been clearly demonstrated... Or, maybe it has but not in a way that an MBA or marketing professional can understand.

I think it was in the 30's when designers like Raymond Lowry convincingly demonstrated that well designed, attractive products sold better than poorly designed, ugly ones. Big news in tough economic times, I guess. One would think that this is self-evident and having been proven over and over again in the market place, that that would be the end of it: (Very easy and self evident) lesson learned; "Hey! Let's not make ugly crap."... But, it's not been learned. People don't receive much, if any training in design appreciation, aesthetics or what ever you want to call it. They don't have the understanding or confidence to comment one way or the other about a design. Design is still dismissed as styling and an unnecessary frill - which tended to be what industrial design amounted to before designers like Lowry.

So, here we are in tough economic times. Tougher than most for the book publishing industry. Like in the movies, when the going get's tough, you can count on folks to do all the wrong things much more vigorously than they they would otherwise.


Quincunx's picture

> I just recently heard, that book covers often are designed long before the rest of the book is layed out, since the covers are used by the publishers to promote their book to bookshops for pre-order.

Yep, that's true. I usually have to design covers long before I even start with the inside of the book (or seen any text even).
Luckily I usually get the chance to change the design of the cover a little bit, once I have the inside layed out, so that the inside and outside of the book match better together.

will powers's picture

I sometimes think we who design things can be hyper-sensitive to design. I hope I never don't read a book because it has a lousy jacket design or lousy text typography. I read books because I want to know what is in them or to be entertained by them, not in order to appreciate or condemn their design. I am not a typographer 24/7/365. If I want author X's take on event Y, this is the only way I'm going to get it (in printed form).

But Nick's questions are good ones, and colleagues in the book racket have addressed most of the causes of this design dis-connect above; so I need not belabor them. But, as a staff design & production manager, I have to admit some complicity in this. At times I have to get a book jacket designed for publicity use before the author is even finished writing. I may end up sending the jacket design to a designer who is not suited to design the text, but I don't know that on that date. & then design for the jacket may not have many "adaptable" elements a text designer can pick up on.

This is not an ideal situation, I agree. But I also agree that the incidence of damage from bad book design is much lower than from, say, bad can opener design. I hope that until I go blind I shall never give up reading, regardless of the lousy design work I may have to plow through.

Now bad printing, that really irks me. Bad printing can sabotage a good design. But I doubt I'd not read a book that was badly printed, either. Right now I'm reading the Penguin paper edition of Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians." Mediocre design, terrible printing, but I'm still reading.

As to Nick's other comment about "ordinary books": evidence is that designers of "ordinary books" do not read Bringhurst, nor Rich Hendel's "On Book Design." Missing ligatures, false smalls, lining figs, bad margins: they all attest to this.

Do not look to any publication's list of best books for any hope of finding well-designed books. Only rarely do reviewers have any awareness of book design. Even for those who may feel we are living in an era when more attention is paid to design, I think it is too much to expect book reviewers to chat about design.

That's the view from here, today. From a guy who has spent 40 years trying to make books look good—and at times succeeding, I think.


pattyfab's picture

I hope I never don’t read a book because it has a lousy jacket design or lousy text typography.

No, but I have read (or at least picked up in the store) books that have really nice jacket designs.

rs_donsata's picture

It looks like Mr Rand had something to say on respect of this design bureaucracy

The politics of design


Nick Shinn's picture

The inside layout of Your Brain on Music does look good at first glance, in the sense that it is contemporary.
And there has been attention paid to typographic details--the running heads are set in Helvetica 35, tracked out slightly, providing a nice contrast with the main text. The book is well written, well edited, and well printed.

If the leading had been reduced, and horizontal scaling of 95% applied, to increase the bottom and outside margins, for more comfort in holding the book during reading, it would perhaps have looked "old". So that is the penalty we pay, for living in an era when mere functionality appears to be behind the times.

will powers's picture

>>> No, but I have read (or at least picked up in the store) books that have really nice jacket designs.

Then those were successful jackets. They accomplished the first goal of a book jacket: to get someone to pick up the book. The second goal may be to actually convey some meaningful info about the book, by both visuals and text. Those you read accomplished the third goal: to get someone to read the book. Actually, maybe the third goal is to get someone to buy the book. Getting someone to read the thing may be immaterial.

One other thing about book jackets and covers, apart from the design of the billboard (I mean the front of the jacket). The type for flaps and for the descriptive copy and blurbs on the back is often atrocious. These parts of the jackets should be put together by typographers, working in cohort with the graphic designers who did the fronts. Type on jacket and cover backs is full of false italics, poorly placed blurb attributions, and generally poor, unimaginative typography. & there seems no attention paid to flap copy. Drop it in, set it FL/RR with no attention to the rag, and punch out for the day. The narrow measure of the flap seems to be too much of a challenge for many designers.


elizabeth_355's picture

I do both book covers and interiors, and I always finish the interior before I ever start on the cover. I guess it's just an old habit of mine.

Quincunx's picture

> I do both book covers and interiors, and I always finish the interior before I ever start on the cover. I guess it’s just an old habit of mine.

That is ideal. However, most publishers want to use the cover in his promotional material even before the book is finished. I guess you're lucky, then. :)

I wish I could design the cover after the interior as well. I designed the cover for the book I'm doing the interior for right now something like 5 weeks ago. Really annoying.

pattyfab's picture

I usually have to get the cover well under way before the interior, as the catalog deadline usually comes up first. The cover can change, but ideally it doesn't.

poms's picture

The example is extra-ugly-disfunctional!
However, if i compare my impressions over 5-10 years in the field of "mainstream" fictional literature and not only, i think it's getting better (not worse), at least here in germany. Better margins, better typefaces in use, better textsetting (by the use of better software).

Eluard's picture

Interesting Poms. Could you post a pic of a typical German work of fiction, by any chance?

kentlew's picture

When I was creative director at a small publisher, it was not unusual to need the cover as much as six months before the interior was set to go to design. Hell, sometimes the title wasn't even finalized before we needed tight comps for sales conference. (Catalog date was the deadline for finalizing titles, and it was not uncommon to have to rework a cover or two the night before.) Manuscript wasn't often available, so any brief came from an outline or a marketing blurb. I usually had the luxury of sitting down with the editorial director and the acquiring editor for an in-depth conversation about the book -- much better than talking to marketing alone.

Covers are always caught in a tug-of-war between Editorial and Marketing. It has to be accurate enough to adequately reflect the editorial tone and content; it has to be sexy enough to satisfy marketing. These are often two competing concerns. Left entirely to Editorial, a book cover would reflect and describe the content completely accurately, and be totally boring. Left entirely to Marketing, a book cover would be flashy, look like the best-selling competition (only different), consist primarily of the current colour-du-jour, be full of buzz words, and have very little to do with the topic.

For most of our titles, it was neither practical nor always the best course to have the same designer do both the interior and cover. Different skills and strengths are needed. Navigating the ins and outs of feedback from marketing and understanding the marketplace and trends for covers is a different skill set from managing complex hierarchies of textual structure, illustrations, charts, tables, etc., and responding to editorial needs and input. Not a lot of designers can do both equally well.

I felt it was my job to try to keep the outside and inside harmonious through my direction, to the extent that I could under the other inevitable constraints and challenges. The title page was one place I often stepped in directly to design a transition from outside to inside. Also, back cover and flaps were another area where a little coordination could help bridge the gap.

-- K.

dezcom's picture

Nicely said and informative anecdote! I can even feel your pain between the lines!


William Berkson's picture

>No, but I have read (or at least picked up in the store) books that have really nice jacket designs.

As a writer, let me put in a word for the value of good interior design. Once the title and jacket design or the name of the author get you to pick up the book, then you look inside. If this is visually inviting and easily readable, you are more likely to sample it extensively. And then, if you like the content, buy the book.

I think it is something like wearing flattering, suitable clothes. It isn't going to make an ugly person beautiful, but it will help soften the blow, and will make the beautiful person glorious.

Here analogy to 'beauty' is what the writer wrote. Good interior design won't make a bad book good, but it will make a good book more inviting to read.

If the book is a non-fiction one where structuring information is important to usability of the book, like a cook book or text book, or--for different reasons--art book, then visual presentation actually becomes part of content quality.

Syndicate content Syndicate content