Tuesday, 11 December 2012

5 Styles of Book Design?

During the course of my MA I have been doing a lot of thinking on the subject of books and book design. One thing I have noticed, throughout this thinking is there seems to be a relatively small number of styles or end-goals of book design. All books strive (or fail), it seems to me, to achieve quality based on one or more of these competing metrics. I present five possible metrics, with the above diagram notes common ways they might intersect in the form of a Euler diagram. Of course, these are not prescriptive, nor are they the only such system one might come up with. By changing the definitions, and the borders between definitions, an infinite variety of categorisations are possible.

The Book Beautiful

This style of design is often said to have found its ultimate expression in the work of William Morris's Kelmscott Press (example). It emphasises the aesthetic qualities of the book as a thing of beauty, to be enjoyed as much (or more) as the text and images within. Often more masterpieces of the bookbinder's and printer's craft skills than the book designer's considered aesthetics, the book beautiful may be seen as an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy sort of concept, evoking marbled endpapers, hand-sewn bindings, tooled leather covers, gilt-edged pages and meticulous printing, perhaps referencing early incunabula and other medieval books. This is not necessarily true, however; the concept of the book beautiful extends to even mass-market paperbacks, where particular attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the book as an object and, crucially, these aesthetics could be said to assume equal (or greater) importance compared to the contents of the book.

The Book Functional

This style of design is that championed by technical masters such as Jan Tschichold, and draws heavily on Beatrice Ward's Crystal Goblet metaphor. In this style of design, the book is treated chiefly as a container, an object for presenting a text, or images. Decoration is minimal or non-existent and the number of typefaces is kept to a minimum. Margins and the overall size are considered from the perspective of ergonomics as much as aesthetic beauty. Indeed, proponents of this style claim that the most functional book will be the most beautiful book. This is linked to enlightenment ideals, and will often lead them to sweeping, absolutist pronouncements, never examining the cultural parochialism of such a view. Not all examples of the Book Functional are of the same type: textbooks come under this heading.

The Book Frugal

This is a sort of book where the entire design is dictated by economic considerations. Paper stock, binding, cover designs; all are chosen to be as cheap and inviting as possible. This type of book may superficially appear to be similiar to the Book Functional, but ignores many of the ergonomic, aesthetic, durability and other concerns that may appear in this category. The Book Frugal covers a huge swathe of the modern book industry. The vast majority of mass-market paperbacks fall into this type; pulp fiction indeed.

The Book Grotesque

A special case, this rare form of book can be thought of as the absolute opposite of the Book Beautiful, and perhaps could be thought of as a subset of the Book Visual. The Book Grotesque does not necessarily aim at ugliness as it's explicit goal, but it achieves it, for whatever reason. Perhaps it is an artist's book, or the product of some small, incompetent press, or an example of art brut? There will always be some people, of course, who claim that the grotesque is beautiful, and others who claim that the beautiful is grotesque. This will always necessitate the need for the existence of this classification.

The Book Visual

 The book visual represents the bulk of artist's books, but also many other sorts of books; atlases, books of aerial photographs, and so on. The Book Visual considers the book in terms of aesthetics. Its design is not simply as a structure for presenting other information (as in the Book Functional) nor is it decorative (as in the Book Beautiful). The Book Visual is the masterwork of the designer. It's end goal is not necessarily beauty (or some concept analogous to beauty such as richness, cool etc.) but it might be beautiful to some people's eyes. It has a style that is not necessarily aimed at presenting information in the most efficient way, though it may achieve a high standard of presentation.

Vectis is a Book Visual.

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