The strange business of book design

Industry Insights is a new GSP blog series. Each week, we hope to bring some publishing knowledge to our avid readers. This could include anything from writing tips and how to get noticed by publishers, to designing your own e-book cover. A new industry insight will be posted every Monday evening – so stay tuned for more over the semester!

This week’s Industry Insight was written by Mark Davis.

Mark Davis coordinates the Publishing and Communications program in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He was previously a book designer who has designed books for Random House, Melbourne University Publishing, Allen & Unwin, Penguin Books, Lothian Books, and Periplus, among other publishers.


Book design is a strange business.

You take people who have been schooled in the visual arts and thrust them into the bookish world of words and authors, where they have the crucial task of designing something that will be pleasurable to use and look at – and most of all will sell lots of copies. Do designers actually read the book? Most of the time, no. During the fifteen or so years in which book design was my full-time role, I only ever read one manuscript start to finish — Ray Parkin’s HM Bark Endeavour, published by MUP. Ray was in his eighties, was Australia’s most famous former prisoner of war after Weary Dunlop and the manuscript was his life’s work. Reading it was the least I could do. But most of the time I would read just enough to get a sense of the authorial voice, which for me was always essential when it came to choosing a typeface. Does the voice have the delicacy and charm of say, Monotype Bembo, the quiet authority of Garamond, or the no-nonsense stridency of Sabon? These are important questions that require considerable pondering. Ray was definitely Apollo, a beautiful, understated yet durable typeface that isn’t used enough, with non-aligning figures and stunning fractions – just right for a book about a sea voyage with lots of navigation data and imperial measurements to do with rope gauges, mast heights, sail dimensions, ration amounts and so on.


When you say, ‘book design’ most people think of covers – but these, of course, are the least of it. A big craft, art, or cookbook can have a hundred or more page spreads to be designed individually, dozens of photos to be taken (designers don’t take the pictures but generally art direct the shoot) and perhaps a few dozen instructional illustrations to commission. The cover is just a single piece of artwork with a barcode in the back corner. Albeit from the publisher point of view a very important one. ‘Doing the cover’, from the designer and publisher point of view, can be what literary theorists call a very ‘overdetermined’ process. Different approaches are tried and often fail. Titles change, upsetting carefully calibrated layouts. PDFs fly back and forth. Nerves fray. My approach as a cover designer and as a designer more generally, was always pragmatic. That might seem an odd thing to say — isn’t all book production pragmatic; a means to an end? Well, yes, but the thing is, as I intimated at the start, book designers to some degree inhabit a world apart from the practical contingences of books, words, editors and authors. This is because they belong to the world of visual things. We see differently. Indeed, if you’ll pardon the conceit, we don’t just see, we actually observe. By which I mean that navigating the world, for designers, is about noticing things: their colour, shape, texture, and visual meaning. Most people see reductively; only as much as they need to see to not trip over things, not get hit by moving objects, and to notice a friend across the street. For designers the world is a kaleidoscope of wonder, full of visual associations, aesthetic histories and their attendant emotions. And because of this many designers see themselves as artists. There is a spectrum, in fact, from ‘art designers’ to more commercially oriented designers. The former see clients as a kind of patron commissioning them to do great works. For the latter the satisfaction comes from creating a pleasing object that resonates with the market.


I always placed myself at the commercial end of the spectrum. Often commerce and art met. HM Bark Endeavour is a beautiful object and, oddly enough, for a pragmatic commercially-oriented designer I won several awards for my work. But winning awards always came second. What came first was selling books. Lots of books. And being very, very hard-nosed about the process and overcoming whatever obstacles were put in the way of any given project. Perhaps one of my favourite projects was Kaz Cooke’s Real Gorgeous. The publisher arrived on my doorstep one Easter morning close to tears with an armload of paper, a CD rom, and a project that was a half-edited, half-designed mess. That armload of paper, it turned out, were page proofs from the first designer, who had just been sacked. That morning. Would I take over the project? Oh, and by the way, the book is due out in September. A cancelled Easter trip later we had new pages. Then a cover. The book launched on time and by the end of the year sales were heading towards 50 000 copies. We did a second edition in a smaller format and sales took off again. Watching those numbers come in told me we’d met the market. Knowing that young women who the author and publisher believed wanted a non-confronting, useful book about body image, were literally buying it by the truckload was far more gratifying than designing a cover you might want to hang in a gallery. And it won a big prize at the book design awards that year as well. Bonus.


But the challenge of getting a product into as many homes as possible was always the thing that most drove me as a designer. Along the way you sometimes have to challenge your client and take them places they mightn’t have thought of going. You also have to keep the author and their agent happy — they don’t generally get final say (since all the commercial risk is with the publisher) but you can’t publish a book that the author doesn’t feel happy to hold up in public. And when you get it right there’s not much in publishing that’s quite so satisfying. ••



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