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February 5, 2008

ON THE SUBJECT OF DESIGN TRANSPARENCY IN MATERIAL BOOKS

I’ve read both Beatrice Warde’s 1955 essay, “Printing Should be Invisible? and Jan Tschichold’s The Form of the Book, and I agree with both of them to certain points. I agree that in the case of the written word—where an author or writer can artistically and eloquently deliver some meditation or exploration of an aspect of the world in an engaging written form—then to a degree, the design has to be genuine, if not illuminating of that content and intent. Part of the joy, benefit and experience of reading books also has to do with the reader being able to simultaneously project their own version of the writer’s world in their head, while reading those words that the writer has laid out for them.

So within that, there is a paradox: How much design is too much? For me, there is a fine line. Design can explore, illuminate, engage and cause further reflection and thought. But too much design could turn off the fundamental task of the reader to be actively and creatively engaged as a part of the text. In effect, it’ll become a lot like television—which can strongly elicit emotions from the viewer, but rarely engages active creation of a part of that world.

One of the things that has always struck me about Warde’s essay was her fundamental metaphor—that of the crystal goblet.

She says: “You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether you are a connoisseur of wine… you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wineglass have a parallel in typography? (11).

She goes on to draw parallels between the crystal goblet and areas of typography.

Now perhaps I am arguing over verbiage, over semantics, but I feel I have to make a point that her metaphor carries a number of value judgments that I think need to be fundamental considerations in design.

The first is with the goblet itself. Now, I have had the “pleasure? of working a number of years in an upscale culinary store, explaining and selling their wares. We too, sold crystal goblets. They were german, embedded with lead—and are nearly universally accepted as the best glass to drink wine out of. These glasses, thin and transparent as a bubble were shaped based on the kind of wine they were to hold. As such, the glass itself targeted the wine to the exact area of tongue that was best suited to taste that wine. See, your tongue is broken into regions that taste bitter, sour, sweet, etcetera. I had always wondered why, when reading wine labels that I could never detect those hints of strawberries, chocolate and roasted chestnuts. It turns out that the glass itself is fundamentally important in that experience. Furthermore, these glasses while being thin and transparent as a bubble cost upwards of forty dollars a glass and were exceptionally prone to breaking. Not to mention that lead thing.

In the end, I find these glasses elitist. If you were to shell out for a really good bottle of wine as a treat, or for a special occasion, you could certainly do so, but a lot of the experience is lost because you can’t shell out three times more than the wine just for appropriate glassware. So I guess I’m trying to say that the glass in-and-of-itself is a value judgment on not only the act of drinking wine, but what is in the glass in the first place. Some wines are good independent of glassware, and there is a certain charm and experience just drinking the wine—be it out of Ikea wine glasses, juice glasses, tumblers or plastic cups.

My second point of dissent comes in the value judgment inherent in what is in the goblet to begin with. Wine comes with a whole host of elitist leanings and connotations. As if all one should be drinking out of a goblet (or drinking at all) is a “vintage of a deep shimmering crimson? (11). From a personal standpoint, I always feel the odd woman out at parties and dinners. I don’t drink a lot of wine even though I do enjoy a glass now and again. Part of this is for personal reasons—I am vegan (a form of strict vegetarianism, as I see it) and as such do not eat anything that came from an animal. Most wines are fined with isinglass, a form of gelatin derived from fish guts. While most of this isinglass is removed, a small amount remains, and so I abstain from most wine, most of the time.

But I also just like the taste of good beer, despite the carbs, calories, and the lack of antioxidants. Some beers too, are fined with isinglass, but there are also many that are not. So inevitably at dinners and parties, there is a sea of women with glasses of white wine and red wine. Then there are the men with their beer, and me… with my beer.

So I feel like in constructing her metaphor, Warde is making a significant value judgment on the content of books that deserves fine graphical treatment, and then using the fine graphical treatment to continue an elitist idea of reading in general. Why a goblet at all, and why can’t we be drinking orange juice, water, or Schlitz?

Though there are some of her ideas about transparency that I do agree with. When she says that we must not first ask “How should it look?, but What must it do?? I am in fundamental agreement. I don’t think any designer should through the writer’s skill, work, and ideas out the window, at least not at first. Find out what the design has to do, and then determine the extent of the look. Later on down the line, once the writing has become a part of our cultural milieu, then look at the design, and the potential for it to help give the book new meaning. The great thing about great writing is that it is flexible. It will continue to resonate in some way as times, peoples and cultures change. Design, I think, can help elucidate and explore new and / or alternate meanings in these texts.

THE FUTURE OF FORM IN THE MATERIAL BOOK

When I talked before of what I see as the overlooking of the fundamental strengths of the printed book, I feel like I should clarify some about the future use of these conventions.

I could see such a future where form could be used deceptively or gaudily, to trick people into connecting with something when the connection is purely on looks. Or where form is taken overboard much like ornamentation after automation became routine. I have always tried to live and design by the William Morris standard: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful?. My personal belief in design is that anything created, above all else, needs to be genuine to its communicative intent.

I would hope, in a future where form is part of a designer’s job, and part of the joy in owning and reading books, that the form is well thought out, honest, and as integral to the content as the author in the first place.

Maybe I’m excessively utopian, but I think we all desire this in our daily lives. More connection, more relatedness between ourselves and that which we choose to surround ourselves with. And I think authors and writers are ways to this end, but so to can the designer help to root their words, ideas, concepts, and interpretations to ourselves as physical creatures.

There was an interesting (and appropriate) beginning to an article over at Design Observer, penned by Jessica Helfand:

“Things, as we all know, connect us to the world we inhabit. Big or small, expensive or insignificant, our attachments to other people and places begin with things. As infants, we navigate by smell and touch; with the social and verbal awareness that comes later, we progress to more quantifiable values — size and price and look and feel — the stuff of conspicuous consumption. And yet, evidence abounds to suggest that the enduring emotional value we place on our prize possessions is rarely the stuff of logic.?

January 30, 2008

ON THE SUBJECT OF THE BOOK AS AN OBJECT

Back to my widget dictionary. It defines books in two ways:

AN OBJECT: “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers?

A CONCEPT: “a literary composition that is published or intended for publication as such a work?

I have to say, I see both at the same time. When I hold a book, I recognize it as a self-contained object, that is portable and openable, and in which contains a story or some information which might be helpful to me.

But as an artist and as a designer, I feel the texture of the pages as I turn through the pages, I experience the the weight of this “other? self-contained world as I hold it, balance it or nestle it against my knees. There is a scale that is established between me—the person—and the book—the object and the “world?—as I hold it in opposition to myself. There is a dance of shadow and light as the pages move, as I move, and as the light through the window marks the day’s progression.

I enjoy the fact that this world is portable, yet I don’t have to worry about it. Unlike my laptop or my cell phone, which cause me to wince every time is incurs even the slightest of bumps or abuses, I nearly always delight in the fact that books end up looking like one has read them, and experienced their in any number of locales.

My experience too with books takes some influence from the constructed forms. I don’t like it when books don’t lie flat. I often read while eating or on buses, or in bed. I don’t like having to force the book open, I like it to open itself to me. I crack the binding on almost every single one, and through this I can determine a cheaply constructed one from a well constructed one—because the pages don’t fall out. I hold these well constructed books in higher esteem, because my experience was more pleasant, and I think that becomes associated with the content. The book aided me, and I thanked it for it.

Currently, I am living without a television set, and without a constant access to the internet. I tend to listen to public radio often, but when I eat, I like to also read.

Since I am engaged in multiple activities at once (eating and reading) I prefer the reading to be lighter, because I also want to enjoy my food.

I have a few cookbooks that aren’t packed up in boxes somewhere, and I have taken to reading these. There is one in particular that sits open so nicely, and has a textured page that seems to work so well with the texture of food. The colors inside also are taken from the world of the edible—dark purples suggesting red cabbage (an oxymoron, I know) a deep red with burgundy overtones which could elicit thoughts of everything from tomatoes to apples to cranberries.

The design isn’t outstanding or even innovative in anyway, though as a designer, I’ve taken note of the simple pastel-like illustrations and the primary typeface used for headlines (a quirky slab-serif) and the body typeface which is pretty much the same thing but with much more restrained serifs. Introductory copy is in a light face, and the recipes are in a boldface.

But I’ve read this book cover to cover, and found some very interesting and surprising things inside. The form of it, how it acted for me, fundamentally facilitated this discovery, this engagement.

I have tried to go through my other books—cookbooks and not—but they are the wrong size, or they don’t sit open well, and I end up fighting with them more than enjoying the content, the experience of being both with the book, and with my dinner.

So in the end I have to come to the conclusion that 1) The form and construction of the book—including all materials—has to be extremely important to the use of the book, 2) That these things contribute on very important levels to the access and absorption of the content, and 3) they become inexorably linked with the content on so many primary levels.

So I wonder why the form isn’t considered more. Not just in quality and appropriateness of materials, but in a conscious utilization in an innovative manner to explore and communicate content, while ensuring its endurance in the reader.

The form creates a physical connection. I think a metaphor here can be drawn between food and form. All food has physical qualities about it. The first you notice is smell. Smell ties so closely to taste, and we make a large part of our judgment of taste based on smell. So if we don’t like the way is smells, we probably won’t like the way it tastes. The second is looks. Things can look appetizing, or they can look like mush. But when you take that first bite you pretty much know—through texture, through the taste on the tongue—if this is something that connects with you on such a deep level that that moment is pretty much cemented in your memory for the duration.

The same is true with books. You CAN judge a book by its cover, and people do. But I think the connection is made even more firmly by holding a book, by touching it and experiencing it. This is where the connection is made with books, and this is where the lasting memory and recollection starts.

The commodification of books has subverted the form. They all look the same, they all act the same, and we grow weary of this. Whatever side you fall down on —the reading books is in danger, or people are reading, we’re just panicking—I feel that the reading experience—of books—can be richer and enhanced, while still communicating the content and the experience genuinely.

So I think we need to pay attention to form, to materials, and to the physical experience. With the increased ubiquity and use of digital technologies, texts have changed for all of us. Many people point to the spatial strength of these technologies—their abilities to present navigable representations of three-dimensional spaces.

For all the video games I have enjoyed, I have to disagree—at least in part—with this notion. Books are actually, and really three-dimensional. And if one of the hallmarks of media is to get us closer to the “real? to make the mediation disappear, then I think this is more of a strength of the material book, than the digital one.

The other strengths of the material book—as mentioned before—are the tactility, the materiality, the portability, the spatial. I don’t think all narratives are best told in digital formats. I think some are crafted—and will in the future—to take advantage of these strengths as well as the traditional strengths of the book that are so fundamentally rooted in our culture, our traditions and in who we are as people.