Sunday, April 4, 2010

How to Design a Book: A Type 102 Review

J was excited for the arrival of Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy's new book, Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio. The book is a collection of essays and interviews written by some of the world's most revered design studios on what they believe to be the most important and integral aspects of their own studios, as well as their observations on what doesn't make for a positive, collaborative space.

I picked up my package at the post office and tore it open on my walk to the subway. Finding a seat on the train, I settled in to the first page (I read everything, especially in design books, starting at looking at the binding and endpapers, and moving on to one of my favorite parts, the imprints page.)

But an uneasy feeling came over me from the very start: the title page was barren, with its information pushed in to the top right corner. Moving on to the acknowledgements, I saw the text was treated much the same way, only worse, because being on a left-hand page the text was now being pushed toward the gutter. Further on to the contents page, I immediately noticed a weird affectation of two long em-dashes, (— —) rather than one en-dash, ( – ) serving as page ranges. Flipping swiftly on to the next page and the next, I started to get irritated at all of the type and layout.

Did an architect lay this out? I wondered. But no, the designers are quite awesome designers — albeit primarily known for their striking posters — working in whatever we're calling neo-Modernism these days. But it seems like nearly all of the design decisions made ignored the essentials of book layout in favor of a "cool" aesthetic. Here's the bottom line: I could not read this book on the subway. The type and structure of this book is such that you'd better be sitting motionless in natural, or under flourescent light to read it. I teach typography, so naturally the teacher in me kicked in and, having nothing else to do for the rest of my train ride, I composed this, a Typography 102 Review For Designers.

Typographic Color
This term does not get nearly enough attention, perhaps because a lot of designers don't quite understand what it means. Typographic color refers to the range of white – black values on a page. In a block of text, it's the amount of black we perceive; a range of color is achieved through stroke contrast of the type itself (which gives density to the letterforms,) the type's width, weight and point size, and how tightly or loosely one sets the leading.

Below is the same text. On the left is Gotham Thin — a sans serif with low stroke contrast — and on the right is Janson. They're set at the same point size and leading, but you can see how the right column is "darker". If we adjusted the scale, leading, and/or weight, we would see an even greater difference.

In Studio Culture,  not only is there very little typographic color, the type is set in a warm gray spot, lowering the contrast even more. Combined with an incredibly small point size, on light gray paper, even those with good vision will strain to read. Other pages have text knocked out of the gray color, which may be nice to read on screen, but can be laborious on a page. Overall we have a lot of gray pages.

Scale and Contrast
As Ellen Lupton says, clients tend to like type too big; designers tend to prefer type too small. Generally speaking she's right, but I would qualify this by saying designers appreciate scale (we also like HUGE type!) and we also like proportion. Studio Culture's type — dare I say it — is too small. I'm certainly not saying that 8pt type (I can't tell if that's what it is, but I'm guessing) is always too small; in fact I think that's often a nice point size for body text. But this typeface has no stroke contrast, it's gray, the leading is tight, the pages have very small top and bottom margins, and the column widths are short. All recipes for too much samey-same. Captions are even smaller.

Typeface Selection
A lot of the problems mentioned above would not be problems if a suitable font had been chosen. It was not. Optimo Hermes was evidently based on a 1969 typewriter face, but something tells me it was not cut this small. Being a typewriter face, it's also monospaced (eliminating, yet again, even more contrast, since we have cut out width variation.) The letterspacing overall is poor, with lots and lots of bad kerns happening, as well as an awkward lack of ligatures. In blocks of text, it is difficult to distinguish an o from an a; when knocked out of the gray the thinner stroke of the apostrophe and quote marks nearly falls out completely. 

Page Structure and Other Considerations
The grid is a fairly standard two-column affair, and that's fine, but the only breathing room we're given as readers is that typically only three of the four columns in a spread are used. The margins, as mentioned above, are tight around all edges, which could work if headers or interview questions or whatever were treated in a different way (they are actually just lighter than the body text, which makes one drawn to the answer first and the question second.)

Also employed is many a type nerd's pet peeve: no hyphenation. So now we have a crazy right rag in a tight column, so keeping your eye on the line, yet again, is a problem.

The pages that do feature imagery are also too samey-same, so that when flipping through the book I've no idea which section I'm in. Each new section begins with a left-hand duotone image in the spot plus black, but they are quite dark and do not illuminate (pun intented) what are obviously pictures of bright and sunny studio spaces. The images that accompany the text are mostly quite small, and if this was because of a page limit I think there could have been much nicer ways to handle this. Instead it seems like they could only get 72 dpi images or something — I want to see these studio spaces!

Good Things
From what I have read so far, the texts are quite good, and would be incredibly engaging if I weren't so distracted by all of the above. With the exception of some glaring proofreader misses ('then' instead of 'than', twice in the same paragraph; 'I' instead of 'me') the interviews are personable and honest.

Frankly, if this were another design book with big pretty pictures with supporting text, rather than a book I'm meant to read, I would not have spent my whole morning writing this post. I'd flip through and look at the pictures and peruse the diminutive captions at will. But I really want to read this book, and I eventually will. I just wish I weren't wishing for the Kindle version.


  1. Yes, I absolutely agree. I have the book but have been unable to get through any significant portion of it due to the small, and low-contrast type. I have 20/20 vision, but I feel half blind trying to get through that.

    Also, I was disappointed with the lack of full-page, full-colour photos of the studios.

  2. There’s a long list of design books like this that I might actually read and review if the typography weren’t simultaneously hackneyed and overdesigned.