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Thinking Like A Book Designer

Lesson 11 of 15

Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

Thinking Like A Book Designer

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

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Lesson Info

11. Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Lesson Info

Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Why these details are important, and we're going to go a little bit deep into this, but you don't want to miss this, watch. There it goes, you missed it. Transition effects, how about that. I've never done that, I've always wanted to do it. So, very important you know the difference, all future book designers, between an inch mark and a smart quote, right? Just like when you learn English, you should learn what a proper apostrophe is and where it goes. This is a typical thing that designers often get wrong. Our friend Ellen Lupton has a collection of these, she gives a wonderful lecture where she shows them, these inch marks all over the world. You see them often in signs, but you don't want to see them in books, you never want to see them in presentations. This gets to the next thing, which is, what is a cap and what is a small cap. So, this is actually quite interesting, and we're going to talk about this in two ways. So, this lowercase is the x-height, right, so the x-height is ...

where the small cap lines up with. And sometimes designers will do what are called caps, like a regular cap, and a small cap. And you get this very undulating, uneven line, which isn't as elegant as just doing small caps. The other thing about small caps, is that it helps if you give them a little letter spacing, there's something very elegant. You end with actually a piece of geometry, like a stripe. So for example, if you're doing running heads or you're doing a sub-head or you're doing, I use them all the time, I think they're really beautiful, and in true typefaces, with true typographers, they will actually design them as their own piece of the typeface. So these are not just smaller capital letters that have been scrunched, in fact you should never scrunch anything, this is just a one line thing that is a small cap. And where this is meaningful is when we get into the topic of non-aligning numbers. So, you may not know this but a proper number that goes one, two, three, is actually a capital number. These are lower case numbers. Now right now I've done them so that they line up with the small caps, but what's, I'm sorry, these are capital numbers, they do line up with caps. Next slide, I did that wrong, what's the next slide, there it is, okay. These are what are called non aligning numbers, these are lowercase numbers, right. Uppercase number, because they all line up with the cap height, lowercase numbers. And you can see, depending on the typeface, they're really beautiful. They give you the sort of ribbon effect. And certain typefaces have exquisite examples of these, sometimes called non-aligning numbers, old style figures they're sometimes called, and it's a very classical thing, they're really magnificent, and many typefaces have a set of alternate characters that allow you to choose either between the uppercase or the non-aligning. And all of these things are, you know, those details that actually, again, help serve the content but also help the reader just have a pleasant reading experience. I mean, a lot of times it's, you know, if your book has a lot of text in it, or any text in it, it's easy to forget at a certain point that our job as designers is just to enable the, you know, the people with the books to be able to just kind of effortlessly take in the content, and, literacy is an amazing, mysterious thing that once you learn how to read, it's hard to remember how difficult it was to learn how to read. And if you ever work with, you know, literacy programs with adults you sort of confront all over again what a miracle it is that we all know how to decipher these like little shapes, and put them into sounds and words, and sentences and paragraphs And this is, This is in a sense visual literacy, so you've all heard, if you know, if someone writes you an email in all caps, you think they're shouting. When in a sense those numbers are shouting caps, so if you're, say for example, designing a brochure and you have to do a phone number, sometimes it can be really lovely to use old style figures for phone number instead of the big caps. This is one of those things like ligatures, which we're not going to talk about, but we probably should have talked about, which is certain letter forms, F I ligature, F L ligature. I have a child whose name is Fiona, and because her mother is a designer, she was taught to write her name with an F I ligature, which did not go over well in kindergarten. (crowd laughing) And she came home, and her teacher said, that's not how you do it, and she said, oh yes, my mother's a designer, it's how you do it. And she had to give her a whole lesson at the age of four or five. (crowd laughing) So, it's a very important part of my DNA, how you deal with F I and F L ligatures. It's the same sort of kind of elegant detail that makes a really big difference. This is an example of something from Barbara Glowenberg's book, and she just used initial caps by cutting something out of her book that was one of Sister Corita Kent's initial caps. The important thing about initial caps is they have to align properly, so you usually do them with, their three lines, their five lines, their six lines, anyone who reads the New York Times Sunday Magazine will notice they do really weird things with initial caps. Sometimes they're great, sometimes they're weird. But they really like try to do different things. What you don't want to do is have it not align with the text, and often what you do, as Barbara beautifully did here, is you have the first either two words, or sometimes the entire first line, be in small caps reading out of the initial cap, which actually creates a more, sort of, elegant transition as opposed to just having the big honking thing that's the C and then you just go right into your text. There's only one thing that I hate about initial caps, and I'd like to ask everyone out there not to do it, it's a free country, but I prefer that you not do this, which is that people, if you know what an initial cap is, you could, if you want it to be bold, if you could take the C and make it like really big and kind of this big exuberant thing, that then has the problem of having to read into these little letters here. So sometimes what people do, is they have a big, exuberant initial cap, then they just print the letter that it's meant to represent like right in the text on top of it, right? I've actually seen that, it happens quite a bit. Yeah, and it's wrong. It's wrong. It's wrong and it really irritates the heck out of me. Right, right. You're like saying it twice. I prefer that people not do that anymore, so it would be like a giant C here, then it was just say Corita Kent there with the C there. Either like do it or not do it, but like. Otherwise the font police will come after you. (crowd laughing) Yeah, someone will come after you, sooner or later. Led by Michael. I deputize everyone within range of my voice to do a citizen's arrest on anyone that does that from this day forward. You heard it here first. Initial caps can be very very tricky, you do have to align them, and you have to make them readable, and you have to make them make sense. And I love that she did this, because it actually links back to the work. Yeah, I mean Sister Corita Kent's work was all about collage, so this pays that off beautifully. Right, it worked completely beautifully. Yes Jim. Yeah, question. Going back Jessica, you mentioned that you prefer them aligned, so no hanging drop cap, or do you guys have a preference either way? Yeah, so I think, I mean this is my bugaboo about these things, which is that, you know, if the thing is like way out here, or it's way out here, and it lines up here but then this, see how beautiful this indent is that it matches it, it just want to feel like it's part of the same play. Otherwise it's like a scene from a different play. I think you could, I think I've done that, at least, I've hung initial caps every once in a while. Have you? I haven't done it for a long time, but I used to do it. I don't know, we're going to have to have it out about this later. I used to do it all the time, do it all the time. (crowd laughing) This is not a great example of folios and running heads, but what it is a beautiful example of is how numbers and different sizes of numbers create this kind of beautiful rhythm on something that is essentially a grid. So folios are page numbers, you want to make them consistent you either put them on the same sides on every page, you put them in the middle of every page. And running heads often run after them, so it's you know, chapter one, learn to be a book designer. You just want to be consistent with these things, but I think you can have some fun with the numbers, and people often do, but you just want to be consistent about where they go. A couple more details that are important. Important that you know the difference as a book designer between what is flush left and justified type, so this for example is a rag. We talked earlier about Bradbury Thompson. What's the rag, the rag is on the right, right? Yeah, so this is what's called flush left, rag right. The British call it something else, they call it... Range. They call it range right. So if you are British, we apologize. The basic rule of thumb with a rag is as follows, you either make it really uneven, or you make it pretty even. But what you want to avoid are shapes, and you want to avoid rivers in the type, if you ever do justified type, which we're not going to show now, but justified type means it's solid on both sides, I'll talk about that in a moment, because my book has justified type, you want to make sure when type is justified you don't have these giant gaps that create shapes. Like in between Shapes in between Like going like that In between, those are called rivers. Right, so Bradbury Thompson who we mentioned earlier, was such a stickler for the rags that he drove, everyone loved him, he was the most just, I stand first in line for his canonization, unbelievable man, but he did drive his editors at Yale University Press crazy because he made them redo the rag 72 times until they were absolutely perfect. Now, this is hyphenation, so you want to be careful with that, because you don't want to do like too many hyphens in a row, because that can become it's own kind of weird pattern. This is called a widow, and this is called an orphan. So if you're going to the next column of something, you want to be sure that you actually re-route your typography, so that you don't have these very strange shards of words, where you can't see what's going on. Alright, wonderful, so we are going to, I have a few questions, one or two questions, and again from the audience, if you guys have any questions, just raise your hand. This I thought was kind of interesting, Michael. This from, and for both of you, from one of our students out on the internet named Liz Francis. Do you think it's worthwhile using designs to make a boring, dry, or even poorly written manuscript more interesting. Can design save the book? I think my position, I was pretty clear, is that it's really difficult to take something that is poorly written and sort of save it through the design. On the other hand, I actually, so I would say, my quick answer is no, but when I think about it, it's sort of like no but maybe there would be some interesting things. I mean, legendarily I remember David Carson when he was our director at Radar, Ray Gun, sorry, he was given a text that he thought was so boring and unreadable that he just set the entire thing in Zapf Dingbats, if you know that typeface. And so that's like a famous story, but I mean, that's an extreme measure, but it's a way of demonstrating that you just want to do a nice layout and you have no expectation or even intention of anyone reading the text. There's a theory, an optimistic kind of point of view you could have that everything is potentially interesting. Badly written things are difficult to make well written, but boring things, there might be some pleasure to be had in boring things. I would add that this is where it goes back to this question of designer as editor, because if you actually have a great relationship with your writer or with your editor, you can push back. Certainly in magazines, you can do this. You can say, I need a shorter headline, because I want to run this picture bigger, because, and sometimes you can save a story that way in a publication. I'm reminded of a story, Roger Black, who was for many years the art director of Rolling Stone, was very concerned once when a story came in that was really really long. And this was back in the days when galleys were a thing. And so all the galleys show up, and he goes into the conference room, and he hangs the galleys systematically on the wall, and he turns, because he was somebody who, there's no shortage of charisma with this man, and he turned to his editors and he said, I need you to cut some copy from the story so I can make the story more visually interesting, and make the pictures bigger, and make the headline bigger. And the editor said, nothing doing, this is a great story we're writing about. And he said, no I'm going to show you, it's actually really easy. And he got up and he took the scissors, and he just walked down the hallway and he sliced all the things, and nobody ever like messed with him again. Man with scissors Man with scissors Or be a man with a scissor, be a woman with a scissor. But I think, I think really at the end of the day it's about the relationship you have editorially with the content, and with the person who's providing the content. Yeah, and I also think there's something about, you know, that question's interesting, and I can remember an example in my own, early on in my career I was asked to design a book that was something, it was about furniture, and I think it had a title like 500 chairs. It was just like, pictures, just basically, it was what it sounded like. It was like 500 chairs, so. And they had taken like, imagine all these square pictures of chairs, and interesting, because the chairs are, a chair is a chair is a chair, except the differences are interesting. So, I said what I wanted was just, like I wanted every picture the same size. So the book would just be like this (pounding on table rhythmically) and there would be a kind of beauty in that. (pounding on table continues) And, what they wanted though, was like to lay it out, to have one be big, one be small, kind of make like a little composition out of it, so it's more like, (drumming on table) (crowd laughing) which is fine too. That's a good drum beat, too. But I just thought if it's called 500 chairs, I just loved this idea of like one, two, three, four, five, you know chair, chair, chair, chair. (crowd laughing) The chair army. But they thought, but that was because I became convinced, I got fascinated with like, it's a book called 500 chairs, you have to be interested in chairs, so why are you going to pretend that a clever layout makes the chairs better. You just want those chairs in your face, so I completely lost that argument, they did a very conventional layout of all these like chairs, you know. And I just remember thinking it was a big lost opportunity. How'd the book do? Um, I think if you really like chairs, you sort of have to buy a book called 500 chairs, regardless of the layout. Are the movie rights still available? (crowd laughing) Yes, they're casting those chairs right now I guess. (crowd laughing) Great, awesome. Thank you so much. All right, looks like. Oh, we have a question. I was just wondering if you've figured out some sort of a technique or a strategy to balance between handling the book as an entire sequence, but also being invested in the details, without overwhelming yourself. Is there any sort of like small sort of observations you've had while sort of handling that different scales of the book. For me sometimes, and it's had to do with, again, going to the editor or the writer and saying I'm going to honor this text in a certain way. But, how you feel about fill in the blank, some interesting divider pages. Could we have a sequence in the middle where we have photographs, can we do something interesting with a gate fold cover. I think sometimes if you have a book that's very straightforward, a textbook, a very heavily worded book, it helps you to know where, in agreement with your team, your editorial team, where you can maybe have some fun. And I think they like that too. And then, in that way, you're actually protecting the basic kind of body of book, but you're not just succumbing to boredom along the way. Yeah, and I think it's, as designers, we're asked to do a lot, actually. And it's actually, I found one of the biggest challenges I had as a young designer when I first started my career was I was so worried about, and I was so invested in mastering, kind of, the level of craft details, that I would make the same mistake over and over again, which is I sort of would be all focused on getting the details right and the resulting whole wouldn't be coherent, you know, it just wouldn't be striking or bold enough, and I sort of, but I didn't quite have enough maturity in a way, or enough skill, to kinda be able to climb up high enough and get an overview of what the whole thing was. So I, that's discouraging sort of answer because it makes it sound like it's just inevitable part of like learning to walk before you can run, I suppose. But I think the trick is, if you always keep in mind that someone's experience of the book first, is they're going to experience it from the outside in. You know, they're gonna take it in as a whole object, and kind of try to get the overall idea of it first, before they, kind of, can get in and start noticing the details, or at least read it at a level where those details are significant at all. So, I mean, it's a way of kind of playing both ends across the middle, and I think it's probably, you know, nowadays what I'll do is, the first thing I'll do is just really think what's the overall effect we want to produce with this book. You know, as opposed to, because the overall effect can't be page numbers and you know non aligning numerals that have little lines under them that bleed off the page, that's like not an idea, you know. And no one's going to say, you see that book? Oh which one? You know, the one with the page numbers. Oh yeah that's great. No one says that, because most people are just there because they want to look at the pictures and read the words, you know. So you don't want to get in the way. First, do no harm. Yeah, first do no harm. But then, you also want someone to sort of think, wow this is, you know, a lot of books, and a lot of the books we're talking about today are actually fairly intricate. They have different parts, they have, you know, they have parts that might be heavy into pictures, they might have parts that are words, they might be structured differently. And I think, you know, if I'm doing a book, I would sort of, what's the overall idea, then how do you parse the basic anatomy of the book. You know, I'll say there's three, you have one's a pictures, you have a text, and you have this counter text. And you can segregate all three of them, you can combine all three of them, you can combine two and have the third one behave in a different way. And those are all, that's where you start to kind of actually compose, you know, first you have to decide what you're having for dinner, what kind of cuisine, then you kind of compose the plate and figure out exactly what the serving suggestion is going to be, and then you kind of can do those subtle spices and things that make it taste really good, you know.

Class Description

Print is not dead, and in this class you’ll learn about the elements that go into designing a book. Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut are renowned designers and experts in the field of design, and in this class you have the chance to learn from their years of expertise! If you’re interested in designing a book, personally or professionally, this class will teach you what you need to get started, including:

Lesson 1: The History of Book design

Lesson 2: How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

Lesson 3: Approaches to Art Book Design

Lesson 4: How Book Design Engages and Entertains 

Lesson 5: Approaches to Cover Design for Fiction 

Lesson 6: What Makes a Successful Book Cover

Lesson 7: How to Approach Cover Design for a Series

Lesson 8: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

Lesson 9: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 2

Lesson 10: Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Lesson 11: Methods to Creating your Own Book

Lesson 12: Abbott Miller: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 13: Michael Bierut: Personal Book Project-Case Study

Lesson 14: Jessica Helfand: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 15: Best Practices in Book Design

Jessica and Michael also share a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with seasoned designers working at the publishing giant Random House and award-winning design studio Pentagram. This class provides a full- bodied robust understanding of all the things that go into being a book designer, a classic tenet to anyone who makes things in the world. 


Leonie Holzman

I had an opportunity to be in the live studio audience for Thinking Like a Book Designer. The session was rich with content, taking us through the whole process of what goes into designing a book as well as interviewing top book designers in the field. I also appreciated the lively exchange between the presenters Jessica Heifand and Michael Bierut. As someone who over the years got burned out as a graphic designer, feeling more like a machine than a designer often times, it reminded me of why I was drawn to become a graphic deisgner in the first place.

Sonny Pham

I had an opportunity to attend this amazing workshop by Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. I was gained information about the history of book design, the do's and don'ts, and even insight on the industry itself. It was a surreal experience! My favorite part of the lesson has to be when Jessica and Michael interviewed other artists about their books, with an very in depth analysis on their design choices and process. After seeing Michael explain his design process for his book, I bought it after the class was done. Definitely worth the money for the lesson, and will be back for more!

Anna Pankin

Very engaging and informative class! My only 2 recommendations for the creators (if they read the comments) would be to add a pdf file of the presentation available to download (since it has all the references and visual examples) and, as someone below already mentioned, it would have been nice to actually see the magazine and book pages close-up just as they were being discussed in the videos. But overall I loved the course and the lecturers, who are a true inspiration.