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Thinking Like A Book Designer

Lesson 9 of 15

Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

Thinking Like A Book Designer

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

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Lesson Info

9. Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

Lesson Info

Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

When you're designing a book, you are sort of a product designer. You're actually designing not just a piece of communication, but you're designing an actual, physical object, and there are characteristics of that process that we're gonna talk about in some detail. So this is the place where gets maybe a little bit nerdy, I would say. Yeah, the under-the-hood nerdy part of the show. So, we thought we would just take you through thing by thing what some of the little component parts are of the book. This by no means is an exhaustive list, partly 'cuz it was really hard to find illustrations that would get you all excited after lunch about what this might be. But I wanted to start this by talking about what happens when you open the book, and the front matter of the book is a really important thing. I should say that when my children were very little my husband was a real book nerd and I once heard him reading to them and I heard him open the page, open the book, and he said, "'Alice i...

n Wonderland,' 'Alice in Wonderland' title page." 'Alice in Wonderland' half title" I said they're three and five, they don't need to know this. But they did, and now you will know this too. So these are what are called end papers, and this is my new book, and I use this as an example only because I think it's kind of comical. I had always my whole life designing books wanted to put a spine on a spine, so if you look there there's the spine, it opens there's a spine on a spine. So basically the spine of the book, you open the book and the the end papers sometimes can actually have some avocation with the cover. I wrote a book on the history of circular wheel charts, so we created a pattern of circles. There are many more examples like this. But I think it is the first thing you see. It is sort of, in a sense, the inverse of the wrapping paper. But the idea, and what we're going to look at now is how each of these elements in the front matter of a book actually correspond to create part of a sequence that feels almost like a choreographed dance. And can I ask you a question about end papers actually? Do you subscribe to the idea that the endpapers in the front of the book and the endpapers in the back of the book have to either match or have some sort of relationship to each other? I do. Does that make me nerdy? No, no, no, I just assumed it's like it was a new or universal truth that exists. Right, so endpapers is what happens inside the spine to the first page. And I'm gonna ask you a question you might not know the answer to, I'm not sure I can fake an answer. I'm sure I won't. What are they for? Like what are they physically for? What they are physically for is to slow you down. Right, so you know... No, it's what they are emotionally for, don't they have some mechanical purpose? I think not, no. (man laughs) Yes they do, but what is it though? Well to me it's always about, and this is the thing, I mean, the pacing of those first few pages is, I think, extremely important because it's your way into, if you imagine sometimes when I'm talking to students about web design, I'll say "You'll want to make the navigation secondary because it is like if you make it too primary it is like going to see a theatrical production and seeing the ushers onstage instead of the actors onstage. So this is basically the supporting cast. I'll buy, I'll buy... And I feel like as you're moving your way to the book, you're gliding somebody, you're sort of gently leading them. So we have some examples here of books, pages from books, pieces of books, that friends of ours have done. Because there's many different ways you can actually lead somebody in. Lorraine Wild a wonderful book designer in Los Angeles, has done many many books over the years, and I thought this was a lovely thing where the actual half title has this shard of an image that you are imagining, rightly so, then when you turn the page, there will be some payoff to the next image. Now, Chip Kidd, and the next two things we're gonna show you the relationship between what is a half title and the title page can be a little fungible, can be a little loosey goosey. But I think what is important is that they have some relationship to each other. Sometimes the title page will be big and bold and the half title creates a little bit of it. Sometimes at the half title or the title they can sometimes come before or after each other. But again, I think what's important is it is part of this entire sequence. Andrew Howard was a wonderful book designer who was in Porto, Portugal, he's British, he's lived there for 25 years. Wonderful publication designer also did this wonderful opening title page that feels almost filmic, where you have these sort of little sort of moments and you wonder what is gonna happen on the next page. The other thing he does here, that I think is really lovely is take the image, the photograph itself, and lay it under the type, and so one piece of the type is on the left, one on the right. So the whole thing that goes between the two pages creates this kind of comprehensive, cohesive sense of some narrative. And this whole sequence that Jessica's describing is really to be looked at as very rigid, in fact, you have the book, you open it, you have the endpapers, you turn facing the front endpaper is the half title page, a single page that usually just has just the name of the book. You turn that, then you'll see the full title which will have the name of the book, the author, the publisher, often. And it can be the full spread, or it can just be that page. Again, it can be treated in different ways. And then you go from there and you get the table of contents, you get front matter you get all this other stuff, but it's sort of prescribed as the classic sequence in the way to begin a book, but it doesn't always have to go that way. And, in fact, for years Jessica and I, as part of our duties at Design Observer, have led the judging that AIGA holds called 50 Books, 50 Covers, which has been going on since 1923, to pick the 50 best design books of the year. It's very interesting when we go through them, we always have some books that we admire very much that are just kind of classic, beautiful books. They don't really do anything, which is innovative but they just fulfill their, very appropriately often, fulfill a mission to just look like a classic, perfect book. And those are the ones will always have impeccable respect for, you know, half title, full title, front matter, table of contents, everything just perfectly done. Michael's really right about this, and I have to say, if you knew nothing about book design, and you went online to any one of a number of wonderful publishers Blurb being one, Lulu being one. It's not clear that you know that that's what you're supposed to do, and invariably I am seeing books that get sent to me where someone sends a book, you open the book, and the book starts! Chapter one! Like this is not what you want to do, and there's a reason there's probably again another six hours we could do on why front matter and backmatter are important. But it is really a wonderful kind of nuanced, cultivated way to take the title, the copyright, the cover, all of these things matter. You can play around a little bit, I think, a lot a bit actually what they are. On the other hand, I designed a monograph for the iconoclastic designer, Tibor Kalman, who had founded a firm called M & Company, and it was very big in the '90s, and he was notoriously rebellious against everything. And I remember I ... Including what we're talking about right now. Oh, precisely that. It was a pretty thick book, maybe 300+ pages, really, I was like the editor and the designer of it, so I helped select all the images, and with Peter Hall, kind of helped put together the editorial content. And I had it all locked up, I did sort of, remember that picture of Brodevich kind of walking along, he had all of the spreads laid out, so I had a huge wall on my office where I had the entire book all laid out, and from page one to page 360, or whatever it was, and every single spread was there with a drawing in miniature indicating what would fall on all of them. And so I bring this notoriously rebellious provocateur of a designer in, and I said, "Okay Tibor, I've got it all worked out, I'm just gonna take you through it page by page, okay." And he says "sure," then I say "okay, so, you know, this is the front cover," that was okay, this is like the endpapers, and he sort of nods, and I said, "this is the half title page, this is the title page", and he said "Why?" And I said, "It's because that's how books are, they have a half title page and a full title page." Then he said, "Why does this book have to have one?" And I remember, I was like, I was in a room in my office that has a big library shelf and I said, "All those books, I don't know why but all those books have it," and like then I sort of realized that I had backed myself into a terrible, terrible hole. So in fact, this book, which is called "Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist" begins exactly as you said, it starts with endpapers and then the front matter, the copyright information, is printed on the verso of the endpaper so it faces what would be the half title page except instead of a half title page is just a full bleed photograph, and then knocked out of the photograph are the words "I'm not sure" and then there's a full signature, the 16 pages that kind of follow are just full bleed photographs with type on them. And, as I recall, there is no table of contents. There is no, I'm trying to think if there's any like title page, I think the title is on the spine. There's no title on the cover of the book, the only title, I don't know, maybe it's all on the back cover or something. I forget where it was, but he sort of was so determined the way all those books do it, not mine, sorry. And you can choose to break the rules in an inventive way. Yeah, but it was very deliberately done, and I think there's a difference between purposeful barbarism, I would guess, and just being stupid. Well, maybe if you have a book called "Perverse Optimist" you can do that, maybe. Yeah, exactly. You need perverse on the cover, I guess. Right, maybe if the book is called "Holy Bible" that would be harder to do. But, here's an example of a typical copyright page. A more interesting one that I was able to find, this is the first edition of "The Wizard of Oz." So by copyright pages, here basically a table of contents. Right, so they've basically immersed it within the illustration, so it feels like this didactic opposite. But here's another copyright page that Louise Fili, wonderful Italian American designer but whose references are very Italian put together a copyright page where she decided to make this kind of concrete poetry. And this says copyright by, design by, and all the credits and all the technical Library of Congress information is all organized like that. This is the kind of thing where you want to say "Do not attempt this at home, she is a seasoned professional." Yeah, she knows how to do this. So you can be quite inventive. Lorraine Wild did this beautiful book where the contents page is on top of a photograph. Now very often when you are working on a book with a photographer, you have to be very careful. They do not want you to crop. They do not want you to bleed. You want to be very respectful and judicious with working with photographs. One assumes because Lorraine's been designing books like this for many years she was able to do this. But I think this is such a beautiful example, where you can imagine that the book's spine is here, so she's not interrupting the flow of the photograph but that the light when you open it takes you right into the next page and the typography fills the page nicely. Just a quick question, when you are working on a design like this, and you are working with a photographer, do they become part of that, like are you showing them comps and getting buy off on how you place the type. It's my understanding from the photography books I've done and from the people that I know that work with photographers, that the most important thing is that the sequence of images is done together. And that the ground rules at the outset have to do with, I mean this particular photographer perhaps saw this and said I'll allow it because it's such an elegant kind of compilation of these two things. But I think it's extremely important that designers just don't see an illustration as fodder for their design. It's extremely important collaboration that has to have very clear ground rules, would you agree with that? Yeah, Jim, I think it's actually interesting if any of our audience members decide they want to pursue this, or if they already pursue it they know this, is that book design is one of those things where you are serving many different clients. Some of whom are your official client, other whom may be your unofficial clients. Sometimes there are certain publishers who actually find it important to kind of keep you separate from the author, or the subject of the book because it just gets too complicated, if you're getting mixed messages. And maybe the publishers are control freaks and they have a vision of the book they want to impose and they don't want to work any argument from the author, or say a photographer whose name might be on the cover. Other times, it could be working with a photographer where you and that person really together kind of come up with those, as Jessica was saying, what the sequence is and everything else, and they take a very active role. So usually when I begin one of these projects I try to get very clear about who's playing what role because, just like any other design assignment the worst thing that can happen is that you're being directed by someone who claims to have sufficient authority to give you a proper brief and approve your work, and to comment on your work. And then you learn there is this other person, who you've never met, didn't speak to at the outset, and has had no input in the process, who when it's all said and done is meant to have a quick review of it, and then rubber stamp it. And that person all the sudden has all these opinions, and that's their opinionated state exacerbated by the fact they are peeved that they weren't asked their opinion earlier on in the process. If this hasn't happened to all of you, trust me it will, so brace yourself. So a lot of times just making sure that you really are respecting the people in the process as collaborators and you're clear about who they are and you're actually, I remember one time, I was working as a designer on a book project and was found I was getting contradicted by the author all the time, and I took it really personally. And I was like, why is this author getting in my way? I just want to design a beautiful book. And I was so dumb, I couldn't picture, someone like Peter Mendelson, really can picture clearly the months, and sometimes years that an author spent working on a book. And then you play this little role at the end where you're the one who sort of like puts the book in a nice suit, in a nice outfit, and then you stand them in front of the mirror and you comb their hair, and you say, "Okay, we're going out into the world, you ready? And then the book says "Yes," and the book goes out and it's all ready to go. Up til then it's just been a file on a laptop, or it's been a pile of manuscripts in a box. And so, when you realize what a delicate, emotional moment that is for someone like that, to just sort of carelessly say, "Stand back, I need to do my design work, Author," is just like insensitive. It's really wrong, it's almost like ethically wrong to do. Right, right, right, absolutely, absolutely. So I'm just gonna throw out a little comment out there from the Internet. I just found this really interesting. Front matter, in those front pages, also function for libraries and collections to add information on cataloging and tracking without hurting the actual content. I thought that was really cool. Yeah, yeah. Very true. So it is basically an indexical system for libraries. And that too, we can talk about this too a little bit, tables of contents pages often can be a lot of fun for people to design. This is one from my new book. I decided to do this as a sort of visual glossary of all the chapters, each of which has a painting and Barbara Glauber in talking about her work earlier talked about how she handled the table of contents and one of the things I love about this project that she did was that funny little toy wraps the spine, and that she creates these little shards of pieces of toys that then become emblematic and kind of useful pieces of construction in the way she sets up the page. So sometimes you can take your cue from the actual material, perhaps a little easier to do in a book like this that has various component parts than in a book about photography. But even something as simple as lists of figures can actually just be typeset against the image on the other side of the page or typeset so that the rhythm of them that they just don't read as a boring list of things. The list of illustrations it's sort of like, yeah. And this is a beautiful book done by Lucinda Hitchcock, who teaches as RISD, and is a wonderful book designer, where this book is, the book is square. Square books can be very tough because there is no orientation that dynamically is one more than the other whenever you're dealing with a square. It's the reason that gameboards are square it's so we all have the same amount of available real estate. The square is the democracy of graphic designs. Their very very difficult thing, though, to design a book sometimes because you don't know what to privilege ... What end is up. and so you have to really, what end is up, exactly. And I thought she did this beautiful thing where the figures actually had their own kind of rhythm balancing from the bottom to the top. Another beautiful thing that Barbara Glauber does, and she is an amazing colorist this way, that when you have a spread of pages where there is a lot of illustrations, rather than always put all the numbers in the lower left hand corner of the uprights. She creates these kind of visual taxonomies where color matches color, so there will be a yellow dot under something and the yellow arrow up here, so you can immediately navigate and what happens in a book like this that is about toys is that the actual visual navigation of the two page spread is as playful as it might be to play with the toys. So she is able to kind of evoke this parallel behavior around the ingestion and composition of the book, which I think is a really lovely treat. Architects will say like form follows function, and I think that's a rule that graphic designers use, but I think book design is form follows content too. It's like the content of the book is dictating, in this case, for Barbara's decisions, she's not just in the mood to do that with those colors, or to that with those layouts and shapes. They are all really, as you kind of will recall from our interview, when she makes those sort of visual choices, she almost always has some sort of reference point that led her to make those choices. And so ... And very playful and very graceful and not getting in the way of the work, which I think important, and the final image we have here for the ... And again there're many things, there's the acknowledgements there's introductions, there's epigraphs, dedications. Many different things can appear in the front matter, but I think these at least show you some examples of ways in which you can be more inventive and not have to feel like you have to have boilerplate content all the time. Fran Tomaselli is an artist, she talked about it in the interview, and so she created these ways to have the type intersect with the image where it didn't get in the way but where the type almost became another line element in working in concert with the image. So something as simple as a prologue, which is an introduction, becomes again a more sort of electric, interesting, compelling way to get into the book.

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.