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Thinking Like A Book Designer

Lesson 1 of 15


Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

Thinking Like A Book Designer

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

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Lesson Info

1. Introduction

Lesson Info


Thank you all for coming. This is about book design, but it's actually how to think like a book designer. Now, some of you may be book designers, some of you may want to be book designers, some of you may never be book designers. But what we're hoping to do is introduce you to the ideas behind book designing, not because the world needs more book designers. Although it probably does. Although it probably does. But because so much about what goes into designing a book can be applied to so many other things. You're working with words, you're working with pictures, you're making decisions about scale and sequence and timing. And more then anything else, you're really doing, in an analog sort of way, visual storytelling, right? I think that applies to almost every design challenge you have. If you're designing a website, if you're designing motion graphics, if you're designing the simplest thing in the world and not something very complicated, an exhibition, architectural graphics, all...

of that has to do with seeing things in sequence and almost the single most compact and intense expression of that can be the design of a book. Something you can hold in your hands. So we're gonna go through a whole bunch of stuff about that. As Jim says, we're gonna visit with some of our friends and we'll take you through a little bit of the history of book design and hopefully, coming out of the day, you'll know more about how to design a book but also get some more insights into just what the basic principles and possibilities of design are. And I should say also, the caveat that more than the instruction of how to, which there are probably wonderful creative live courses that will teach you the mechanics, we'll talk about the mechanics in a philosophical sense, about the kinds of inventoried items that occur in a book. But I think what interests us and the reason we wanted to call it thinking like a book designer is because it's really about all of you and how you use your mind and your experience and the scope of reference points that you bring to bear on the work. I'm trained as an editorial designer, Michael has designed many, many publications and books and so it's very near and dear to our heart, at the core of what we believe design practice can and should be. So I agree with Michael, it's a potentially expansive opportunity to discuss design. Let's get started. This is how we decided to break down the day. What does it mean to be a book designer? Particularly now, in a moment when paper might be thought of by some, certainly those of you who are younger and might think, we're older so we don't think this way, but might think of the fact that design is, in fact, not any longer tied to paper. But as you will see, I think today, the nature by which paper exists is a vehicle for storytelling. It's like a movie, it has a sequence, it has a narrative and these are the things that I think are exciting, at the core of what it is to tell a story through a book. And then of course, we're gonna talk at the formal issues, so here's how we decided to break it down. We're gonna talk a little bit about history. We're gonna talk about the architecture of the book and this in particular has to do with grids. We're gonna do a deep dive into grids. How books are structured. How they're structured, the grid really as the armature or the skeleton underneath the content and how what you orchestrate has a kind of foundation, just as if you were building a house, you would start with some kind of foundation. This is really important and lest it be known as a strait jacket, I think we'll show you some examples where that's, in fact, not the case. It's really an opportunity to depart and do something very exciting. We're going to talk about the performance of the book designer, what's a cover if not the sort of opening poster for what's going to happen? Look at me, look at me. Right, buy me, buy me. Buy me, pick me. The mechanics of book design, very important and the actual blow by blow of the things that many of you may already know about typography, about alignments, about the proper use of typography, about the proper use of the kinds of ingredients that beset a kind of nomenclature that we'll go through with a blow-by-blow description. The book designer's editor, perhaps you'd like to talk to what that means. Well, I think if you're a graphic designer particularly, there'll be a moment in your life that may have happened already and maybe so ahead of you were all this in your real lives that it's not enough just to take what you're given and to passively arrange it on pages or on a screen and say, I'm done, ta-dah. They are words and they obviously mean something. I always say I'm done, ta-dah, the ta-dah part's really important (speakers laughing) Ta-dah, ta-dah, that's what we do all day. Very important, the jazz hands. Yeah, sorry, the jazz hands. But a lot of times, people give you things and they haven't thought it through themselves. They give you pictures that don't properly go with the text. And in your tasks sometimes is to actually function as an editor. To get active in that process can be some of the most satisfying things. I guarantee if there are books that you've seen that you love, they have to be the result of that process. And it's because the designer pushed back and didn't just say the editor knows. You know, because at a certain point, someone once likened the relationship between a director and an actor to the fact that if I'm directing Macbeth and you're Lady Macbeth, at some point in the rehearsal process, you're going to know more about Lady Macbeth then I do and I have to cede that control to you. I often feel that's a good metaphor for book designers. You get really into the weeds on these things and you know more than your editor sometimes and so you should not be afraid to push back. Authorship for book designers is something that I think many of you will be very interested in, because more and more designers are creating their own content. You may choose to do a book of your own work, of your writing, of your portfolio, of a friend's work. Of someone you care about, some passion. That's something you want to investigate. If those of you who are students and are doing a thesis project, many schools have degree projects that involve the writing and the making of a book, very important to understand the role of the author and design. And finally, this is something that's very near and dear to my heart, which is the ethical boundaries by which we practice and how we remember to do certain things like pay for typefaces and not stretch type and thank people. But that's gonna go pretty quick at the end. I think by then you're gonna know it but it would be remissive of us not to include it.

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.