31 January 2014
Although I have no training as a graphic designer, I have always enjoyed designing my own ads, newsletters, posters and brochures. I see it as an art form with practical applications, and that appeals to the Scot in me, I guess. The obverse of that coin is that I also have an appreciation for other designers’ work, so I enjoy poring over books like this one. I’m one of the few readers, according to Alan Bartram, who actually does pay attention to the title page of books and the way pages look. Amateur that I am, I know what I like. But I don’t always know why I like it, or, more importantly perhaps, why I don’t like a page.
Reading a book like Five Hundred Years of Book Design doesn’t necessarily teach me the answers to those questions, but it certainly helps me to look at the pages Bartram presents – and pages I read in the future – with new eyes. As a result, I have come through the experience of this book a wiser and more alert amateur designer, and a more knowledgeable bookwoman, too. This is largely due to the great layout of this volume. Each two-page spread features either two pages from books that illustrate a point the author is making, or an often reduced (as in smaller, to scale copy) two-page spread of a particular book Bartram wants readers to examine. At the top of each page is his brief commentary.
My eye almost always went directly to the pages being considered. I found myself looking more and more critically at them. Did I like the spread? What didn’t I like about it? What did I find really appealing? Then I would read Bartram’s blurb. As he made a point, my eyes would drift down again to consider the example on the sample pages. I could see exactly what he meant by his criticism, and picked up on the effect it was having on my eye. So, that’s what was bugging me!
As I progressed through the book, my eye became better at finding what the author was not going to like. Sometimes I found myself disagreeing with him. Usually, I felt that the issue between Bartram and I was that he was judging the books with a modern eye. “I was always taught,” Bartram writes while considering the title page of a book published in 1818, “that the use of lines of italic caps was bad practice, yet Bodoni frequently gets away with it – and with distinction.” I’m not sure whether that’s a criticism of the practice, or whether it’s a moment of revelation for Bartram, but I suspect it is polite criticism, perhaps with acknowledgement that thinking has changed over time added in (or perhaps he’s just saying that if you know what you are doing, you can break the rules and get away with it).
Rules of grammar and usage change over time. I recognise that, so what Bartram dubs, “superfluous punctuation” in titles, etc., doesn’t offend me. Of course I would not punctuate that way if I was making the same statement now – I probably wouldn’t even use the same words or phrasing, either. But a designer of that time would need to find ways to accommodate the rules of the day. It may look a bit awkward from a modern standpoint, but is it fair to criticise a 16th-Century designer for not meeting 21st-Century design criteria? We live in a different world!
On the other hand, Bartram is trying to provide examples that illustrate to and educate eyes like mine. His aim is to continue to improve book design in a way that makes the printed volume both beautiful (pleasing to the eye) and functional (easily read by the eye). I know he has given me a lot to consider in that vein, with the added bonus of adding to my knowledge of book publishing history, something very valuable in my line of business!