20 February 2019

The Elements of a Well-Designed Book

Hugh Williamson, Methods of Book Design (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 378-379:
A book is to be sold. The designer’s task is not so much to settle the price as to make the best use of the permissible manufacturing expense, planning the book for economical production, and exploiting to the full the techniques and materials available at the stipulated price. The book must attract the buyer, and be worth possessing as a physical object, not merely worth borrowing; its price must be within the buyer’s reach, and its appearance and construction should make the price a bargain. The requirements not only of ordinary readers but of booksellers and librarians must be allowed to influence its form.

A book is to be laid open, held, and carried. All but a few books are held while being read, and most books are carried about to some extent before and after reading. No book can be considered legible unless it lies flat when open; it should not have to be held open. The printed part of the pages at which the book is opened should be nearly level, not curving inwards towards the spine. Bulk should be proportionate to format, as far as possible; the very squat, stout book is as inconvenient to hold as the very large thin book. Every book should be designed to withstand whatever handling it may receive without unduly rapid deterioration.

A book is to be seen — of course it is to be read, but it is also to be looked at. It must be capable of being read with ease, speed, and accuracy by the reader and in the conditions for which it is intended. This can be achieved only by the precise adjustment to each other of all the variables of the text page, and is a matter of paper and presswork as well as of typographic arrangement. Illustrations no less than composition need to be planned by the typographer. The well-designed book presents an appearance of pattern and purpose; all its parts are planned to suit each other. The typographer must concern himself with the mental as with the optical process of reading, and must arrange the text and illustrations with their headings, notes, reference systems, and other accessories in a clear and convenient manner.

A book is to be kept. After being read it is set aside, usually on a shelf, to be read again one day. The book should if possible be of a size to stand between ordinary bookshelves; particularly large books are apt to be a nuisance. Once it is on the shelf the book should be able to stay there indefinitely without undue deterioration, retaining its qualities until its next use.

 François Bonvin, Still Life with Book, Papers, and Inkwell  (1876)