A couple of weeks ago I was talking on the phone with Maggie Dana (who comments here regularly as Mags), and she mentioned to me that as well as being a writer, she works as a book designer and typesetter. We talked about how good typesetting not only makes books so much more readable, but more desirable too, and more likely to be bought; and then our converstation moved on. When Scott Pack's name came up, I mentioned to Maggie that he'd sent me a copy of The Sonnets, which is published by Scott's imprint The Friday Project, and which was sitting on the desk right beside me at the time. I told her how I particularly liked its internal design, and felt that the typesetter had done a better-than-average job on it: the clever font-choice and careful spacing of the text on the page beautifully enhanced the measured flow of the prose. Maggie laughed, and told me to turn to the copyright page and there it was: "Typeset by Maggie Dana". After that I had to ask her to write me a piece about typesetting and here it is, for you to share.
Pinned to my notice board amid a jumble of typeface lists, dog-eared business cards, and photos of my grandchildren, is a sticky note that keeps me honest when I’m tempted to get too experimental or too fancy with a book design project. It says:
A typographer’s first obligation is to the reader.
This holds true for all printed media from newspapers to billboards, but nowhere is it as crucial as in a book. How many times have you picked one up, only to find yourself putting it back on the shelf and wondering why? Perhaps it was by your favourite author or had glowing reviews; maybe it was a bestseller with a gorgeous cover and a tantalising blurb on the back. But when you opened the book and began to read, you changed your mind.
More than likely it was the text design. Something about it got in the way of readability. It could’ve been an inappropriate font, not enough leading (space between the lines), or a visual distraction such as a page number halfway down each outside margin. There are numerous ways for the appearance of a book’s page to turn off a potential reader.
A book’s design (I’m talking interior page design here, not covers) has one major purpose and that is to make the words on the page end up in the reader’s mind as effortlessly and as seamlessly as possible. Doesn’t matter if the book is a novel, a textbook, a dictionary, or even a car repair manual, the principle is the same. If the reader is motivated to absorb the information but finds himself unable to do so, the design is not doing its job.
I recently read about a study conducted at the University of Michigan involving the complex interplay of effort, motivation, and cognitive crunching. A group of college students were given written instructions for a regular exercise routine. Half the students received their instructions printed in a plain, readable font; the other half’s instructions were in a decorative font that looked as if it had been written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush. It was unfamiliar and hard to read.
The findings were remarkable. The students whose instructions were printed in the simple, unadorned font, were much more open to the prospect of exercising. Apparently, their brains equated ease of readability with ease of doing push-ups and crunches. On the other hand, those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym. The reading had tired them out.
The instructions were identical; the only difference was the font, which boils down to this: a good designer will always use a font that’s appropriate for the task at hand. In the case of books, this means a serif font such as Garamond, Goudy, Sabon, or Times. A font with no serifs like Futura or Helvetica, while great for headlines and motorway signs, isn’t suitable for a book’s running text. It takes longer to read and it tires the eye. So will lines of type that are too close together or too far apart. Either way, you’ll find yourself reading the same line twice, or skipping one altogether.
It was my son Paul who really brought home to me the importance of good book design back when I first started in the business quite a few years ago. We were on the train, heading for New York where I had some appointments with publishers and he had a job interview. Paul, a freelance programmer who already had several programming languages under his belt, was adding yet another, and doing it in a major hurry. He showed me his textbook and said it was the best he’d ever read when it came to absorbing complex information. The design was crisp and clean, with an excellent choice of fonts and colours, plenty of white space, effective illustrations, and not too many bells and whistles such as icons, starbursts, and time bombs that seem to inhabit most computer manuals these days. Clearly, that book’s designer had done his or her job, and done it well, because my son, who had precisely three days to learn the new language not only landed that particular freelance gig, but several others as well.
So the next time you pick up a book, take a moment to examine the interior design and see if it appeals to you, if it makes reading the book a pleasure because, mostly, that’s what reading’s all about. Unless, of course, you’re trying to learn a new programming language in under three days!
Maggie Dana was born and raised in England, but has lived in Connecticut for many years. A book designer and typesetter, Maggie is also the author of six books for children. Her first novel for grownups, Beachcombing, will be published on 5 June, 2009, by Macmillan New Writing.