May 31, 2008

MetaFilter Asks . . .

Posted in books, Design, Lazyweb, print-on-demand, typography at 6:10 pm by India

metal type

MeFi user Caduceus requests information about

Changing technologies in book design?
I’m looking for information about how new technologies have affected book design and typography.

I’m particularly interested in the affects of computers and design software, but information about how things like Print on Demand and ebooks have changed the status quo of book design would also be helpful. I’d be happy to be pointed to books, web essays, blogs, whatever information I can track down and dig through.

Kind reader Brian Winters directed Caduceus to this blog, but I don’t think there’s much here that addresses the question, since I started designing books relatively late in the digital age (around ten years ago, give or take). Most insight into such subjects around these parts comes from my more experienced visitors. So . . .

Should any of you more (or less! it’s MetaFilter!) informed persons wish to weigh in, there’s the thread. Of course, if you are, like me, too lazy to go register so that you can comment at MeFi, you’re welcome to deposit your thoughts here.

My off-the-cuff response is that book design and typography have gotten a lot worse thanks to new technology, because now anyone can teach him- or herself to do it, including schlubs like me. And that the advent of POD means that the entry fee has been lowered for the ability to mass-produce bad design. But I’m too young (at least until my birthday next week) to be a total curmudgeon, so I concede that there must certainly have been many positive effects on book design, as well—stuff that couldn’t be done before that’s now a piece of cake. Has chart design gotten better, for instance? Or only more complex?

Sorry, it’s the humidity; I’m not capable of thinking very hard today.

Photo: quickbrownfox by wilhei55; some rights reserved.


  1. India, here is a link to a post on John Berry’s blog about recent experiences he had with POD: “Adventures in POD

  2. India said,

    Thanks, John. Yes, I’ve heard the same—that the physical quality of POD books has improved in the last couple of years. I’ve also heard that a lot of traditional publishers (e.g., Copper Canyon, which John Berry mentions) are using POD to handle reprints.

    Has it affected the way people design books that are not only being printed POD, though? For example, are traditional publishers designing all their new books with larger gutter margins, to accommodate the possibly less-than-ideal binding quality they might get when they order POD reprints? Are books that use color in the interiors being designed differently to accommodate the possibility of POD reprints? Are designers using typefaces that are intended to hold up better under lousy printing conditions, such as Paperback?

  3. sc said,

    This is just anecdotal evidence but I recently purchased a friend’s POD book from Lulu and it was knock down lovely.

    The author/artist is very savvy designer, as a well as a skilled offset printer, and the book has some design elements that lend themselves to the current Lulu quality. (I think it’s the third book he’s posted on Lulu. I’ve seen one other one that one suffers somewhat from the Lulu quality.) I’ve shown it to several book savvy people and they all assumed the book was professional printed and a fairly expensive production overall. They asked questions like “Did he print this in Holland?” or “How many colors is this?” The price was a little steep but not out of line with his other books.

    In short, I’d say this is a successful POD book:

    Clifton Meador’s Kardanakhi Tataroba

  4. You make a good point, India. Both book design and typography have prob’ly gotten worse to the extent that about anyone with a computer can try his or her hand at it. I mean, there’s all kinds of software out there, including open source packages. On the other hand, who knows whether there aren’t people training or just getting experience out here who might not otherwise try to learn and do the work if things hadn’t gone digital. Not having an art background, I suspect that without computers I’d never be working in the field.

  5. […] Caduceus asks that question at MetaFilter, and IndiaInk has started a thread in reply. […]

  6. How far back do you want to go?

    Book designers have always adapted to changes in fashion and technology, starting with the first codex, which was a response to a new tax, if I recall the story correctly. But there is always a transitional period when young turks are quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater and old fogies keep staring at the bronzed baby shoes and take a long time to notice that the kid has grown. We’re in the latter part of that transition now, between thinking solely in terms of offset = quality; digital = crap and the realization that digital production is rapidly maturing to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference by a cursory glance in the bookstore. This is true even for relatively high-end color.

    The bigger transition–rather than the adaptation to new technology–is the change in business model. Publishers used to be people who love to hold books in their hands. Now they’re corporations interested only in the financial books. What this means for the designer is that product quality is low on the list of things publishers care about. This is what gives low-end, shoddy manufacturers their ability to dominate the print-on-demand market.

    What I’ve found to be a worthwhile middle ground to explore is the short-run digital book printer. Instead of true print-on-demand vendors like Lightning Source, where quality takes a back seat to market access and fulfillment model, the traditional book printers who have put in digital lines still have their reputation for quality to protect. I’ve gotten some really good work done this way at rock bottom prices for short-run printing.

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