There are lots of well-designed books out there, both from major publishers and small independents, but there are still very few publishing houses where good design is central to the business.
The best example is, of course, Richard Schlagman’s Phaidon Press. With Julia Hasting designing in New York and Sonya Dyakova in London, and with first David Hillman and then Alan Fletcher as consultants, Phaidon does not compromise with its books, catalogues or display material. Not everything works, but you have to admire it for trying harder than everybody else.
No Wallpaper magazine reader would want to be thought of as a tourist, so the City Guide series it’s launched with Phaidon rejects picture-postcard photography on the covers in favour of matt stock and elegant flat colour. About 40 new city guides are set to launch this year, with the first ten of the new releases out in March. Inside, the photographs are big and the texts short, but opinionated. There’s silk paper at the front for the images and uncoated stock at the back, including pages for notes. For £4.95 you get a lot of production value for your money, but the guides offer only an espresso taste of a city, biased toward shopping, eating and location name-dropping.
For a more personal city guide, there are the Moleskine City Notebooks. Here the classic black pocket book – with its elastic grip to hold it shut – has been adapted with street maps, die-cut tabs, tracing paper overlays and a pocket at the back to be a guidebook you write yourself. Apart from the maps, the pages are blank, waiting for you to record the city you’ve discovered.
Stoked: The Evolution of Action Sports, published by US-based Empire, is a full-on book with bled-off action shots, archive images and big type. Its dramatic design is also a checklist of print production effects, from the lenticular cover to stock changes and stickers.
The design team at Penguin has been on a roll since its Great Ideas series. In December it produced Penguin Designer Classics, limited-edition books with designs from leading creatives, such as Paul Smith and Ron Arad. With less publicity, Penguin launched its Epics series, with famous narratives such as The Odyssey and Beowulf. The rich, vigorous jackets are by Estuary English.
At Collins, art director Mark Thomson is re-establishing good typography at this super-tanker of a publishing house. Martin Majoor’s Nexus family is now the company’s principal type, and when redesigning Collins’ portfolio of dictionaries, he worked with Peter Bil’ak to extend his Fedra serif and sans family. Thomson is near completing his extensive rebrand of the Harper Collins publishing division, and has his eye set on refreshing design at the corporate level.
It’s about time good book design was recognised in the UK. The Dutch and the Swiss have their best books competitions: does anybody want to help organise the same thing here?
Simon Esterson is director at Esterson Associates