E-books will make designers more, not less, important

The role of the book designer could grow to be ever more crucial if digital versions of books are to become commonplace.

Speaking last week ahead of an industry gathering in London, Penguin Press art director Jim Stoddart suggested that the design world needs to be ready for the tipping point when electronic literature starts to become the norm. Though e-books are still not a widely spread phenomenon, their growth, he says, will demand more of the print book designer in creating ‘beautiful, tactile’ objects that people want to own.

‘The whole publishing industry is changing at the moment, although it is not immediately obvious. If you look at technologies of the past you can see how they have changed book covers and there are many really wealthy companies investing in e-books at the moment. It will take a broad-looking company, like Apple perhaps, to invent something that will lead to a culture change,’ says Stoddart.

Although still a ‘good few years off’, he believes that designers are already responding to the digital age. Penguin’s Great Ideas series and the forthcoming Great Journeys collection – both designed in-house by David Pearson – are examples of how jacket design can lend books greater allure.

‘The changes reinforce the designer’s role in publishing; every book they design needs to be very special,’ adds Stoddart. ‘A similar situation occurred in the music industry when CDs were introduced and people wanted to hang on to vinyl. For a while there was a dual design process going on and now sales of vinyl are on the rise again.’

Stoddart discussed these issues at a one-day conference on contemporary book design last week. The conference featured a host of design luminaries from the sector, with speakers including Royal Designer Derek Birdsall, Phil Baines, Professor of Typography at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, and freelance designer Andrew Barker.

Barker returned to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of book design, outlining nine basics that are not necessarily taught academically. ‘There are a lot of things no one tells you that are quite important. For example, you are taught to make independent decisions, but often you’re working as a team and the overall vision may be someone else’s. Lots of book design is editorially led, not design-led,’ he says.

Barker also points to how the mechanics of a book – its page numbers, headings and sub-headings – are intuitively understood by readers and therefore seldom considered. ‘There is a load of stuff that goes into books that we never question. But as a designer using these devices, you have to question them and make them work for you,’ he adds.

Birdsall returned to some of the technical aspects of how paintings and objects should be reproduced in scale to each other, while Baines also talked about the results of working with artists, specifically his three-way collaborations with Robin Klassnik, director of Matt’s Gallery in London, and the artists it represents.


• One-day conference organised by Rob Banham, a lecturer on the University of Reading’s Typography & Graphic Communication course
• Speakers were Derek Birdsall, Andrew Barker, Françoise Berserik, Phil Baines, Robert Dalrymple, Ron Costley and Jim Stoddart
• Held at St Bride Library, a printing and graphic arts library in central London, on 19 January
• For more information about the event, see www.stbride.org

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