This month’s installment in our marvelous From the Designer’s Desk series comes from the inspired Peter Blaiwas, the designer at the helm of Peter Blaiwas Graphic Design. Here he discusses the book’s enduring importance in the changing landscape of reading formats, and the role of book design at this moment.
Should a book’s design play an assertive role in how a reader experiences the book? Or is the best book design an entirely behind-the-scenes art – where the reader isn’t even always aware of the influence of the design?
These questions have become frequent topics of discussion among design colleagues and in on-line professional groups. The designer’s role in readers’ experiences of a book is also an increasingly popular topic at museum and publishing seminars and at client design meetings. Clearly editorial, production, and marketing departments have become more closely aligned on the subject.
As increasing numbers of readers turn their allegiance to digital media, the shrinking market for
illustrated books—museum publications in particular—has led many publishers to serious
reconsideration of this shift’s impact on illustrated book design. Increasingly, clients and colleagues
bring up discussions of how printed books need to capitalize on their “objectness” in order to attract the buyers who still appreciate the beauty and substance of books. Designers have introduced unusual paper and binding materials, unexpected trim sizes and shapes, even three dimensional
elements to reenergize book design. Some innovations have been spectacularly successful, but often the design can slip into the realm of novelty, or worse, obscure the purpose of a book as
something to read.
A book’s design needs to be employed skillfully so that the reader isn’t unnecessarily aware of its
influence. In other words, design can be assertive, but it should not be obtrusive.
I don’t mean to portray myself as a charter member of the League of Stodgy Book Designers, but
I think there is room to reconsider content as a means of recapturing the reader’s interest aside
from considerations of design, style, and materials.
Specifically, illustrated books often underutilize an essential resource: photography.
I am especially fond of designing catalogs for decorative arts exhibitions or collections because
they present a set of problems seldom encountered when designing a painting or photography
Decorative arts objects tend to come in unusual shapes and sizes and comparative objects need to
be shown large enough for clarity while never overshadowing the primary object. Construction
diagrams, locator maps, and historical photographs and documents are often included to provide
context. I really enjoy the challenge of placing so many disparate components in close proximity
to their in-text references without creating congested layouts.
From Paint, Pattern, and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850 by Wendy A. Cooper and Lisa Minardi (distributed by the University of Pennsylvania Press for the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, 2011)
Curiously, with context being so important, the display of these objects in situ is often left
unexplored. Dimension measurements listed in tombstone captions and within the text rarely
provide an adequate idea of the actual scale of an object.
When first seeing a decorative arts exhibition for which I’ve designed the catalog, I’ve come to
expect a sense of disconnect between the scale of actual objects and the reproductions with
which I became so familiar while laying out the book.
Similarly, when I silhouette objects on a page, I sometimes feel as if I am placing them in the
same sort of isolated manner in which they so often are exhibited.
Because the decorative arts curator’s job frequently includes working as archaeologist/
prospector, private investigator, and relationship counselor, the stories behind how objects came
to be included in the exhibition are often interesting, exciting, even funny. Why not include more
engaging “field” photography to highlight these stories?
In recent years, I’ve appreciated the efforts some museums are making to exhibit fine and
decorative art objects within period environments. Such conjunctions invite viewers to ask and
answer so many questions regarding context. It has changed my experience of visiting museums
from one of being in a somewhat austere and forbidding place to actively participating in a
Rather than reinventing the “book” as an unexpected object to capture the attention of the visitor/
buyer, why not create a catalog that engages their experience of the exhibition and entices them
to purchase a printed and bound memento of their visit?
Last year I designed a catalog for a small exhibit of David Smith’s Circle series from the early
1960s. Much of this abstract sculpture was created to be viewed as a group and as individual
pieces, thereby conveying how each piece activates both the space it occupies and the interstices
within the grouping. The exhibit seemed to reanimate its clean, modern exhibition space. It was
also an ideal subject for some startling photography.
From Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith, edited by David Breslin, with essays by Michael Brenson, David Breslin, and Charles Ray (distributed by Yale University Press for the Clark Art Institute, 2014)
As it happened, the plate section for this catalog could not be photographed until the entire
exhibit was installed, and that was completed just over a week before the exhibit opened. My
clients and I accommodated this by placing the plate section at the end of the catalog and
working with placeholder sketches to design the front matter and cover. An illustrated checklist
immediately followed the plate section, making captions unnecessary. I also suggested that the
sculptures be photographed so as to recreate the experience of walking through the exhibit.
Given that this was a completely image-driven section, the results were both dynamic and
I am not advocating the practice of waiting until the eleventh hour for an entire plate section to
be photographed in its exhibit space. On the other hand, with careful planning features such as
pictorial front matter, end matter, or chapter openers can include spectacular new photographs of
the exhibition and the bound-book date can still be met.
Find more From the Designer’s Desk posts here.