It can safely be assumed that the style-conscious individuals who read this magazine regard good design as integral to an object, rather than as a stylish veneer to be applied as an afterthought. As far as books are concerned, it can all too often be the case that the urge to create a flashy object overrides its actual content. In New Book Design, a survey of recent examples of the discipline, there is no end of heat-sensitive ink, holes drilled through the pages, polystyrene cases and aluminium dustjackets. No longer can the reader rely on such certainties as the book having a cover, or the text actually being legible – a volume of Lou Reed lyrics, for example, reproduces the sleevenotes to his unlistenable album Metal Machine Music with fat black censor-lines entirely obscuring them.

But not all of Roger Fawcett-Tang’s choices feel the need to resort to such ham-fisted gimmickry. Some of the designs speak in well-modulated and reasonable tones, rather than screaming “Look at me!” at the tops of their voices. They are successful in the most part because they pull off the trick of marrying form to function, of reflecting the individual qualities of the book through a well-thought-out design. One of the leading exponents of this design sensitivity is Derek Birdsall, who sets out his manifesto in Notes on Book Design. It covers everything from how a typeface affects the text to positioning pictures on the page, but it is not so much a how-to-do-it book as an autobiographical retrospective of 40 years in the business. A wry anecdote also reveals that his work can be too subtle for some: having designed Penguin’s Somerset Maugham novels so that the covers would tessellate to form a single picture, he incurred the wrath of a snooty shop assistant who objected to him rearranging the display on his stand.

One example that features in both books is Birdsall’s Common Worship, usurper of the Book of Common Prayer’s gilded throne. And while the text is an act of vandalism on one of the cornerstones of English literature, the design of the book itself is thoughtful and restrained – no service is allowed to extend across a page, for example, thereby preventing an unholy rustling from echoing around the pews mid-liturgy. It also slyly trumpets its modernity with a subtly Constructivist red-and-black colour scheme and a sans-serif font. Birdsall set the book in Gill, he says, because “it is appropriate to use an English type design” for the C of E. And here, the designer’s plan to link the book’s form to its subject goes slightly awry. For while Eric Gill was undeniably English, he was also (ironically) a convert to Catholicism.

First published in World of Interiors issue 265. Reproduced with permission.

New Book Design

ed. Roger Fawcett-Tang  (Laurence King)

Notes on Book Design

by Derek Birdsall  (Yale)

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