Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 107
August 1996


Liane Sebastian. Electronic Design and Publishing: Business Practices. 2nd Edition: Revised and Expanded, 1995. Allworth Press, 10 East 23rd Street, New York NY 10010. 216p. Wrappers. isbn 1-880559-22-6. $19.95.

We can see clearly how quickly technology moves in post-industrial culture by looking at the spread of electronic design and publishing. Twelve years ago the Macintosh personal computer was introduced. A new phrase, "desktop publishing," was developed shortly thereafter. It was a commonplace in the graphic design world to discount this development and believe that such practices were for the hobbyist and not for the serious design professional; as just a few years passed, such "desktop" work was perhaps considered to be for so-called low end design and publishing work, but not for high end work. As recently as two years ago, a major independent Twin Cities designer told me that he was really a traditional designer, even though it was clear from the setup of his offices that a major portion of his work occurred on the computer.

In 1989, I first bought a computer, the same one I have today (although it has been substantially upgraded over the years), specifically to design books. After a decade of setting metal type, printing on handmade and other fine papers to produce literary books with innovative form and content, I knew that I wanted to augment this work by publishing literary books in editions of 500 to 2000 copies. I had no interest in doing this with metal type on my Vandercook Press.

My letterpress work had given me ample experience in design, and I have what I hope is most often a good design mind and eye (always a designer's most important tools), but I have had absolutely no traditional training in graphic design. The computer road seemed the simplest and most promising byway. At that time, it was still somewhat unusual for printers to receive books designed and laid out page by page with a computer program, delivered as laser or higher-resolution output, rather than more conventionally laid out on boards with type specified in designer notes.

Today, in 1996, a book can be published which describes "traditional publishing" entirely in the past tense, as what used to be done. Well, ... perhaps, or perhaps such a state is soon to be. What is certain is that this book, Electronic Design and Publishing: Business Practices, in its 1992 first edition was important for only a portion of the design and publishing industry. The second, revised, and expanded edition, published last year, is essential for just about everyone working in the field.

Not only essential, but a good read. A reader looking for quick answers or models to prepare contracts, negotiate fees, set up a business in graphic design or electronic prepress, or other specific reference questions, may not find this the book they want. This is a book, however, for those who want a comprehensive approach to electronic publishing (a preferred term over the too easily discounted "desktop publishing") whereby one might gain an understanding of the many people involved in the publishing process as well as the multitude of issues important to this kind of work. It begins by defining client, creative, print and other groups involved in electronic publishing; it then charts the roles of individuals in each of these groups as publications are planned, designs created and images chosen, projects developed, publications seen into production, and projects completed. Electronic Design and Publishing also includes a section on ownership of materials, including copyrights and ownership of software applications and documents.

A thorough and logical organization succeeds in illuminating large issues concerning electronic publishing, including ethical and legal responsibilities, and perhaps above all, the importance of communication in essentially very difficult work involving many parties with differing ideas and goals. The logical organization, clarified by paragraphs filled with bul leted points, is illuminated by nearly 70 pages of "viewpoints" quotations from writers, designers, publishers, printers, creative directors, and other people working in the field. The ideas of these people keep this book from being static, make it exciting to read, and take it beyond the ranks of the profession to interest readers studying media and culture. Frankfurt Gips Balkind of the Simpson Paper Company, for example, writes: "Shaping perceptions is the heart and soul of design. Color, image, type, paper texture, shape, and size work together to convey one or more messages, which can reinforce, supplement or even replace text. Designers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in using perceptual tools by choice and by necessity. They recognize the growing importance of perception in communicating with today's global audiences, with their shared and divergent values and changing ways of processing information."

Wendy Richmond, co-director of WGBH-TV Design Lab, is quoted: "One of the things going on at WGBH is something we call multiversioning. It is the idea of producing a lot of different products in different media from one basic idea. Rather than saying 'ok, we have the television program, now let's make the book, now let's make the interactive video disk, now let's make the cd-rom,' it's more with this idea: 'Let's think about what simultaneous media we want to create.' When you start thinking of a project that way, there's a lot to consider in terms of design and production from the start. There is the potential for the designer to have a much larger role both in terms of conceptual work and what's going to be the proper medium for his idea."

Electronic Design and Publishing's pages seem rather overwhelming to my eye its design seems stiff and undifferentiated, not a small point for a book largely about design issues. It could also have been better proofread ("their," for example, sometimes becomes "they're"), but most of the mistakes are in quoted material so one doesn't know if these words are mis-transcribed from interviews or are errors being perpetuated from other published documents. And finally, at a time when electronic publishing is still growing in untold ways, there are only a few pages, and not nearly enough information, concerning such areas as multimedia, on-line publishing, and interactive publications.

This is, however, a book with quite a lot of specific information about electronic publishing, as well as many insights from professionals on a variety of issues in the field. It is of primary value to writers, designers, clients, prepress workers and businesses, and printers - whether they be freelancers or employees of companies of any size. The larger issues it raises, those of the developing technologies and their ramifications in our culture, have a potentially much wider audience. Some readers of the Guild of Book Workers Newsletter, I am aware, are dedicated to hand-produced, traditional book arts and have no interest whatsoever in electronic publishing. I highly recommend this book, however, to anyone with even an inkling of willingness to embrace this quickly expanding technology.

Norman Potter. What is a Designer: Things. Places. Messages. Hyphen Press, London, Great Britain: third edition, 1989. 215 pp. isbn 0907259030 (paperback). $20.00 Distributed in the U.S. by Andras Furesz, Very Graphics, P.O. Box 95642, Seattle, WA 98145.
Reviewed by Sophia K. Jordan, Department of Preservation, University of Notre Dame.

Norman Potter writes "This is [a] book for students who design artifacts of the kind studied in design and architectural schools. Aside from the question implicit in its title, it asks what skills and aptitudes may be appropriate to the practice of design" (p.9). From this statement, as well as the structure of his book, it is clear that Potter intends to offer neither an historical nor a theoretical treatise. Something more akin to a how-to book, Potter's book directs the would-be designer to pay attention to the environment in which his or her design must work, an assignment which requires the designer to ask questions about the context in which the design is to exist. "Understanding the gestalt," as Potter notes, is the closest a designer gets to a theory of design in this engagement.

Potter makes no apologies for his approach. Indeed, he admits that he is a product of his own environment, and he no more wants to escape his "gestalt" than he claims others can avoid theirs. "It is well enough understood that design is a socially negotiated discipline, and there are telling respects in which design questions are political questions. No book about design is politically value-free whatever its apparent claim to objectively" (p. 12). In this regard, Potter claims to be a modernist. "Yet if human solidarity and humane imagining mean anything at all, it is upon such awareness that every act of construction, however small, must in some sense draw, seek nourishment.... A certain order of sensibility, if not of commitment, belongs to such perceptions.... To expose and to clarify, not to embellish, was at once the joy and the seriousness of the modern movement, and it remains vital to its task and heritage" (p. 13).

Potter's work is divided into three sections, the first with nine parts. Each part raises a core question or issue implicit in understanding what is meant by "What is a designer?" Is a designer an artist? What is design education: its principles and practices? What is good design? What are the problems of method? Is the designer an artisan? One might come to the conclusion, as I did, that this is the heart of the book. Potter does not want his reader to reduce the questions to mere "academics," however. He notes that they stem not from his reading but are questions he has asked himself in the context of his own experience as a designer, maker, and teacher. Precisely because Potter avoids working through the difficult questions which seem to him mere "academics," this section reads much like the "Cliff" notes to the great books: you know that the obvious questions have been asked regarding the major points, but somehow the connections necessary for understanding are not made.

The second section consists of nine parts which work together to form something like a "reference." Here Potter offers tips intended to be useful to a designer developing an arsenal of skills and aptitudes. Besides the obligatory reading list and useful addresses (all of which are British and thus of lesser interest to an American audience), this section covers such topics as: What constitutes an explanation; the place and usefulness of drawing and models; how design work is done; how to communicate with designers from other areas; how to survey before planning; how to write reports; and the nature and value of doing one's own research. Most tips are so obvious they will fail to interest even the apprentice designer.

There are interesting points in this section, however, and one wishes that Potter had devoted more time to discussing them. In discussing graphics as a strategy for design, for example, Potter notes, "There are no essential differences of principle that distinguish graphic design from design of any other kind; merely a respect for the purpose and the nature of the enterprise" (p. 130).

Also interesting is Potter's proposition that the difference between art and design is the difference between intention and end, respectively. When something must be made, it is design that operates. When there is no need to make, but a desire to make, art is summoned. Design begins with an end for Potter, and art with a desire. To illustrate this distinction between aesthetics and design, Potter uses the example of a traffic light. He notes that "The more aesthetic and sensory latitude available within a particular range of design opportunities, the closer they resemble those offered by the practice of fine art. The less latitude, the closer design comes to the sciences and to the field in which the scope of the aesthetic choice is truly marginal. The design of a traffic light system has an aesthetic component, but it would need a very special definition of aesthetics to embrace the many determine factors that must finally settle the design outcome" (p. 14). I am not certain myself that the muses are so easily distinguished.

While Potter does not want to engage in theoretical speculation, he has curiously omitted serious issues very much appropriate in developing design skills and aptitudes. He does not, for example, discuss the limitations and challenges associated with raw materials, tools, and techniques. Each of these arenas are played out in some way in the final outcome. How is a designer to think and determine his choices in this event? Potter also uses paper stocks of different color to separate the reference section from other sections. This color coding by function has a definite advantage for the reader, but placing the reference section in the middle of the work is contrary to readers' expectations and habits of use. In the end, this design did not work for me.

The last section, Appendices, is a mixture of six topics ranging from advice for the beginner to a list of "matchbox maxims" from 1972. There is little here to commend either to the novice or the initiated. One part is fascinating, however: Potter's recounting of the history of the Construction School (1964-79) in Bristol, England, an experiment in design education whose purpose was to establish an institute offering a diploma after a three year course without specialization but including various areas of design. The School was to re-examine the assumptions and postulates of the modern design movement. The first year focused on problem solving and communication technique. The second year involved workshop practice and technical studies in wood, plastics and metals, which lead in the third year to graphics and exhibition design. Brilliantly conceived, the school nonetheless closed for economic and political reasons rather than failures of planning or professional need.

It is difficult to judge the merits of a work which is historically fixed and so far removed in time and place. Moreover, precisely because Potter does not want to engage in a larger philosophical discussion about the nature of design, one cannot judge how well this book presents the foundations of Gestalt psychology and its ramifications for a design practice. No doubt every epoch has its characteristic signature. The fact is that there are multiple signatures competing, shifting, and influencing each other at any point in time and place from within both the sciences and the humanities. An undercurrent in one genre may dominate another since every gestalt is bound by foreground and background. Whether or not such a view of design is the only "context" in which design is possible is, of course, the more interesting question. In a work founded on "context," I would have expected such issues to be raised in the most practical way. What then are the skills and aptitudes appropriate to this view of design practice? Potter wants to guide the student of design into a way of thinking and practicing design but in the end does not offer foundation enough to put to rest the would-be designer's multiplicity of questions regarding practice.

Sebastian Carter. Twentieth Century Type Designers. W.W. Norton & Company. 500 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10110. 1995 (new edition). 192 pp. $35 US. isbn 0-393-70199-9. Reviewed by Richard Miller, Abraxas/Peppermint Press.

Sebastian Carter was let down by his publisher in this "new" edition and I'll explain how in a moment. I'll also preface the rest of this review with the disclaimer that I did not read (or even see) the first edition published in 1987, so there will be no comparison, though there is an observation. The author states in his foreword: "...while I have left the earlier historical sections of the book largely intact ... I have substantially revised the later parts in the light of recent developments" (December 1994). The developments are, of course, the incredible proliferation of personal computers, along with easy-to-use yet sophisticated and relatively inexpensive software for the creation of type designs and the rapid advances in reproduction technology.

Carter starts his survey with the men at the beginning of this century who were working in a technology perfected in the 15th century: designing types to be filed and counter punched from steel bars, stamped into brass, and cast in lead in individual pieces to be set by hand into books, newspapers, advertising, and jobbing work. This technology imposed certain limitations on the designers; and the demands of the market - or at least the manufacturers, the foundries - imposed others. The introduction in the late 1800s of efficient machines, primarily to set labour-intensive newspapers, forced designers to accommodate new requirements, however, and the balance of Carter's book deals with how these specialized crafts people dealt with continually-changing challenges during the remainder of the 20th century.

Short biographies of the usual subjects-Goudy, Dwiggins, Gill, Koch, Trump, van Krimpen, Zapf-as well as some lesser known, at least to me-Blumenthal, Wolpe, Excoffon, Mendoza, Unger-24 altogether, are accompanied by short essays: "Old Types for New Machines" and "New Types for Newer Machines", as well as a foreword, an introduction ("The skeleton shapes of the letters of our alphabet change hardly at all. Why then do skilled designers devote so much time, sometimes their whole lives, to drawing different versions of the outlines?"), and a prologue. The latter sets the stage by placing the subject in context historically, touching on manuscript production; the achievements of Gutenberg which involved the making of matrices (or matrixes) for the casting of reusable lead type; some particulars about type such as founts, families, sizes, and design classification; the introduction of machinery at the end of the nineteenth century to meet the increasing demand for printing; and the reaction of William Morris and others to the anemic-looking typefaces of the time. "Old Types ..." deals with type adapted or newly-designed for hot-metal typesetting machines, primarily the Monotype, and leads into the biographies of 14 designers whose types were mainly cast in metal. Special mention is made of Stanley Morison, more a producer than a designer of types, who was responsible for Monotype's creation of many beautiful text faces. "New Types ..." introduces the subjects of film- and digital-setting, leading to biographies of 9 designers in these media.

As I started to read the book, I remember thinking that I had read all the books about most of its major subjects, and I assumed that I would simply skim the text to prepare this review. I was happy to find that Carter always told me something I hadn't known. The text reads well, integrating needed background or ancillary information into the appropriate biography, and explaining in not-too-much detail some of the technical problems faced. I read every word, from beginning to end; but I hesitate to recommend the book. For someone who knows nothing, or very little, about typography or letter design, it would probably serve as a good introduction. For those who know more, read on.

The major disappointment, for me, is the illustrations: quantity is generous but quality is lacking. There are portraits of each of the featured designers, but they are, for the most part, the standard portraits we have seen before. There are some ancillary illustrations of type sketches, etc., but again, I was seeing the same images I have seen in books by or about Gill, Goudy, Morison, and others. There are samples of a great many of the typefaces discussed but there is no consistency in the samples chosen (i.e.: sometimes portions of alphabets, sometimes a portion of text, in a variety of point sizes, arrangements, line lengths, etc.) so there is no possibility of a meaningful comparison between or among the types. I feel there was little effort put into choosing the illustrations: no effort made to track down new or interesting images of the designers, and no imagination used in presenting the samples. Carter obviously did the extensive research necessary to write the text, but just as obviously, he was not involved either in the layout of the book (which is quite pedestrian) or in the selection of illustrations.

The first edition was reprinted at least once (according to the author), and here we have a new edition, updated with biographies of several talented designers of Postscript types (Stone, Slimbach, and Twombly) for use by the exploding desktop publishing industry. Three printings in less than ten years, of a topic which until quite recently was considered esoteric - and may still be - indicates that the publisher was confident of finding a market. Perhaps next time Norton will appreciate that typophiles are type lovers, and generally, book lovers. A book by a typophile, about typophiles, supposedly for typophiles, should be produced by typophiles, especially when it covers a century which has seen revolutionary changes in the dissemination of information. The most recent of those changes arguably has greater potential than that of the printing press to change the development of human society.