Book design’s role in interpreting words

How much does a book’s design effect how you interpret the words? Last week I attended a panel discussion at the Design Exchange that got me thinking about the relationship between design and content. The event was called Book: Burning Questions—The Future of The Book and Book Industry in Canada.

The panelists:

Gilbert Li R.G.D., Founder and Creative Director of The Office of Gilbert Li
Margie Miller, Creative Director of Harlequin Enterprises
Scott Richardson, Vice President & Creative Director, Canadian Publishing of Random House Canada
Laura Stein, Creative Director, Communications, Bruce Mau Design
Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail Arts Writer and Novelist

I don’t give book design much conscious thought, but it’s obviously important. In my last post, I mentioned how a cover influences which books I pick up in a bookstore. We do judge books by their covers.

The idea of online browsing came up. In a traditional bookstore, or in a library, visitors aren’t usually looking for anything in particular. They walk around until an attractive cover or spine gets them to pick up the book. With online bookstores, such as Amazon, visitors tend to search rather than browse. Most of the time, they already know what they’re looking for. It becomes more about getting the right title to pop up when someone does a search, rather than trying to draw someone in with design.

Book design goes deeper than the cover. Designers choose how words are laid out on the page, the size of the pages, which fonts to use. The panel mentioned that designers are losing control. With e-books, the reader controls many or all of these elements.

I found all of these points interesting, but I was most fascinated by the discussion of how design can effect the written content. Knowing the format of the book might influence what the writer chooses to write about. For example, panelists discussed the idea of multimedia add-ons. If the writer knows the content will be published with these extras that will describe what the writer wants to convey, then perhaps there won’t be a description offered with words.

The evening left me with a lot to think about. How will the increasing digitalization of books change how stories are interpreted? Will it change how writers write? Will it alter the way the content is valued?

There will always be new formats and new technology. This doesn’t necessarily make the experience of reading better or worse. It just makes it different, as it has for any generation before this one. And, the truth is, we will never know what we’re missing.



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