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.



Five reasons I don’t read e-books

I’m not going to pretend I know a lot about e-books. I don’t. But a friend recently asked me if I would ever buy an e-reader. My first instinct was to say no. I consider myself a bit of a purist who prefers the look and feel of printed pages. But my friend’s question made me wonder if there were other reasons, too. Here’s what I came up with.

I want to lend (and borrow) books

I’m not sure how it works with e-readers. Can you lend e-books to your friends like you can with hard copies? From the (very) superficial research I did, I think e-books can be loaned for a limited period. The process for lending sounded like a bit of a hassle, too. It seems much easier to hand over a physical book to your friend when he/she is over for a drink. Also, I wouldn’t want to limit the time my friend has to read the book. Then again, if your friends are really terrible at returning things, the e-book option could be a good one for you.

I like visiting bookstores

It’s interesting how bookstores have different atmospheres or personalities. I often enter bookstores just to browse and soak in that atmosphere. I like to look at covers and see which artwork or title draws me in to read the cover copy. I suppose there’s an option to browse an e-book store. But I wonder if I’d click the covers of the same books I’d pull off the shelves.

A house with empty bookshelves isn’t a home

Besides enjoying the act of reading books, I like looking at them, too. I grew up in a house filled with books. I think if I lived in a place that didn’t have a few full bookshelves, it wouldn’t feel like home. Plus, I do enjoy it when people come over and browse through my bookshelves. They point out books they’ve always wanted to read or ones that they already have. I’ve learned a lot about my friends by getting into discussions about books.

I want to write in the margins

I don’t do it all the time, but sometimes I like to write in my books. I’ll highlight sections of interest, point out questions I have or note themes that arise. Sometimes I will even draw little diagrams, getting a sense of the scene or idea being described. With e-books, I won’t be able to generate the same top-quality illustrations that I can with a pen or pencil.

I’m slow to adopt new technology

I came to terms with this a while ago. I’m just not the type of person who gets excited about new technology. So it’s quite possible that this reason is the biggest reason I have yet to read a single e-book. I didn’t get an iPod until last year, and I still prefer to listen to CDs at home. I was still shooting with film when everyone was getting bored of the first and second wave of digital cameras. And I was one of the last of my friends to get a cell phone. So if e-books become the main way to read books, I’m sure I will board the ship…eventually. But until it gets to that point, I’ll still be at the neighbourhood bookstore, pulling books off the shelves and turning the pages.

Getting published via Facebook status update

If there’s something you want to do, you’ll be more likely to do it if you write it down or tell someone. This isn’t exactly how Go the F— to Sleep came to be, but the book exists because of one fateful Facebook post written last June.

It started when Adam Mansbach, a writer, updated his status after his young daughter wouldn’t go to sleep: “Look out for my forthcoming book, Go the F— to Sleep.” The status was just a joke, meant to express his frustration. But the update drew lots of attention in the form of “likes” and comments.

Mansbach made the book a reality. He wrote the story in the style of a children’s book but with adults as the intended audience. Akashic Books agreed to publish it.

What began as a joke became an internet sensation. A PDF of the book was leaked and went viral. It became so popular that the official release date was moved from October to June 14.

It’s fascinating to see social media have an impact like this. While it’s common knowledge that Facebook and Twitter are important tools for marketing and promotion, this shows how they can do even more. Social media was central to the formation of Go the F— to Sleep; it wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

OK, so it’s not Mansbach’s Facebook page that helped create the book, but it’s the people who visited the page who did. Collaboration and feedback are important for the development of any great idea. And social media makes it easier and faster for people to get a discussion going.

If we take a chance and put our ideas out there—even just small nuggets of ideas—someone out there will see them. Our online friends might add to the ideas, suggest a change, or offer informative criticism. They might see the brilliance that we never knew was there.