Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Inside the Memoir Design

To me a book is like a person, especially a memoir. It is like a person’s spirit or soul. And the cover is like that person’s clothing or how that person is first seen in the world.

In designing a memoir, I always start with the inside because I want to get to know the person, or the story or message or personality or soul, first. I read as much as I can of the book. Sometimes all that’s necessary is a synopsis, along with a few chapters. Sometimes I need to read the whole book. But when I read, I listen with my entire being. I listen to who the person is who is writing and what he or she is writing about. I want to hear the nuances with my inner ear. Is the author someone who is out in the world in a very fast-paced way? Or writing from a place of solitude? Is the author extremely forceful, bold, aggressive? Or gentle, quiet-spoken, spending most of his or her time in a place in the clouds or in the river? What are the subtleties of the person who falls somewhere in between?

And what is the message? Is it a message to change my life or yours? Is it a message to lead you to better health, to more abundance? How will this book, this message or story, this passing on of vision, best be described – held – in a typeface, in the way that the type appears on the page? In the boldness, or in the quiet, or in the white space or in the lack of white space? How will this all be presented so that whoever the writer, whatever the message, these are immediately sensed even before reading the first words?

In terms of typeface, when people read books – even when I used to read books – if you showed me a book and compared it to another, all of the typefaces of the body text looked the same to me. Yet there are subtle differences that end up reflecting character. For the Corcoran family memoir, the man who wrote it – helped by a personal historian – comes across as strong and masculine, yet quiet. I chose Stempel Garamond which felt like that to me.

For Love Incarnate, basically a memoir about Jesus’ life as a man, I chose Perpetua which, I feel, has a feeling of the angelic world.

Vignettes is a collection of letters compiled by the granddaughter of a woman who travelled in her late teens through early twenties. Taking place in the early part of the twentieth century, this book is about a woman’s freedom in a time when women weren’t usually able to be this free. I chose Galliard which has the sense of an earlier time and of feminine strength.
The typeface for the chapter headings is very important. This treatment usually follows through to the title page and to the rest of the front matter.

I made the chapter headings in Love Incarnate as quiet as I could, as understated, with as much white space as possible because I wanted the ethereal to enter. With the Corcoran memoir, I chose a typeface that represented the 50’s and earlier, in order to reflect the time of the Depression and the Second World War. For Vignettes, I used a type in greyed italic that had a soft, Victorian lightness and boldness at the same time.

The next question is whether the chapter titles, as well as the other major design elements, will be centered, placed to the right or to the left. These, also, have to do with the book itself, with the author and the subject. For Vignettes, I made the chapter titles pushed to the right because she was breaking ground in what she was doing, and I wanted a sense of momentum, of movement. For the Corcoran memoir, about the Second World War and the Depression, I chose a centered placement because the book is solid and grounded and about family. For Love Incarnate I also chose a centered placement. I did not want anything to throw off the balance and the peace of the powerful messages within. All of these choices are made through intuition, rather than conscious decision-making.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about designing the cover of a memoir.
Robin Brooks, owner of The Beauty of Books, has designed books for Viking Penguin, for the Waldorf Schools of North America, and for many private authors. After 31 years of overall graphic design, Robin shifted her focus last year so that she now only designs books. She designs memoirs, books on spirituality, art, and poetry. For more information or to contact Robin, please see her website.

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  1. This was very interesting. I liked hearing how you work with typefaces and the placement of the words on the page so that they add to the atmosphere or message of the words.

    I agree that covers are very important. I check them out before I ever open the book or read the back cover blurb. They often determine whether I even open the book and read the opening.

    Straight From Hel

  2. Yes, I am fascinated by typefaces and how the designer selects which one to use. I liked the analogy to clothing and the inside of a person in terms of a book and it's cover.

  3. This is fascinating to me. I love the idea of book designing. The designing is taken out of my hands, but I think it's so interesting to hear about the thought process behind it all.

    Covers are key, too.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. I'm a professional artist and know what I need to about calligraphy - but when it comes to typefaces, mercy, I'm in as much of a fog as anyone. I mean, the choices are endless, and the differences often so subtle. How do you keep them all straight, Robin? I agree though, that all fonts have a certain "feel" to them. Choosing the right one is a bit like picking the right music for your book trailer. You want the entire package to hold together.

    Tomorrow - the covers!


  5. Very nice article, and so interesting to find out how and why some fonts and designs are used. It is so neat to find someone who treasures the art of design like this.

  6. Thanks for giving us this inside look, Robin. We take stuff like this for granted--nice to have this inside look!

  7. I love the design of Vignettes; it looks so elegant. There is so much to consider when designing a book.


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