Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Designing The Real Alice: Art Meets Technology

Building a book like The Real Alice in Wonderland involves not only creativity and design skills, but an impressive array of technical knowledge in an evolving industry.

It sounds simplistic to say that a designer designing a book needs to remember that she is, ahem, designing a book, but it’s true—and it’s vital that the designer know not just that a book is being designed, but what kind of a book. Books demand design considerations that more typical designer projects—brochures, flyers, billboards, folders, even annual reports—don’t typically pose. Moreover, they’re not the sorts of things that any one is born knowing. Take, for example, the question of the gutter.

Every book has one. It’s the crevice in the center of the book where all the pages are bound together. In books like The Real Alice in Wonderland the binding method means that type and critical images must be positioned so that they end before the page disappears down into the gutter. The thicker the book, the deeper the crevice, and the wider the gutter needs to be for the type and images to look centered on the page. Unless, of course, the book has a “lay flat” binding, in which case the gutter virtually disappears, which alters the page design. See what I mean? Just knowing you’re building a book isn’t enough; you need to know what kind of book, too.

Be True To Your (Post Script) Type
Let’s return, for a moment, to the matter of type. When I was starting out designing on my little Macintosh Plus (state of the art 375 K disks, 3Mb hard drive, monochrome eight-inch monitor, or thereabouts), type was simple. We could use Times. Or we could use Helvetica, if we felt really funky and trendy. I myself went way out on a limb and used University Roman for my headers and subheads on a newsletter I did—and get this, I used rounded corners. It made such a splash that administrative assistants (which is what I was at the time) all over the region were using University Roman and rounded corners within a few short months.

If things had ended there designers’ lives would have been considerably simpler. But then we got the Adobe Library of Postscript fonts—thousands of type styles, available for just a few thousands of dollars. And then we got TruType Fonts, and then we got Bitstream fonts, and Lithos fonts, and Dingbats, and Wingdings, and then the IBM/PC people got fonts, too…

It was like the Renaissance. The only problem was that some of the fonts were designed for use with laser printers. Not postscript printers. The Linotronic machines used in pulling film in those days were postscript printers.

Easy peasy, right? Just use postscript fonts. Except that once the TruType and bitstream fonts were loaded it was often impossible to tell which were what. When a postscript printer encounters a non-postscript font it might manage to print it. Or it might give it the old college try and produce letters that look like they were designed by Atari. Or it might decide to choose a font of its own—and since the machines are by nature conservative this was almost always Times, Helvetica, or Courier—or (as just happened to me) it might decide, “Oh, what the heck,” throw up its hands and print nothing at all. (Word to the wise here: the Acrobat exporter for Illustrator Does Not Like the okina—the backwards apostrophe one sees in Hawaiian typesetting—and will frequently just eliminate it. As I just found out.)

Luckily the Open Type library happened, and typesetting is getting simpler again, as long as we designers stay away from our old fonts—the ones we’ve been hoarding and transferring from computer to computer for the last twenty years, because nobody's yet re-designed that font into the new Open Type format. And if occasionally we relapse and fall into our old TruType ways, well, then, sometimes we have to pay the price.

When Dropped Shadows Should Be Dropped
Drop shadows were the University Roman and rounded corners of about ten years ago. When the layout programs like Quark and InDesign started building them in it was like the Second Coming. Now, rather than laboriously creating a soft, feathered, drop shadow in Photoshop, importing it into our layout file, positioning it under the clipped image we were supposed to be shadowing, and applying esoteric overprint instructions on embedded file menus, we could create soft, feathered shadows with the touch of a button.

Most of the time, it worked. It worked so well that drop shadows showed up everywhere. And then embossing. And inner and outer glows. Design has its fads, just like any other industry. The problem is that sometimes those lovely, now easy, special effects interfere with the project as a whole. When a drop shadow is set too dark beside a dark element it’s hard to see what you’re looking at. Or, if the shadow gets too wide, and the variation in color is set wrong, you can end up with bands of color reminiscent of pants in the seventies, wrapped around your image. A style, I suppose, but not one to which most of us aspire.

In the end, building a book like The Real Alice successfully involves creativity, true, but it also involves an impressive range of skills in an ever-evolving industry. And it involves the sort of discipline that is by tradition Not Designery. It involves an enormous amount of research. It involves navigating complex art usage agreements. It involves book keeping on a level that boggles the mind. And if, in the end, if something occasionally slips, or defaults, or falls off the press, it’s a shame, but these things happen. I envy the Deborah Frano, who got to design this book.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. Very interesting cover. Thanks for sharing the insight. Some readers told me they bought my books purely because of the cover. They might love or hate the stories...So your design can make or break the autors.

    Really Angelic

  2. Thank you, Sherry, for the ongoing insight into creative (and effective) book design. As a very small publisher with an extremely limited staff, I occasionally do simple novel layout (NOT to be confused with design), and I so appreciate your discussions on The Real Alice. For me, they're like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel because my passion and whatever ability I possess lie with words, not design. And technology leaves me cold and shivering. So thanks a bunch. Great posts!

  3. Glad to help, Linda. I'll be talking more about typesetting here in the future, and on my own blog. You're right--there's definitely a learning curve, but it's something that's very good to know for us small publishers!

  4. I'd never stopped to consider how much work goes into these books. Very interesting posts.


  5. That makes my head spin - no wonder there are so many ugly books out there! ;)

  6. Exactly, Dani--it's a constant evolution.

  7. This has been a really interesting two-part post. I did not know most of these things about design and layout, and this was very enlightening, especially since I am considering making some book covers for e-books I plan to put on Kindle.


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