Monday, August 16, 2010

The Real Alice: A Real Challenge

I was so intrigued by Maryann's review of The Real Alice in Wonderland, by C.M. Rubin, with Gabriella Rubin, and designed by C.M. Rubin and Deborah Frano, I had to see it for myself. Since I live in a town that’s long on grain elevators and short on bookstores I hied myself to Amazon, clicked once, and Alice was mine.

The book’s absolutely astounding collection of Victorian elements and memorabilia—and Alice artwork and memorabilia in particular, is a bit like a really well-stocked buffet—it’s hard to know what to dip into first. The opportunity to work with such a wealth of visually materials doesn’t come around often for most of book designers. And The Real Alice is absolutely cover to cover with the kind of images that make designers drool (but not on the art, please!).

Projects like this pose an interesting dilemma, because their creative richness demands a level of discipline that can sometimes make the designer feel like the lowest level of bean-counter. The very materials that would seem to demand innovation and creativity can become overwhelming if they are not balanced by ample white space, and above all, discipline.

All of which seems counter-intuitive. The temptation is to overload the book with wonderful images and Victoriana. But in the same way that Victorian society balanced itself—after a fashion—by offsetting stereotypically sentimental women with stereotypically stern and unbending men—the whimsy of Alice demands a framework to balance it.

When I was first starting out as a designer, my boss and I would look over all of the pictures and artwork we had available for a job—and then he would start sorting for each spread. “Let this be your hero,” he would say. Every page was a dance, leader and followers, Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane.

I cannot begin to imagine that process with a book like The Real Alice, where every image can make a case for its right to be Superman. Even worse would be the choice of what to leave out in order to maintain that all-important white space, without which the images become not jewels, but a confusing jumble.

The second element to consider in balancing such a visually rich book is text and accent font choices. Again, the diversity and abundance of the images would seem to require a calligraphic font, a script font, or a font derived from the typography of the period. And that’s not a bad idea for the accent fonts—the ones that appear in the callouts, on title pages, and in major headings. But using an extremely distinctive, ornate font in body copy and captions can defeat the very purpose of the book—showcasing the very beautiful artwork.

When my boss and I talked about what was going to be the “hero” on the page we considered fonts, too. We would decide if we needed something calligraphic and “sweet” to soften a too-spartan look, or something “structured,” to offset too much “sweetness.” And then we considered type sizes, how much leading we would leave between the lines, and how we would define the various typographic elements like headers, subheads, text heads, text, captions, call-outs, running heads…you get the idea. Everything needed a style, and the bigger the project, the more important it was to make those decisions early on, and to stick to them.

That’s where the discipline comes in on a book like The Real Alice, which already has all the “sweet” and “pretty” anyone could hope for. In order to allow readers to see and understand just how very remarkable the art is, type needs to be simple, clean, and consistently styled. Otherwise it becomes an intrusion—yet another element, vying for Superman status.

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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. You make a lot of excellent points here, Sherry. I've seen collections of photos that use tons of white space and little text. It makes the photos even more striking than they would be otherwise. Good post.


  2. Sherry, you have hit a nail right on the head. Which nail! The one that few writers understand—layout.

    Writing is an art, as I am discussing in my first posts each month. But that writing can lose some of its impact if it seems to argue with rather than support the layout (both cover and interior).

    Layout is also an art, whether or not it includes photos or graphics. But there is much more than images involved. The white space you mentioned helps to provide the necessary balance. And the choice of fonts to complement rather than confuse the overall impression can't be stressed enough. Consistency of style may seem not to matter, yet it adds so much to the reader's enjoyment of a book because no subtle vying for recognition intrudes (your root word and a great choice) upon the page and the reader's mind.

    Great post, Sherry!

  3. It was great to get this feedback from someone with a lot of experience with layout. As I was going through the book I wondered about the busyness of so many pages and the lack of white space. When I worked with a graphic artist when I did PR for a firm, he always told me about the need for white space, as well as the consistency of fonts. Because Victorian houses were always a clutter of artwork, sculpture and furniture, I though the designer chose the clutter on the pages to reflect that. Not sure I liked it, but I could see a reasoning for it.

  4. The need for white space is critical--and yet I find it's often the first thing clients are prepared to sacrifice when things get tight. As 'word' people, we can all understand the value of editing for content, but when I'm designing books for the publisher I work for we sometimes find we need to edit for white space, as well. It can make the difference between a welcoming, easy-to-read book and a dense, off-putting, book that wears you out. It becomes even more critical when the book is designed for readers who face special challenges--like aging eyes, any kind of stress, or a learning disability. I'm all for words--but sometimes less really is more.

  5. This is so interesting! I made my father-in-law's biography rather austere simply because I didn't have time to fiddle with fanciness. But my main aim was plenty of white space because I really dislike books that look like they're trying to save on printing costs by crowding the margins and making you almost bend the book double to read the text that landed in the gutter. It is really, really hard to lay out a book that has images. Well, for the untrained, anyway.

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  6. When an author is working with a publisher, how much say does she have in the layout? Are most of those decisions made by the publishing house?


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