Tradition and Transparency: Why Book Design Still Matters in the Digital Age

Jon Bath


Designing for the Internet can be a wonderfully enlivening experience for the graphic designer. Layouts can be morphed fluidly, pages can contain all manner of multimedia objects, and design decisions are not hampered by practicalities such as the cost of four-colour reproduction. But it can be an equally frustrating experience for typographers, as their control over typeface, word spacing, justification, and the other
myriad details that define a well-crafted printed page is reduced to the most rudimentary choices.

This paper will examine this apparent disjuncture by first briefly outlining the historical separation between the trades of graphic designer and typographer and then discussing some of the advantages of having the designers of electronic interfaces become familiar with book typography traditions and of having electronic reading interfaces support basic typographic practices. Book typographers have traditionally viewed the more "artistic" graphic designers with suspicion because "typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end" (Morison 5), and any overtly artistic gestures by the designer can potentially intrude upon the reading experience.

This notion of typography as the art of creating a transparent interface between the author and the reader has its roots in the humanist tradition of the author-god and is obviously challenged by new models where the act of reading has the potential to be a three-way communication between authors, readers and the community and where the lines between the three are blurred. As a result some typographic practices, such as methods for including scholarly apparatus and annotations, will undoubtedly need to be modified. But this does not mean that all typographic traditions need to be tossed aside. For example, many digital reading interfaces present a "page" view designed for a screen that is taller than it is wide. While this mimics the dimensions of a single page of a book, readers of books seldom view a single page; the bound book presents a "spread" that allows the reader to view two pages at once. Presenting digital texts in such a manner not only has the advantage of familiarity, but this orientation also allows for specialized displays of information such as parallel text editions or facing page translations. If one is truly serious about wanting a digital interface to be "read," it is worth gaining an understanding of the practices of the craftspeople that have focused on just that for over 600 years.

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