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Roundtable: Book Design at Pentagram

On Saturday morning, October 27 at FIT’s Katie Murphy Auditorium, Michael Bierut, Abbott Miller, Eddie Opara, Emily Oberman, Paula Scher and DJ Stout will take the stage at the first Designers and Books Fair to talk about the challenges and pleasures of designing books. Between them, the six partners have designed everything from large-scale corporate identities to exhibitions to motion graphics to interactive displays. But they all concede there is something special about designing that classic design object, the book.

At FIT on October 27, each of the designers will present a case history and discuss his or her unique approach to book design. In anticipation of that special event, Bierut, Miller, Opara, Oberman, Scher and Stout were asked to talk about what makes books special, why they like designing them, and why books are likely to be around forever. You can register for the Designers and Books Fair event here, and read more about book design at Pentagram after the jump.

Michael Bierut People keep predicting the death of print. Sometimes I think that makes designing books the ultimate exercise in anachronism.  Yet we all just can’t resist.

Paula Scher I love the form. I like sequencing information and holding the collection of information together between two covers.  There is nothing more satisfying than the object that is a book.

Abbott Miller Books are self-contained, complete objects that are tactile, material, and interactive. The fact that they are products for sale in a retail context makes them an unusually public form of design. The care and attention you bring to a book has such a major impact on its character and impact.

Emily Oberman I like to design books for a few reasons. First, it’s hard and I like a challenge. Second, like Paula, I like the ability to tell a story that unfolds over time and space. Third, like Abbott, I like all the little special details of books where you get chances to do surprising things. Besides the meat of a book you have the end pages, the spine, the table of contents, the folios, the index, the design credits, and the flaps, just to name a few. Each one of these things is a little treat for the reader if you handle them well. Finally, to design a book well, you have to really understand the content, so each new book is an opportunity to learn new things.

DJ Stout A lot of what we do as graphic designers is fleeting. A magazine might hang around for a week or two but it will eventually end up on the seat of the airplane for the flight attendants to clean up or in the bottom of the bird cage. A poster arrives in the mail and if its lucky it will get filed away with the other rolled up orphans in the closet waiting to be framed someday. I like to design books because they are a more lasting and memorable form of our craft.

Eddie Opara  Books are compact, fun boxes!

Michael There is something special and different about book design. It’s not like any other design work I do.

Paula That’s because books are self-contained and tactile. Things like brand identities are amorphous and often virtual. Environmental graphics are outsized. Posters have impact and are based mostly on scale and one big idea. Books, on the other hand, have narrative and sequence. Books are precious, in the best sense of the word.

Abbott Is book design really different, apart from the endless detail and minutiae that books demand?

DJ It may not be different, but it’s more intense. The act of stringing multiple pages together and developing an architecture that can transform disparate elements into a cohesive whole is design in action. Making something new and meaningful out of chaos is the essence of creativity. A book is the sum of its parts and at the end of that process a designer gets to hold their creation in their hands.

Michael Given all that, I have to confess: I wonder sometimes if books, physical books, are worth the trouble. Are they even necessary?

Paula You have to touch something every now and then when you read. Why would anyone say they aren’t necessary?

Michael Well, I had to move a few years ago and I had 60 boxes of books. It was backbreaking and after a while I started to sort of hate them.

Abbott What’s in those boxes is something very stable. To me, books are closer to paintings, sculpture, and decorative art objects than they are to the dynamic, ephemeral character of “media.” The objecthood of books is what makes them exceptional and, hopefully, enduring.

DJ There are certain things that only a book can do. I design a lot of photography books and I often point out that a book is very different from a box of pictures. A box of pictures, or a photographer’s portfolio, is frequently nothing more than a collection of photographs presented randomly in the exact same format. That viewing experience is only about the photographs. A skilled book designer can completely change that experience.

Eddie Right. Books are the perfect way to tell a story, to show tactility. With the ability to be illustrative, to change pace, you can allow so many different ways to read content.

Emily I do a lot of motion graphics and it’s true that books are similar. The design requires pacing and planning. Books have crescendos and quiet moments. They have arcs, beginnings, middles and ends.

Michael But all of this is happening in an increasingly digital world.

Eddie Memories shouldn’t be confined to the virtual realm.

DJ  Something like a blog post has the life expectancy of a gnat. A book is permanent. It might end up on a dusty shelf but it doesn’t disappear into the ether the way a website posting does after a single reading. It hangs around in plain view waiting patiently to be referenced. I love printed books, the way the ink smells, the tactile quality of the paper, the sound the pages make when you turn them, the heft of a clothbound volume– the thud it makes on a table. We just designed an oversized, more than 600 page book, for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on the history of war photography. I’m sure the collection will be available online and probably on an iPad. Hermetically sealed and removed from most of our senses, like fish in an aquarium, the digital version will wait patiently for the viewer’s fingers to smear across the glass. But the book, printed on frumpy wood-pulp and painstakingly laid out for an analog viewing experience has stature, it has authority.

Michael It will be around forever

DJ Like war itself.

Michael Dramatic! Now, one of my favorite aspects of book design is the opportunity to work with an author. I don’t always get that chance. Sometimes my client is a publisher or a packager. And sometimes the author can be challenging, particularly when he or she is too close to the subject matter. But the right author can add so much.

DJ For the most part, I like working with the photographers and authors of the books I design. But sometimes it’s best to keep some distance between the book design process and the book’s authors or photographers. Photographers in particular can be way too close to their own work and it’s hard for them to see their pictures with an outsider’s clarity. Sometimes they can’t visualize what an innovative book design can do to transform their work.

Eddie I find if you create a good atmosphere of collaboration — one where both parties are learning from each other — the whole process of creating the book is far more enriching.

Abbott I think of authors, editors, and curators as collaborators who establish the conceptual parameters for the design. This can happen through an insight about the visual or editorial nature of the content, or through something more intuitive. I like working with authors who have a clear attitude about what a book can be, but who also grant the designer the right to challenge them about their assumptions. That is a rare collaborator, someone genuinely wanting to see how a designer wants to shape the material.

Emily I love working with authors, as long as they’re smart and interested in the book as a whole. Whenever I have collaborated with a wonderful, intelligent, open minded author — like Stephen Dubner of Superfreakonomics, say — the book is that much better. They understand that the design and writing are equally important halves of the content as a whole.

Paula The best kind of author really provides the key to the book’s direction.

Michael Is there a certain book that has had a special influence on you as a designer?

Emily My design bible and the book that I like to have around just for inspiration and comfort is Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art. I got mine in college and it changed the way I looked at design. Whenever I drew a blank creatively, I’d thumb through it and it always kickstarted my brain. I even eventually got Paul Rand to sign it.

Eddie If we’re speaking biblically, I pick the actual Bible. Best reference, guide book ever.

Abbott There’s a really interesting book, more of a visual compendium, on the life of Sigmund Freud. It was designed by Willi Fleckhaus, and it was one of these books that just flows with a kind of musical rhythm. It takes a cache of archival material and creates this engrossing mix of variously scaled elements. It looks effortless.

DJ My favorite book design of all times and the book that still influences me to this day is The End of the Game by Peter Beard. I own a pristine first edition. In 1965, immediately after graduating from Yale, Beard traveled to Africa. When he got back he wrote and designed a book that is part history and part travelogue, with his black-and-white and color photographs, beautiful typography and African ephemera. In trying to communicate the depth of the tragedy that was beginning to transform Africa, he presented gruesome and shocking photographs, but in the context of this book they’re breathtaking.

Paula My favorite is something called 1000 Makers of the Twentieth Century. It’s a densely illustrated compendium of short bios of famous people that first originated in the London Sunday Times.  It was designed by David King and our then future and now former partner David Hillman.  I could look at it and read it forever.  It is sublime.

Michael Is there a book you’ve always wanted to design?

Paula 1000 Makers of the Twenty-first Century.

Abbott I’d love to do a giant, international, historical survey of landscape and garden design, like a multi-volume, nutty, comprehensive view, working with some crazy editors and being able to commission the photography and having access to great historical imagery. I’d also like to do something super-ambitious on the roles and uses of color in different cultural settings, almost a cultural history of color.

DJ I’ve always wanted to do my own design book. Which is in the works, by the way.

Eddie I want to design The Adidas Compendium: Past, Future, Present.

Michael Does that book even exist?

Eddie Not until I design it!