The form of the book
True book design is a matter of tact (tempo, rhythm, touch) alone.
There’s a kind of staccato that emerges from much of our time spent with the screen: 140 character updates, three-sentence emails, single word IMs, texts where the auto-correct has mangled the words, but from which we are still able to discern the writer’s intent. We edit from one to another quickly, blithely, barely absorbing what each beep or vibration means before moving on to the next.
So it’s no surprise that many of us crave the long text at the end of the day, writing that takes its time, that flows from one sentence to the next, page after page after page. It’s this kind of rhythm that emerges from a book, and which remains relevant even as the book moves from paper to pixels.
On the page, the rhythm of the text emerges from both the macro design—the pleasing shape of the page, the proper amount of thumb space—and the micro—the right amount of leading, the evenness of the word spacing, the correct break of a line. On the screen, the rhythm of a text encompasses all of these things and more—the placement of a link, the shift from text to video and back again, the movement from one text to another. The rhythm becomes more complex as the orchestra gets larger, but the desire for rhythm does not subside.
In order to create this rhythm, the book must be designed and composed for the screen. A beautiful digital text can no more be arrived at by “converting” from a print design than a beautiful print book can be created by converting a Word file. The digital book will never come into its own so long as it is treated as a byproduct, unworthy of attention.
Furthermore, digital books should no more adhere to identical designs than their print counterparts; different types of writing, different voices and tempos, require unique approaches to design. The current crop of ebook formats were designed for the novel, and on that they do a fine job; but countless other texts—cookbooks, technical books, graphic novels, books on art, plays, verse—are rendered unreadable by that conformity. If the form of the book is changing, it ought to lead to more variety, not less.
Tschichold describes the book designer as one who happily works in obscurity—producing designs that only the select few appreciate, but in that act creating texts that provoke and teach and charm countless readers. Those readers are the designers’ only reward, but they are enough. As readers move to the screen, designers who care about reading must follow; not because fame and fortune await—for most, they do not—but because readers still need you. Do not forsake them.