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All stories relating to Typography

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Book covers of the year 2011

When choosing covers of the year, the book designers Q&Q polled considered art, typography, layout, and meaning in their decisions. Allison Baggio’s Girl in Shades, Johanna Skibsrud’s This Will Be Difficult To Explain and Other Stories, and Alexi Zentner’s Touch were among designers’ favourites.

Click through the images below to see all five and read why each was chosen as a cover of the year.

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Cover to cover: Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars

From the July/August 2011 issue of Q&Q: Designer Erik Mohr explains how he drew on classic imagery and geometric motifs to achieve the proper vision for Caitlin Sweet’s forthcoming novel The Pattern Scars (ChiZine Publications).

This was one of the most difficult covers I have worked on for ChiZine. The rich imagery in this book was hard to resist: the main character, Nola, experiences visions, and I wanted to incorporate these into the design. In this version, I used the classic shapes of a dramatically lit portrait and incorporated smoke rising from her closed eyes to indicate the moment just after a vision.

I started to experiment with reds and purples. I have a strong personal bias against purple, but I do try to stretch myself into uncomfortable territory once and a while. Thank God it didn’t work this time! I was also experimenting with typography to capture the grittiness of the story. However, the handwritten type felt too loose for such a layered story, and the visual of the woman was almost completely obscured.

In an attempt to emphasize the image and give the glowing eyes a dramatic feel, I minimized the type and gave it an almost Victorian touch. However, the story put me in mind of ancient Greece or Rome; the new type style conveyed the wrong tone.

I sat down with the publishers and we hashed out what each of us thought the book was about. I came back with this cover. There is a scene in the book where Nola’s eyes are bleeding after her vision. Elsewhere, her visions are likened to fractal geometry. These ideas, paired with a marble bust and some classic typography, contained everything the publishers were looking for.

The bleeding eyes, were, I admit, an error in judgment. And the expression on the woman’s face was a bit too cartoonish, with its pouty lips and sad eyes. This final version captures the book’s feel, which is both mysterious and ancient.

Buy from your local independent bookstore

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Cover to Cover: Gil Adamson’s Ashland

From the April 2011 issue of Q&Q: Designer David Gee explains the steps involved in redesigning a Southern Gothic-reflected cover for a new edition of Gil Adamson’s poetry collection Ashland (ECW Press).

ECW Press approached me to repackage Gil Adamson’s 2003 poetry collection, Ashland. I was given no hard parameters, just the manuscript and a ­request to redesign the cover in a similar Wild West/­Southern Gothic vein. (Above is the cover for the 2003 edition, designed by Darren Holmes.)

I initially wanted to give the cover a sense of empty, dry, dead space – something that provided an idea of a barren landscape without getting into the specific themes of the book. The large curving arcs of the type were meant to mimic old maps. I started to feel this design was a little too empty, and lacked the menace and darkness in the text.

Using old frontier typography seemed like a no-brainer, but I wanted to find an innovative way to do it. Woodblock ­letters achieved this, and the collage reflected the fact that this is a collection of shorter pieces. However, I had a feeling I’d seen this kind of approach before. I had: David Pearson recently redesigned Cormac McCarthy’s backlist using a collage of old wood type.

FINAL. Taking a bit from everything I’d come up with so far, I ended up with a cover that achieved what I most wanted: a ­design free of all the typical visual language one would normally associate with Southern Gothic tales.

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Students prefer print for look, feel, and font

Two recent studies shed some light as to why e-books haven’t caught on with students – they don’t feel right, and they make the work too easy.

Earlier this month, the Book Industry Study Group released “Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education,” a report that claims 75 per cent of students polled prefer print textbooks to e-books, largely because of their “look and feel.”

A few months prior to the BISG report, a study conducted by Princeton University psychologists found students achieved higher grades when they studied from material written in difficult fonts, including the widely scorned Comic Sans. Apparently, these fonts require readers to put more effort into reading, which leads to more information retained. Easier-to-read typefaces like Arial, Caecillia, or Times New Roman – the preferred fonts of many textbooks and e-books – make it too easy for readers to passively consume the written word.

“When we see a font that is easy to read we’re able to process that in a mindless way, but when we see an unfamiliar font, one full of weird squiggles, we have to work a little bit harder […] All the extra work, the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up,” explains science writer Jonah Lehrer at the Daily Mail Online.

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Bookmarks: historical vampires, Nabokov’s last work, and forgotten Pulitzers

Sundry links from around the Web:

  • The New York Times looks at established authors who write well into old age.
  • The co-author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies announces his next book: Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter.
  • The Wall Street Journal shines a light on the battle against the Comic Sans Serif font. Oddly, while the article provides excellent examples of the detractors’ ire, it doesn’t really establish why they hate the font so much. (Besides, we all know that if it weren’t for Comic, Ransom would take over.)
  • Coming soon from Random House: the e-book equivalent of DVD special features.
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s final book to be published in November.
  • Proving the seven-figure book deal isn’t dead – in Asia, at least – a debut novelist receives a sizable advance from Penguin India.
  • The top-ten forgotten Pulitzer-prize winners.

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Bookmarks: J.K. Rowling’s latest tome

  • Beedlemania: J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter title hits stores. (The Guardian’s Alison Flood live blogs it here)
  • Sam Leith, the venerable literary editor at The Telegraph, is informed of his “redundancy
  • Just add water? Viking unleashes the first instant paperback
  • An appreciation of Jan Tschichold, the designer behind the iconic Penguin paperback
  • The library of Oscar Wilde
  • Luxury in an era of belt-tightening: the $75 book

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Judging a book by its cover

Toronto typographer Nick Shinn, renowned around the world for his typeface designs, has spurred much debate on the forums with his recent post about “the dire state of book typography.” Using the terribly dull-looking U.S. edition of last year’s bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music, by McGill professor Daniel Levitin, as an example, Shinn tears into what he sees as fundamental problems with the book’s overall design, noting, “It severely pains me to read the damn godless thing, which is frustrating, as it’s quite interesting, and I would like to finish it.”

Shinn’s post, which breaks down everything from the book’s dreary cover to the margins of the inside text, has sparked a lengthy discussion on the Typophile message board by both industry professionals and everyday book readers about contemporary book design.

Many of the respondents point out the vast differences in book design in North America versus other territories, noting that a good case in point is Shinn’s own example: the UK edition of This is Your Brain on Music boasts a far more eye-catching cover, for instance, than the American one.

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The story of &

In recent weeks, the font nerds over at Hoefler & Frere-Jones have taken readers on an exciting adventure in kerning and answered their burning questions about the origins of the pilcrow.

This week, they recount the history of the ampersand, which stretches at least as far back as Pompeiian grafitti in 79 A.D.:

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it.

As for the word “ampersand,” folk etymologies abound. The likeliest account, offered by the OED, is explained by early alphabet primers in which the symbol was listed after X, Y, Z as “&: per se, and.” Meaning “&: in itself, ‘and’”, and inevitably pronounced as “and per se and”, it’s a quick corruption to “ampersand,” and the rest is history. Though I do like one competing explanation offered by a retired signpainter I once met, who insisted that the symbol got its name from its inventor, and was henceforth known to the trade as Amper’s And. This Mr. Amper has never surfaced, nor have any of his contemporaries who lent their names to competing models; I would have liked to see Quick’s And, on which this tale is surely built.

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Twenty-five years of The Snowman

The film adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman is almost as inescapable at this time of year as Rudolph and Charlie Brown and the Grinch. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the wordless and – come on, admit it – touching film; the stage version turns 10, and the book itself will turn 30 next year. Briggs, not known for being a particularly touchy-feely kind of author, is a little baffled at the staying power of the book and the film, according to icBerkshire:

“I can’t understand it. It just goes on and on. We don’t see a quarter of the spin-off merchandising in this country. In Japan, everything you can think of has got a snowman on it – socks, pyjamas, duvets, toothbrushes, tooth mugs, electric lamps, everything under the sun.” The wry author sighs as he admits:

“I did a piece in 1997 saying I was never going to say a word to anybody about it ever again, yet here we are. You can’t ignore the 25th anniversary, or whatever it is.”

Briggs is also profiled in The Times, which provides a glimpse into his (mostly unhappy) creative process:

To use his own words, the business of putting together a strip cartoon book is “fiddle-arsing beyond belief”.

“It’s rather like making a film. You have to write the script, then become the director. People don’t realise how complicated it is. You have to decide who is coming in from the left, who from the right. Who speaks first – the maddening thing is that the person on the left always has to speak first, which is often very awkward.

“Then you have to become the set designer, and ask ‘Where are they in this scene?’ Is it a kitchen? Is it the sitting room? What is the view from the window? Then you become the lighting person. Is it evening? Have they got any artificial light on yet? What’s the light like outside? Then you are the costume designer. What are they wearing? What did a woman’s pinny look like in the 1930s?

“Then, when the ‘film’ is finished you have to put that to one side and become a book designer – do the typography, lay out the pagination, design the number of pages . . . in film or theatre you would have hundreds of people doing this for you. But you have to do the whole bloody thing yourself.”

And on that cheery note, Quillblog rests for the holidays. We’ll be back in the new year with more stories from the mad, manic, upside-down world of … well, more stories about books, anyway.

Happy holidays.

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The jeremiad of John

The closing of the bricks-and-mortar location of Boston’s Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop (the store will continue to sell its wares online) after 30 years in business has inspired the owners to post “The Crepuscule,” John Usher’s wonderful screed on the 12 reasons for the demise of the independent bookstore. Even In Other Media can’t do justice to Mr. Usher’s pithy summation of everything that’s gone wrong in the book biz in the last two decades, but here’s one of his 12 points to whet our readers’ appetites: “Publishers, [for] marketing their product like so much soap or breakfast cereal, aiming at demographics instead of people, looking for the biggest immediate return instead of considering the future of their industry, ignoring the art of typography, the craft of binding, and needs of editing, all to make a cheapened product of glue and glitz — for being careless of a 500 year heritage with devastating result.” Ouch. (Thanks to for the link.)

Related links:
Read John Usher’s “The Crepuscule”

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

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Rimma Burashko with author Eva Stachniak

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Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

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