Summer 2000

The skeleton of a good read

Making Books: Design in British Publishing since 1945

Alan Bartram
The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, £20

This is a strongly personal selection of examples of book design, many from the author’s own collection, and fully informed of the important movements during the postwar period. Alan Bartram (who also designed the 260 x 266mm book) states his own opinions from the outset, and sets out the standpoint from which he observes his chosen typographical landscape.

The work shown reflects a catholic taste, praising effective solutions to the many basic problems of typography, from whichever tradition they may arise. He even allows that good typography can occasionally admit decorative qualities that do not come solely from the subject matter, or the arrangement of the text and illustrations. Conversely, he rightly attacks the indiscriminate use of ornament that is inappropriate to subject and structure, so characteristic of many present-day illustrated books.

Throughout the introductory text and extended captions, the author describes the functions of a book designer in the decade or so following the end of the Second World War, and the ways in which existing approaches were modified, or even overthrown, by the return of outside influences. This happened notably through the work of émigrés and the revelation of Swiss design, refined in relative isolation during the war years.

He believes that logical structures, limitation of type sizes and carefully judged hierarchies in text and headings are still important in the meaningful ordering of text and illustrations. They are the underlying skeleton that supports and reveals the book’ s subject matter.

It is also good to be reminded of the contributions made by such artists as John Minton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Michael Ayrton in the design and illustration of books during the 1940s and 1950s, especially through the use of autographic methods in which the artist prepares the printing surface. These approaches to illustration were already in being before the advent of the war, together with evidence of greater typographical refinement in the commercially produced book. The ground was prepared for the changes to come in the postwar period under review.

The illustrative material in this survey consists of title pages and double-page openings from books and book-like catalogues, each supported by a perceptive analytical description. Many items are reproduced at actual size, others in reduction. One criticism I would make of this arrangement is that some confusion is created where several openings from a specimen are shown together, or interposed, at different scales. Apart from this small stricture, the chronological flow of reproductions and explanatory captions (which include page depths in millimetres) present the author’s thesis with admirable clarity.

A brief section at the end deals with the design of covers and dust jackets. The publication is printed throughout in black and white, which performs well in reproducing some difficult examples and is generally adequate for the purposes.

The book closes with a gentle critique of present-day procedures, making a proper distinction between the capabilities of new techniques and the ways in which these can be too easily abused. The author highlights what he terms the ‘basic decencies of typographic behaviour … which relate to the human eye and the mechanics of reading’ and are ‘ignored at our peril’.

This survey of book design over a period that witnessed such wide-ranging changes – both in the typographic structure of the book and in the methods of production – is a worthwhile addition to the available literature.

Ray Roberts, designer, Guildford

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.


EYE36

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