Autumn 2005

Genetics of the 'open' text

Children’s information books communicate their content with an energetic visual language

The task of tracing visual language in book design is a challenge, but one that is useful to take up in order to help us understand how readers make meaning of what they read. Studying the lineage of some forms of layout also sheds light on how design fits into and contributes to culture in a wider sense. Children’s science books – the highly graphic and colourful ones published over the last 30 years or so in the UK – provide some excellent examples of complex visual language, partly because they tend to be more highly illustrated than books meant for adults. But how do diagrams, illustrations and different forms of text interact to produce ‘content’ in these books? Meaning does not reside in the book alone, but is dependent on context: the particular conditions of reading, and the wider social and cultural environment. This is an exploration of book design as a medium of communication.

Many changes have occurred in British children’s publishing over the past 30 years. These have had a visible impact on the design of children’s books. The main technological shift was perhaps the advent of the Apple Macintosh as a standard design tool in the mid-1980s, which fundamentally changed both the graphic make-up of the page and structures of production. The development of new education standards also had an impact; the introduction of the first National Curriculum in 1988 was followed by a boom in children’s publishing. Many non-fiction books are produced to complement National Curriculum content, and their publishing schedules often parallel those of scholarly publishers. There have also been more general changes in the publishing industry. The highly visual books by the French publisher Gallimard have been influential in terms of both design and production. And then there are economic factors: the downturn of the mid-1990s and trends towards faster production cycles in a climate of ever more concentrated ownership among the most successful publishers.

In the middle of all of this are the books themselves: non-fiction books on science, not to be confused with school textbooks. Sometimes derisively labelled ‘edutainment’, they are glossy, highly graphically differentiated and often materially seductive. These books provide a good starting point to study visual language because many forms of scientific illustration are highly standardised and there is a well established history of scientific publishing. It is also an inherently visual field, in which certain types of pictures and diagrams are crucial to conveying concepts that would be almost impossible to describe in prose, such as the structure of DNA or the oxygen cycle.

As in verbal language, it is possible to locate genres in this form of book design, because contemporary children’s books are part of a continuum of publishing that stems back to the earliest print and even manuscript eras.

Graphic norms
Many structural elements of book design (tables of contents, illustrations, captions, etc.) have been established for centuries in the Western tradition. Various standards of graphic design also date back to old traditions; Anthony Froshaug asserted that all typography pre-supposes a grid, the use of which originates in scribal traditions that were translated into metal typesetting. This ‘procrustean bed’ has become an underlying assumption in book design. Other conventions are borrowed. Pages crowded with graphic sound bites take their cues from magazine design and advertising. This is practice growing out of history. Like verbal language, the development of visual communication is a social process, and evolves from sets of shared conventions. The challenge is to find a way of unravelling the characteristics of this highly graphic form.

The architecture of the book
One way to approach the tricky business of describing book design is to unpack the hierarchy or granularity of the layout. We can start by identifying the atomic level, that of the irreducible elements of design. This includes self-contained images, typographic and graphic elements: the basic building blocks of the page. These elements are organised and arranged according to over-arching rules; the guiding principles of grids, style guides and typographic hierarchies.

Thus the smallest details of type, or micro-typography (to use Jost Hochuli’s phrase) and other elements ultimately conform to the architectural system of the whole book: the macro-typography. The basic graphic elements combine to form ever larger, meaningful groups on the book page, over a two-page spread and over the whole book. A characteristic of graphic language is that these graphic clusters can be embedded or nested into each other – these are not linear but diagrammatic arrangements.

Consider the page layout of popular large-format (A4) science books. The content is often organised by theme into two-page spreads. Here content follows form: if a book is organised into equal increments, topics tend to get stretched or condensed to fit into them. The two-page spread stands alone as a graphic unit, and the ‘text’ includes the eye-catching graphic treatments, images, and pull-quotes; it acts something like a map or a diagram itself. Children can open the book to any spread and be provided with a self-contained snapshot of information, one that places no requirements on their having read any other part of the book. Moreover, they need not read all they see – particularly convenient if the attention span of the readership is limited.

Ways of reading
The design characteristics of these books can only be understood in relation to their context of use: it is the way that the books are handled and read that makes the design ‘work’. In these examples it is evident that neither pictures, diagrams nor written text need have primacy in a highly graphic layout. In fact these elements are often interdependent, which makes reading this kind of book entirely unlike reading the continuous, linear text of a novel, for instance. Readers have to have some knowledge of the graphic conventions being used in order to gain meaning from a text, and the vigorous patchwork of a highly illustrated layout suggests a particular type of interaction from the reader. These books are meant to be entertaining while educational, and are designed for speed; picture to text to caption can be skimmed with agility. There are assumptions about reading methods built into these pages, which conform to what has been called ‘open’ text – page layout that does not want to be read ‘in order’ but in meandering and non-linear exploration. Closed texts, in contrast, are less granular, more linear and promote what has been called ‘serial reading’. This is not just about the page, however: do arguments connect over two-page spreads, through chapters, or through the whole book?

An archetypal ‘open’ text is the visual dictionary or encyclopedia, where the information is not intended to be read in sequential order. These are commonly slightly smaller formats than non-fiction books, often B5 or thereabouts. The reading model here tends towards one of quick consultation; alphabetical and short subject-based arrangements propose quick interrogations rather than sustained, attentive reading.

What not to decode
The language of book design involves both formal and cultural aspects – design features and reading models. But looking closely at these books does not entail ‘decoding’ the design as though it were all deliberate visual utterance, as has been recklessly done by some theorists interested in graphic language. Designers appreciate how many aspects of book design may be the product of happy accident, the application of style guides, the constraints of page sizes, budgets and production schedules, or the result of an editing or publishing process. The production technology also has an impact on the graphic make-up of the page. The design of these books is directly related to the way that different institutions and situations bring about different approaches to design and publishing. And it seems that books are rarely products of a seamless, coherent process, or of an over-arching ‘authorial vision’. Various webs of production exist in which authors, editors and designers take on different roles, subcontract some aspects of work, or work in teams.

Marketing also influences design decisions. Children’s non-fiction is sold to parents rather than to children, and the books are produced to fit categories on bookshop shelves. Children’s books, like other consumer products, must fit certain profiles for marketability. All of these factors prevent us from analysing the design of a book as the intentional work of a single designer.

But insofar as the designer has a role, understanding visual language adds weight to the practice of design; with more knowledge of contextual factors and how readers make sense of highly graphic layout, our work can be stronger. This idea stands in opposition to a conception of design as a mere vessel of abstract, platonic content. A graphic tone of voice, drawing on cultural and historical associations and promoting certain reading methods, will have a great effect on content, precisely because its power is covert.

This view of graphic language also challenges the notion of novelty and individuality in design. The Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness series, among others, is powerful precisely because it adheres to certain visual traditions. Designers work within the limits of certain visual languages by necessity. It all boils down to basic communication theory: if we don’t use language that others understand and share, communication breaks down.

This is perhaps one of the enduring paradoxes of design; we create something that is both a unique object, and part of a larger tradition and history of publishing. Though we may not always be aware of it, we as designers draw on common vocabularies of form and style to communicate. And readers will bring their knowledge of these to bear on what they read, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Select sources
Hochuli, J. and Kinross R. (1996) Designing books: practice and theory, Hyphen Press, London.

Froshaug, A. (1967/2000) ‘Typography is a grid’ in Typography & Texts, Hyphen Press, London.

Twyman, M. L. (1985) ‘Using Pictorial Language: A Discussion of the Dimensions of the Problem’ in Designing Usable Texts, eds. Duffy and Waller, Academic Press, London.

Waller, R. (1988) The typographic contribution to language. PhD thesis, The University of Reading.

Katherine Gillieson, designer, lecturer, Reading and London

First published in Eye no. 57 vol. 15.


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.