Are Design Books Meant to Be Read?

The folks at Unit Editions, a boutique publisher of amazing graphic design books, keep turning out stuff that I can’t resist. Back in June I pre-ordered their “most ambitious Unit publication to date — a numbered, limited edition, deluxe monograph of the legendary Herb Lubalin, one of the foremost graphic designers of the 20th century,” written by noted design writer and Unit Editions co-founder Adrian Shaughnessy.

Lubalin

It arrived in the mail recently and boy does this thing announce itself. It ships in a cardboard box, but when you open it up, the book is enclosed in another cardboard box, this one printed with some fancy graphics and the name of the book on the spine (I’m not exactly sure if I’m meant to save this second box or not). Open that, and you finally get to the book itself, wrapped in a screen-printed dust jacket — it’s interesting to me how in print design the more enclosed the content and the harder it is to get to, the more special it’s meant to feel.


The Unbearable Lightness of Reading

Inside, pure gorgeousness awaits. Page after page of exquisite photographs of original Lubalin works to pore over, extensively captioned by Shaughnessy. There’s also a copious biography of Lubalin’s life and career, roughly seventy-five pages of well-illustrated narrative and analysis that I’m genuinely interested in reading.

But, I’ll probably never read it. The book weighs something like five pounds or more, so I’ll never carry it with me, and reading on the go is how I do the vast majority of my reading. If I’m honest with myself too, the same goes for the other books I’ve bought from Unit Editions — they all sit on my shelf, basically unread and very rarely touched.

Part of the Unit Editions mission is to “bring the notion of the book as a highly designed artefact with rich visual and textual content to an international audience of design professionals, design students and followers of visual culture,” and I admire that greatly. But as laudable as it is, I can’t help but feel it deprecates the primacy of the content while favoring the object. Instead of delivering this valuable monograph in a form optimized for convenience, Unit Editions is focused on making something really fancy, something to be admired more than actually read.

Setting aside Unit Editions’ idea of “the book as a highly designed artefact,” if they or any publisher of serious design books really wants to seed the popular dialogue with thoughtful examinations of design and visual culture, it seems to me that they should make their content easier to read. Much easier. That means smaller and more portable or, if you ask my preference, available in digital form too, so you can carry it around with you on your iPad, if not your iPhone, and so that it can be more readily devoured at the reader’s convenience. Otherwise, like a lot of the graphic design world, these books really only amount to elaborate productions intended for designers to impress other designers.

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18 Comments

  1. Hyphen Press showed that a monograph doesn’t have to big and heavy to be beautiful when they published ‘Printed Matter’.

    Another great independent design publisher based in London is ‘Occasional Papers’, they have great books that are designed to be read not admired.

  2. Ulf: I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that the Crouwel catalogue is “precisely” what I recommend. That’s a supporting document to an exhibition. What I want are their primary texts, like “Lubalin.” Still, I agree, the Crouwel catalogue is a start and shows that they have the capacity to do this kind of thing, so that’s a reason to be optimistic.

  3. I want to second Ulf’s recommendation of the Wim Crouwel exhibition catalog – For someone who couldn’t see it, it’s as good alternative as it gets. I would be happy to buy the Lubalin book as an iPad app.

  4. I will now generalize even more than Joe Golike (who I think is correct). Don’t you think the issues you bring up are endemic to design culture, and maybe our culture as a whole? Even with the trend to “socially aware design”, it’s what gets rewarded in schools and design competitions. It’s how businesses and other entities try to get noticed. It feeds itself. Thanks for the alternatives, Jad and Ulf.

  5. Good post…

    While I do indeed love to LOOK over books like this along with many others, the best are always those that you can read too. Especially those that teach more of a pragmatic route to design from which our work has an opportunity to grow even greater.

    Paul Rand put it best:
    “You will learn most things by looking, but reading gives understanding. Reading will make you free.”

  6. It is true that some designers don’t read, and that a lot of design books are just meant to be eye candy.

    Your description of the Units books reminds me of my initial impression of the big Charley Harper book put out by AMMO a few years ago — it weighs something like 12 or 13 lbs. and when open, takes up easily an entire coffee table. It’s beautiful and comprehensive, but also very ostentatious and, if you know anything about the man himself, he was very humble and self-effacing. In that sense, the book design runs counter to its content.

    I was a big fan of the Looking Closer books that were probably about 8×10 paperback, densely filled with essays and could fit into a larger bag. They definitely weren’t show-off books but were/are really useful, provocative and inspiring.

  7. Apologies for coming late to this discussion thread. I’m currently in Thailand and not as attentive to web activity as usual.

    Perhaps the first thing to say is that I’m delighted to see our Lubalin book being discussed. And secondly, many of the issues raised in Khoi’s post, and in the comments thread, are questions that my publishing partner Tony Brook and me wrestle with constantly. I’ll try and deal with the main issues raised.

    Khoi’s primary concern appears to be the unwieldy nature of the book, which in turn makes it, in his view, not easy to read. It’s true that it’s a hefty book. We agonized over this — it is expensive to print, expensive to store, and expensive to ship — but in the end we decided Herb Lubalin deserved this comprehensive treatment. There has been no Lubalin monograph since Alan Peckolick’s long-out-of-print volume in 1985.

    What was our alternative? An ebook or app? Well, we’re not convinced that there is an audience for digital books on graphic design yet – perhaps there will be one day. We could leave out some aspects of Lubalin’s work and make a smaller printed book? A possibility for sure, but we decided against it. The reason we decided against it takes us to the heart of the debate around book publishing in the age of the internet — particularly in relation to books on graphic design. We reasoned that if you want to see nearly all the work Herb Lubalin ever produced, you could find it online. Therefore, if we are going to produce a book on Herb Lubalin, it had better be superior to the online alternative.

    This means creating a book that provides all the extra material you wont necessarily find online. In other words, good research, good design, good production values, and contextual details such as chronology, properly credited collaborators, and the back-story that accompanies every creative practitioner.

    It can be argued that this is too much information, and that to graze the images online is enough. But the discovery we’ve made — after three years of constant analysis — is that there is a strong appetite amongst designers for the printed book, as long as it is a well-designed object with good content. Bar a couple of titles, we’ve pretty much sold very copy of every book we’ve ever made.

    As a writer, I’m naturally disappointed if people choose not to read the text, but if they only want to buy the book for the visual content and the book’s design, I’ll live with that. I would find it much harder to live with the criticism that Unit books are skimpy eye-candy and thin on content.

    As a final point, I’d add that despite the books undoubted heft, typographically it is a comfortable read. Just don’t try reading it in bed or on the beach. OK, now where is my iPad. Ah yes, on the sun lounger where I left it.

  8. Designers have always had difficulty reading alongside good visual spreads and typography for essays sometimes suffers in larger formats. I found it hard to focus on those in Unit Edition’s Supergraphics, but hey, I didn’t buy it for the essays.

    But if you’re going to make a book in these times let’s make it a good one and I’m happy with Adrian’s reasoning. The internet has still not nailed the visual essay despite the abundance of material. Look at how the choice between horizontal and flow is not resolved and how often captions are difficult to read when placed alongside slide shows with too wide measures and too small sizes. So I’m with Adrian that when we make books we should go to town and make them different — especially now that they are freed from simply storing and displaying text.

  9. So far from Unit Editions I have read Graphic Design: A Users Manual and Studio Culture. Both of these books were an excellent read.

    I have to be honest though. I would never read a hard-back book. I find them cold and clunky to read, and I almost never read in the studio. I wouldn’t buy a book unless it was portable.

  10. This book is meant to be read on the toilet while at peace, over long stretches of time. A passage hear and a passage there. Its an entertaining an aspirational read. The book is visually seductive and the content is typographically hardcore. Its design smut at the highest level. Wouldn’t change a thing. Very timely book for graphic design. Thanks very much for the care/craft/and effort, it shows.

  11. I have not yet ordered the Lubalin book, however, I’d like to take the opportunity to say how truly great Graphic Design: A Users Manual is. Thank you Adrian!

  12. I’m a proud owner of the 0221 copy of this book, and reading this comments made me wonder if I’m the only one who actually read the whole thing. Hey Adrian, keep writing you guys have a special place in my bookshelf.