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.

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Reading “Game of Thrones” in the Real World

Just about every book I’ve read over the past few years I’ve read in electronic form, either on my iPhone or on my iPad. But for a recent weekend getaway, I bought a paperback copy of George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” on a whim, so that I’d have something to read on the beach. It’s nice to not have to worry about a book overheating in the sun or electrically shorting from water.

“A Game of Thrones” is a long book. A really, really long book. I’m still reading it, which means I’m toting it around with me on my commute. It’s a supermarket-style paperback, small and compact enough to fit just barely into my jacket pocket, but it sticks out just enough for people to see.

One thing I had completely forgotten about is how communal popular books can be. A few people have spotted “A Game of Thrones” in my pocket or saw me reading it on the subway and then started friendly conversations with me about it, something that never would have happened if I were reading it on my phone, where every book is effectively invisible to everyone but me. I remember reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone just after it came out, at a time when lots and lots of people were reading it too, but I realize now that I was reading it in a kind of isolation, where people around me were unaware of the concurrency.

I’m not sure that this communal feeling is enough to outweigh the benefits of reading books electronically, but I know I’ve enjoyed it while reading this novel. I’m not a sword and sorcery fan, really, and I find “A Game of Thrones” to be frustrating and somewhat ridiculous even as I admit it’s extremely well-crafted and probably more entertaining than it is tedious. It’s been fun debating this ambivalence with both friends and strangers, most of whom I never would have guessed were fans of the series.

It would be nice if there was a way to replicate that part of the reading experience electronically too, that kind of real world happenstance that doesn’t require signing up or signing in to anything, just carrying around whatever book you’re reading and being open enough in your body language to welcome small talk from perfect strangers. It just goes to show you that the electronic reading experience has a long way to go, and all the time and effort we’ve been putting into crafting perfect layouts might be better used fleshing out some of the things that really make reading a rewarding experience.

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A Sketchbook Book

If you’re still looking for a great holiday present, It’s not too late to run down to your local bookseller or order overnight delivery for this terrific book I just got my hands on: it’s called “Graphic: Inside the Sketchbook of the World’s Great Graphic Designers,” and it’s another production from the prolific Steven Heller, who co-edited the book with Lita Talarico.

Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to be included within the 352 pages of drawings, doodles, paintings, collage and random visual goodness from over one hundred prominent graphic designers. On page 340 (the book is organized alphabetically by last name) you’ll find about a dozen sample pages taken from the many sketchbooks that I’ve kept over the years. In addition to my own work, there are samples from a ton of amazing luminaries including Gary Baseman, Michael Bierut, Henrik Drescher, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Bruce Mau, Christoph Niemann, Art Spiegelman and many others.

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I Wrote a Book

I’ve been in the Bay Area all week for work, and I’ve been meaning to post this news since Monday when I finally made my deadline: my forthcoming book “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design” is now officially complete and in the hands of my publisher, New Riders. According to the listing over at Amazon, it’ll ship in early December, so you can pre-order your copy today and have it in time for the holidays. At some booksellers the current pre-order price is over a third off of the cover price, plus if you buy it through any of these links, its humble author gets a little kickback: Amazon (US), Barnes & Noble or Borders.com.

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Personal References

I get a very minor mention on page fifty of Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio’s new book, “Graphic Design, Referenced,” but that’s not why it’s worth blogging about. Rather, this book is notable as an ambitious and largely successful attempt at capturing the current state of graphic design, or at least its current state as seen through the uncommonly thorough gaze of two young, talented and already influential designer-editors.

Vit and Gomez-Palacio, operating under the name Under Consideration, were responsible for the now shuttered but once widely-read design criticism site Speak Up, where they played a key role in shaping the graphic design conversation over the past decade. Now, in “Graphic Design, Referenced,” they’ve capitalized on their rather breathtaking ability to pull off massive editorial feats with a kind of contemporary history of their chosen field, a beautiful, page-turner of a tome that aims to be “A Visual Guide to the Language, Applications, and History of Graphic Design.”

I received my copy in the mail not long ago and was frankly astonished when I opened it up. I was vaguely aware that they had been working on a book, but I had no idea that they had aimed so high. So I felt compelled to find out more and struck up an email conversation with Armin, a friend of mine, to find out more.

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Reading Is Fundamental, Steve

Earlier this year, I quietly set out to prove Steve Jobs wrong. You may remember what I’m talking about: in that inimitably dismissive way that he has, the Apple CEO rejected the idea that the Amazon Kindle held much promise, contending that “Americans don’t read anymore.” It wasn’t that I wanted to prove him wrong on the Kindle (a product for which I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm). Rather, I wanted to disprove at least for myself his statement that “the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

Jobs argued, “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.” But somewhere along the way I got it in my head that to really prove anything to, well, myself, then I’d have to read a book a month, at least. So it’s two-thirds of the way through the year now. Here’s my progress.

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The Art of Japanese Books on Art

Art Space Tokyo CoverWhenever it is that I’ll finally get an opportunity to make it to Japan, I plan to take with me a copy of “Art Space Tokyo,” an unexpectedly stunning bit of cultural travelogue from Chin Music Press. It’s a beautiful — and I mean gorgeous — guide to “twelve of Tokyo’s most distinctive galleries and museums,” written in English, lovingly edited by Ashley Rawlings and masterfully designed and curated by a friend of mine, Craig Mod of Hitotoki fame.

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Our Books, Our Shelves

Even though it’s only November, I’ve been sitting around thinking about next year, specifically about what I’m going to do with it. As I indicated recently, my plan is to scale back on the number of speaking engagements I’ll do in 2008. Partly, I want more time at home and less time at the mercy of the airlines. And partly my plan is to spend at least some of that time writing a book. (I’m nervous even saying that here because who knows if I really have it in me to actually finish writing a book, to say nothing of getting it published.)

What kind of book, you might ask? Well, I’ve decided that it’s not going to be a book about typographic grids, in spite of what modest sums of notoriety I’ve achieved with regard to that subject. Beyond what I’ve committed to blog posts and extemporized at conferences so far, I just don’t think I have much more to say about grids. They’re a valuable and fascinating tool for design, but I feel that, for now anyway, I’ve reached an upper limit on my ability to add to the discourse.

What other subject, then, for this so-called book I’m allegedly planning to write? It’s something that’s still germinating, so it would be premature to go into detail on it now. If and when I get further down the road with it — and if I get a sufficient, confidence-building head of steam — I fully expect to be drafting at least parts of the manuscript in public view on this blog. So not to worry; if it ever becomes a real thing and not just me talking aimlessly, then you’ll get more posts about the book than you care to read about right here.

However, without going into too much detail, I can offer one high-level idea of what kind of product I’m going for: it should be the kind of book that simplifies the shopping experience at your local Barnes & Noble bookseller.

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Two Books by Two Designers

I’m at a point in my life know where I actually know real authors of real books. It’s strange, because these are regular, ‘one pant leg at a time’ human folk like you and me, and yet somehow they’ve managed to articulate a real, honest to goodness view of the world… and they’ve convinced other folks to print it for them. Now you can buy these books via the Interweb and even hold them in your hand. It’s amazing to me.

So, having said that, now I’m going to plug two of them.

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Apple’s Unnecessary Objects

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Pamela Paul reviewed “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole,” a new book by the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber. (It has a very good cover.) In reading it, I was struck by one phrase she wrote:

“Children’s lives are reduced to shopping excursions in which their identities are subsumed by brands — they’re the Nike generation, Abercrombie kids, iPod addicts.”

Hold up, “iPod addicts”? I haven’t read Barber’s book yet, so I don’t know if he in fact includes Apple and its ubiquitous iPod among his list of corrupting, infantalizing and, ahem, swallowing culprits. But the mention of everyone’s favorite fruit company alongside what I consider to be less seemly brands — Nike and Abercrombie are two of my least favorite companies anywhere — was a surprise.

In reading this, I was also reminded of a scene from “Fight Club,” an admittedly much less serious critique of modern capitalism, in which the characters embarked on a casual vandalism spree, targeting various consumer brands. For a very brief moment, an old-style Apple logo is displayed prominently in one of the targeted window displays. It’s not a flattering guest appearance for a logo, as the message is clear: Apple is an enemy.

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