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.

Bookstore Boundaries

This is what I mean. Next time you visit one of these stores — or any similar, large-scale book retailer — walk over, first, to the section where all the books on Web design are stored, the shelves where you can find copies of “Designing with Web Standards,” “About Face” and “Designing for Interaction,” among others.

Then walk over to the section where all the graphic design books are stored, the shelves where you can find copies of “Design, Form & Chaos,” “The Elements of Typographic Style” and “Grid Systems in Graphic Design.”

In all likelihood, you had to visit entirely different parts of the store in order to find both of those batches of books, right? The former were probably sitting side-by-side with technical tomes of all kinds, while the latter were stashed in a tonier section, near the books about art and architecture.

A Sense of Shelf Worth

That just shouldn’t be the case, not at all. To be sure, it’s symptomatic of the huge divide between ‘traditional’ graphic design and interaction design that these subsets of books, which theoretically cater to similar audiences, are so dramatically segregated. But just as importantly, it says something about how these two kinds of design books are conceived, pitched and sold in the market right now. Authors, publishers and consumers think of books that deal with the world of ‘traditional’ graphic design as being vessels for ideas about an art form. And, with few exceptions, they think of books that deal with the world of interaction design and ‘new media’ as being technical documents.

You might defend this divide by arguing that traditional graphic design books tend to deal with concepts and abstractions, while the latter deal primarily with technique. But I say hogwash. It doesn’t take much browsing of the graphic design bookshelves to find, perched nearby to “Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist,” a copy of “Layout Workbook: A Real-World Guide to Building Pages in Graphic Design.” In this region of the bookstore, big ideas and august retrospectives have long co-existed with much more pragmatic, tactical how-to’s. There’s no particularly profound reason why they’re not displayed together — other than no one has realized that they belong together.

All of which is a very long-winded manner of expressing my goal for whatever book I’m telling myself I’m going to write next year. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull it off, but if upon its publishing you walk into your local Barnes & Noble bookstore and you find my book on a shelf anywhere near “Design Writing Researchand near “Bullet Proof Web Design” — in both places or, heck, if both places are in fact the same place — then I will consider it a big, big success. Then again, if it ever shows up on any shelves anywhere, I’ll be pretty damn happy, too.

  1. Have you thought about how you’ll release the book? I can only assume, having read so much here and elsewhere about the intersection and opposition of Print and Digital, that you’d want to release an online version of the book. It would be interesting to see where you go with that — just a PDF? Actual webpages with a unique presentation for the web, links and all?

    It’s probably much to early to be thinking about that, but in any case, I think I speak for many when I say I’m excited.

  2. I also would dig a PDF version or even a low-cost option from Lulu, like Cameron did for his Mobile Web Design book. As far as topics and content goes, I know your book will kick butt so that’s the least of my concerns.

  3. Can’t wait to see what you come up with. Glad that you decided to stay away from typographic grids, you have been pretty successful so far with telling people about it, why say it again in a book.

    Not completely sure what you are getting at with the idea of these two different kinds of book. Perhaps your book is about bringing traditional and the new together? Anyways, best of luck with whatever happens.

  4. I wouldn’t blame the booksellers too much. I think it comes down to the fact that aspects of computer /web related books go out of date very fast. And even the websites featured in them could be gone or changed very quickly. The web is an ever changing medium and it just doesn’t hold the interest to attempt the same ‘looking back at great web designs’ as static designs the way print does and can.

    There was a good book I had maybe 10 yrs ‘Secrets of Successful Web Sites’ that did go into details about maybe 20 websites and it held up very well as it showed the development of the websites, sketches, conversations that related to the content and what was trying to be achieved etc., It was quite journalistic and insightful.

  5. Khoi, this is good news. Both of those shelf spaces are in desperate need of something good, so it would be interesting to see what you can put out in either or neither. Looking forward to it.

    On the subject of books, I recently picked up ‘Formulare gestalten’
    in Zurich and thought you’d appreciate it. Its a phenomenal book about, simply put, the life and design of forms (across media and ‘forms’, digital/analog, etc).

    I’d consider this one a must for anyone working with interactive media.
    Only published in German.

    Formulare gestalten


  6. Recovering library school student here… Most bookstores use a classification system called “BISAC Headings.” Sure enough “COMPUTERS / Internet / Web Page Design” is far away from the design section “ART / Graphic Arts.”

    You can see this in other classification systems, too. In Dewey Decimal my Jeffrey Zeldman is a 004, but my Bob Gill is a 745.

    I guess this made sense in the 90s or whenever the first web design books showed up. It’s really really hard to change classification systems, unfortunately.

  7. The BISAC headings are assigned by the publisher, and they are generally ignored by the bookstores, who choose which books get shelved where according to whatever system they see fit. And those making these shelving decisions often have no special expertise to decide what should go where, which is probably especially frustrating for the more technical books.

    For one simple example, does Bill Clinton’s autobiography belong in politics or autobiography?

    This is something publishers spend a great deal of time worrying about because they usually have very specific ideas of where books should be shelved, and they’re usually flummoxed by where they’re shelved by the stores.

  8. One of the reasons that I read your blog over other design blogs is this site isn’t just a “these are things I like” list. The reader (that’s me) has the ability to understand how you think, what influences you and your process. Too often those discussions are missing in design education. And its very often missing in the “how to” books especially. I think that gap is being bridged slowly, but we all need to hurry it along. I eagerly await the book. And as for the distribution ideas: as someone that loves print and traditional publishing, I hope that you don’t try anything new fangled — PDFs and the like. I want a real book that I can own and hold. I know, weird, huh?

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