The twenty year mark from when I bought my first Macintosh computer in November of 1989, a IIx, approaches. Before that, from 1985 on, I had been an Apple Computer fan, but I belonged to the family of Apple II users—at first on a IIe and then a IIgs. At that point all I knew was that computers fascinated me, I wanted a personal computer of my own, and I desperately wanted to do something using computers.
Initially, I thought I might learn to program. I fancied the idea that I could imagine and then create some cool program that would be marketable and earn me a living. But gradually it dawned on me that—to borrow from the writer’s canon—I should do something I knew. That led me to thinking about books and publishing. I had been a copy editor and proofreader for some years before and enjoyed a fair idea of how words on the printed page ought to look.
Coincidentally, a friend from my civil service day career, showed me something he had printed on an ImageWriter II dot matrix printer from his Mac Plus. He got remarkably better-looking type than I did from the same printer on my Apple IIgs. My print looked, well … like what it was: dot matrix print. His, thanks to the miracle of Postscript and the Macintosh OS looked very, very nice.
So I got myself the Macintosh IIx, LaserWriter IInt, and began to play with some garage-sale software—Microsoft Word, Excel, and PageMaker. For Christmas that year, I treated myself to full versions of QuarkXPress, Adobe Illustrator and PageMaker, and Adobe Garamond and Futura typeface families. This was before I discovered mail-order software houses and their discounted prices; consequently, I paid noticeably more than necessary.
It took three years before I actually got my first book to lay out. Still more time passed before I jumped from production to design. Now I prefer to lay out books that I design—covers and interiors—so that the vision of a book’s appearance that I execute is my own.
And in all the years since, as my tools and skills improved, a handful of constants grew clear to me.
First, the book designer and the layout artist have one job: to bring the author’s words and any pictures to the reader. Anything else is gravy for the designer, maybe unnecessary, and sometimes a distraction that proves the designer incompetent—no matter how great the book looks.
I often wonder whether anyone can argue this point. Is there a book designer who believes that a book becomes about the designer and less the author once the design process begins.
Next, at least half the occupation of the freelance book designer/layout artist is finding that next paying project.
Does anyone know a way around this? I mean, besides becoming a Chip Kidd or David Carson.
Finally, there is always one more great and interesting book—perhaps saying new things, more likely revisiting things I learned previously and read before—that I will enjoy leafing through and reading.
Anyone who read this blog before my site and everything else was hacked into, costing me my archive—so far—knows the books I rave about: Bringhurst, Hochuli/Kinross, Hendel, and the rest. Anyone name a book I have never mentioned?
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It was fun seeing this piece again. Eleven-and-a-half years ago. I was still, essentially, moonlighting as a freelance book designer, as I also worked a 9-to-5 as a court clerk. I’m now semi-retired–retired, that is, from my job as a court clerk and working now simply as a freelance book designer/layout artist, as busy as I’d hoped to be at this point when I began my book design practice.