Book Design and Philosophy

Last week, our press kinda cleaned up at the Washington Book Publishers’ annual design and effectiveness awards.  Three of our books won prizes,* two of which were first place awards.  Seeing as we compete in the most competitive category here in DC,** that’s no small feat.

Kudos to our people.  They do good schtuff.

We’ve already dealt with good/bad/ugly covers, but what makes the body and text of a philosophy book well-designed—or, more to the point, what are the unique challenges that philosophy books pose to designers, and what are the best ways to address them?

The Problem: Difficult text, and lots of it, is pretty much the defining characteristic of a philosophical treatise: pages upon pages of very dense, technical text, becoming more complicated and convoluted the further you plow.  Sure, some books have a drawing or two, or maybe a couple of tables,*** but the text is the main challenge.

The difficulty with That Much Text is keeping it from becoming monotonous.  With nothing to break the endless columns of words, there’s a real chance the reader will become bogged down in fighting their way through the pages.  The designer’s challenge is to find a way to make strange, difficult, and alien-sounding prose into something a mere mortal can plow through.

Guide your reader: The best way to do this, as good authors know, is to put in as many section breaks and subheadings as you reasonably can—think David K. Lewis or John Searle, as opposed to Kant or Heidegger.****  Sure, in some styles and genres, breaking up the narrative is a cardinal sin,but for a philosophical text?  Giving the reader a place to catch their breath, put down the book, and think about what they just read before plowing on to the next section is a good thing.

Of course, within those narrative sections, you want the text to flow as easily as possible.  The “ideal” philosophy book should be like jumping over stepping stones to cross a creek—lots of places to stop, catch your breath, and consider your next movement, but, once in motion, your momentum should carry you easily to the next stone.  Thus, the challenge of the designer (and the author working with them) is to enable this narrative motion.

Type Nerdery!:  The first strategy is to choose an appropriate typeface, one that lends itself to forming words and lines, rather than individual letters.  The eye should flow easily through the text—which means the current trend of using sans-serif faces (especially common in those branches of philosophy that like to ape science journals) is probably a bad thing.*****  Actually, it is.  If you want your audience to notice words and lines, rather than individual letters, pick a face that seems to shape itself into words and lines!

I’m a sucker for Garalde old-style faces—Garamond, Bembo, Palatino, and Caslon.******  There’s enough contrast within the letters themselves to impart motion, but, unlike the later transitional forms, not so much that the letter dominates the line; furthermore, the shift from body to serif is not as abrupt as in the later old-style faces, meaning that the graphical element that allows for the shaping of the line is still part of the letter itself.  All this isn’t to say that there aren’t more modern-looking faces I’d use in an instant—we used Zuzana Licko’s Filosofia to excellent result in our prize-winning Community and Progress in Kant’s Moral Philosophy.  While it sometimes lacks the smooth transition between serif and body, the serifs are so very linear and well-alligned that they form lines as naturally as you could wish for.  Rather than leaving the ends of the serifs blunt, as on most slab-serif fonts, Filosofia has just enough rounding on the ends to allow for a smooth transition from letter to letter (and word to word), as opposed to the eye stopping at the end of each defined line.

Enough of me gushing over a face that doesn’t look 400 years old.  Once you’ve sworn off Helvetica as a body face, the challenge becomes line and word layout.  Some things (like discretionary ligatures) hardly even need mention (keep ’em out), but the big one, for me at least, is leading.  Seriously, make it just a bit larger than normal, and you’ll let people whose eyes have glazed over keep reading.  That little bit of extra white space means that, when my brain is fried after six hours of trying to keep Kant straight, I’ll still be able to figure out which line I’m supposed to be looking at as I try to follow the text.

Actually, if you just think of philosophers as having universally bad eyesight and design accordingly, you’re halfway there.

Section breaks: Please?  This is your chance to use tasteful dingbats, alternate characters, and discretionary ligatures.  Heck, earlier generations of philosophers got marginalia—give us moderns a little something!  If we’re going to pause, rest our eyes, catch our breath, and wonder what we got ourselves into before plowing on, feel free to give us something nice to stare at as our eyes unfocus and brain turns to mush.

If your author doesn’t believe in section breaks (or even paragraph breaks), find a handy philosopher who can actually write to help you make some up.  Your author may not believe it (“kids these days just need everything made easier for them, don’t they?”), but your readers will appreciate it.

Foreign language Schtuff: Yes, every philosopher who knows a foreign language and/or symbolic logic loves to use it.  Try as you might to keep it on a leash (“what do you mean you can’t find a copyeditor who knows Ancient Greek/Latin/Aramaic/Logician?”), you’d be well served to keep that italic version of your font of choice very handy—and hope there’s a Unicode version that looks good with it if your author uses Greek or logical notation.

For instance, much as I’ve admitted loving Filosofia, I couldn’t ever use it in a book that used too many non-Roman characters.  Nobody’s developed a Unicode polytonic greek version of it yet (and, seeing as only a very few people ever need to type “ῷ” or something equally nasty, probably never will), nor is there a set of mathematical and logical symbols that feature those oh-so-lovely serifs.  Times New Roman-ish symbols?  Blech, but sometimes you gotta. Heck, you can even make them work with Garamond or Caslon in a pinch.

Footnotes: Many presses are moving away from footnotes (something about “expense” and “layout problems”) towards endnotes; we, however, will (can?) do this only when our audience becomes less entrenched in their “it worked when I was in school!” habits.*******

Plus, if you’re an author, footnotes are good for putting in stream-of-conciousness asides and the block quotes your copyeditor told you to cut.  Trust me, the managing editor won’t notice.********

Footnotes come in two-and-a-half varieties: the substantive footnote, the “first citation” footnote, and the “subsequent citation” note.  The first two are usually long enough to justify using a single-column layout, but, for repeated citations, I like two columns; it emphasizes the fact that I’ve seen this citation before, it doesn’t create too much eye-catching white space at the bottom of the page, and it usually means that the author is doing a detailed study of a single text or section (lots of “Ibid” and such), rather than synthesizing multiple sources, some of which are going to be new.  In a way, it’s a signal that the reader is in a “cruise” section, one to read through to see concepts developed, rather than a section where new ideas that will matter later are being introduced.

It’s yet another way you can help the reader navigate the book effectively.  They may not notice exactly why it works so well, but they will notice that it works.

Navigational aids: Indices, tables of contents, extended tables of contents, etc.  Until paper books become searchable (not yet), the more of these there are, the better.  Some people do read philosophical monographs all the way through, but just as many are looking for a citation to use in a paper or book of their own—and the easier you make it for them to find what they want while they’re sitting in the library wondering if they should check out (or later buy) your book, the better.  If they see fifteen places where their topic is mentioned, five where their key person is named, and the three sections (and five other subsections) that deal directly with their thesis, your book is getting cited.  Citations are good—they make you, your book, and your press look good.

Same book, horrible navigational aids?  It’s getting put back on the library shelf.  If you’re “lucky,” someone might mention it in the course of a revise & resubmit reviewer decision—as in “how could this author not cite Poorly Designed but Brilliant?”  Unlucky?  It stays on the shelf.  Forever.

The Guiding Principle: Your book should help tired, worn-out scholars to find what they need and understand it as easily as possible.  Most of the time, we’d settle for “doesn’t get in the way,” but “is actually helpful” is actually possible.  Little graphical cues count for a lot; using a symbolic grammar to signpost where the reader is in the text, and how they should proceed is something that actually will be appreciated by your audience.

*1st place, typographic text, for Understanding Language: A Guide for Beginning Students of Greek and Latin2nd place, typographic text, for Community and Progress in Kant’s Moral Philosophy; and 1st place, typographic cover, for The Ethics of Organ Transplantation.
**Large not-for-profit press—we compete against all the DC and Baltimore university, society, and think tank presses.  As there’s no shortage of universities, societies, or think tanks around these here parts, the competition’s just a bit stiff.
***Yes, any edition of pretty much anything Wittgenstein wrote is going to have to include his odd little doodles, or paste in a color-printed plate in the middle of the book, but is it really a shock that Wiggy is kind of the exception?
****It helps that Searle and Lewis also kinda know (knew?) how to write their ways out of paper bags.  It also helps that Lewis like to throw in truly awful puns that would wake you up from your dense-idea stupor.
This shouldn’t be taken as me taking sides in the analytic/continental turf wars by any means, though—or even necessarily preferring the moderni to the ancients.  Editions of Augustine and Aquinas, to pick two, are usually chock full of breaks and obvious linguistic and layout guideposts.
*****I’m not sure if scientific and mathematical publications prefer san-serif fonts because they’re the ones that have all the really obscure mathematical and logical symbols, or if these fonts having all the fun symbols is a result of publications liking san-serif fonts, but either way, someone needs to come up with a good text face with all the logical operators so that the philosophers stop using Helvetica.  Seriously, it doesn’t help your Kant paper look more sciencey.  Quit it.
******To quote the colophon to Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, Caslon is characterized by “beauty in the shape and proportion of the letters; its general effect is clear and open, but not weak or delicate.  For uniformity, clearness, and readability, it has perhaps never been surpassed.”  I’m not one to disagree.
*******I.e., never.
******** Yes she will.  Don’t do this.
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