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Book Design in a Time Machine (1918 to 2005)

My two short stories have come back from Blurb. They have been bound in hardback with dust jackets at a standard trade size. Overall I am pretty happy with the quality of the sample, though as always, I would have loved more time to explore the design possibilities. I developed these two pieces to practice book design and learn a bit more about typesetting in InDesign CS5. This was a great opportunity to develop some consistent internal illustrations, frontispieces and dust jackets aimed at an adult audience. The books presented very different design challenges given one story is set in the Middle East during WW1 and the other in Antarctica in the winter of 2005.

Preservation has sketchy sepia-toned illustrations in keeping with Victorian and Edwardian book styles. I used a limited colour palette, art nouveau borders and cornice ornaments to give the book an old world charm. The dust jacket was developed using scanned wooden book covers from the late 1800s and marbled end papers from a war-era schoolbook.

A Flower for a Geologist is more graphical, with full bleed colour plates and uncluttered layouts. There is a running theme of Morse code symbols as the main character likes to communicate using ham radio systems. Rather than being direct interpretations of the story, the internal illustrations act as thematic props. Frankly, impersonal medical and scientific illustrations are not to my taste, but they do reflect the coldness of the story and sometimes clients will demand that I  “take myself out” of the artwork. With more time, I’d like to revisit this book and develop some pastel paintings of the Antarctic landscape.

I have had polar reactions to the books; people seem to be drawn to one design over the other. Developing these up to a finished product has taught me how much book design has changed over a hundred year period. My flatmate has been collecting early 1980s editions of Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair series. With their wild psychedelic colours, innocent illustrations and bloated columns of text, you can really feel the weight of those three decades. Today’s book design definitely has a sterility about it and there is a noticeable trend towards stark typographic covers. A great way to see how book design has changed over the years is to look at the succession of covers for long-fuse classics like War of the Worlds. Designing “retrospectively” is a great way to communicate the setting of the story.


During my research I stumbled across a funny eulogy for book design. I’m not so cynical to assume that electronic publishing will be the death of beautiful books. In fact, there are even some gems amongst the rubble in the Catalogues of Vanity (see Blurb, Lulu and other POD ventures – and I’m a culprit of these services myself).  Some of us don’t want to empower readers to chose their own font size and typeface. Thankfully there still designers out there who care about forced justification, orphans and widows. I cannot begin to guess what will happen when Generation-Z become the art directors.

Frontispiece for Preservation

Frontispiece for A Flower for a Geologist


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