Book design and emotional information

Removing the book from its dusty place, I instantly recalled why I had forgotten it. My fingers remembered the rough paper and cheap binding, its unnecessary thickness and weight. My eyes glanced over its feeble, advertising stricken body and summoned the memory of its boring and conventional typesetting.

Recently I’ve been going through some old books that I’ve collected over the years but never managed to finish for one reason or another. One of these books is Hitch-22, the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens. It provides insights into his life as he defends his controversial ideas on economics, religion and politics.

I remembered the last thing that went through my mind as I stopped reading it: why does great writing feel so ugly? This object is literally the essence of a man’s life and yet it has been forcibly coerced into this tortured husk that sits woefully on my shelf.

Another book on this list of forgotten things is The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. It explores, in exquisite detail, the wonder of evolution and natural selection, and investigates the ways in which every living thing that walked the earth fought, adapted and died so their genes could live on. Where Hitch-22 is the description of a single man’s life, The Greatest Show on the description of life itself:

Hummingbird eyes, hawk-moth eyes, butterfly eyes, hover-fly eyes, bee eyes are critically cast over wild flowers, generation after generation, shaping them, colouring them, swelling them, patterning and striping them, in almost exactly the same way as human eyes later did with our garden varieties...

And yet The Greatest Show on Earth is just as ignorantly designed as Hitch-22. The object is uncomfortable, ugly and ultimately disrespectful of the eloquent ideas contained within. The photographic pages, spread liberally throughout, fail horribly in their role and ultimately cause confusion or misery to anyone that attempts to decipher them.

It seems that something crucial is destroyed in this journey from the words of the author to the reader, as the object’s destructive influence does something to the information on transit. The ideas expressed by the beautiful words of Dr Dawkins become less persuasive, less important, therefore making his argument and evidence seem less empirical, less established and certainly less wonderful. Likewise, within the confines of its ugly shell, the confident and bold words of Hitchens appear to be plagued with uncertainty and doubt. There is a complicated mixture of ergonomic and aesthetic malfunction at work in these books and, because of this, some sort of information is being misplaced in the process.

Emotional Information

Some believe that there are two things in an object that must come together in order for it to be a good product of design. We have all heard that these things must be in balance and must be carefully considered by the designer before anything is made. These two ethereal things are commonly referred to as function and form. However I believe that these ideas are inadequate to describe this situation. Instead I think that the problem with these things is much more interesting than a simple miscalculation between function (must be suitable for mass production) and form (dull if not painful typesetting & uninspired cover design). The real problem with these books and their design has nothing to do with the limits of mass production or function outweighing form. Instead it is the complete disregard for the content’s emotional information. So you might ask me to be more specific; what exactly is emotional information? Here we can turn to Robert Bringhurst:

A book is a flexible mirror of the mind. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all blend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made. If the book appears to be only a paper machine, produced at their own convenience by other machines, only machines will want to read it.

Robert Bringhurst, Elements of Typographic Style

An example that sets itself apart and uses emotional information to its advantage would be the recently published books by the Wabi-Sabi Press. They are cheap, small paperbacks and contain various essays by Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, an early 20th century author that wrote extensively about Japanese culture.

The objects appear at first to be like any other book at any large, commercial bookstore. But when we open them and begin to read, it’s immediately obvious that a great deal of care and thought was put into them and how they should best reflect the words of this particular writer. The hygienic look of their covers entirely devoid of advertisements, the comfort of their size and shape, the texture of the paper; the books by the Wabi-Sabi Press eloquently explain themselves through emotion.

The Form of the Book is a Physical Interface

Another way of looking at the object is that of an interface or a system; one that teaches the reader about its tone, its methods of persuasion, its topic and its personality. If we were to strip every single book from its interface and digitally store the text, the emotional experience of most books would be held intact (for example Hitch-22 and The Greatest Show on Earth). They would be read in exactly the same manner as before; nothing would have been lost in translation. And yet, there would be other books that feel naked. They would have an essential part of their experience missing; the invisible information given to us by their interface.

I wonder just how much we are missing from badly made books.