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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015

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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

Hot Lead, Cold Type, and Little Digital Bits: Part III

What was it about books that really changed when we entered the digital age? At first, it was little more than the input. In 1986, I was publishing a variety of association journals and newsletters. I was driving from typesetter to printer with a bunch of keylines when I saw a billboard that advertised a Desktop Publishing Seminar. That day I bought my first computer (Apple 512k Fat Mac) and publishing software. I waited three months for Aldus PageMaker to be released so I could really start publishing electronically. But the process I used post-computer was for publishing was substantially the same. I simply did my design work and layout on the computer and produced the keylines whole instead of doing paste-up. Later, I went direct to negative without keylines, and eventually even experimented with on-press imaging. The result was little more than the automation of a process that publishers had been using since the mid-50s.

The change came when shifted the delivery system. Instead of delivering content on paper, we began delivering content on-screen. According to the traditional designers and publishers of the day, we were out to kill the book. I have to confess, even though it wasn’t our intent, as a part of the on-screen revolution we did our part to maim if not kill.

First off, we destroyed typography. When the Internet was devised, it was a means of making text instantly available across a wide network. The text had no formatting. It was a wonder if we could even tell where paragraphs ended. But engineers had an answer. The World Wide Web came into existence and html provided the tools for formatting content. Having worked with computer programmers for the past decade and a half, it is no surprise to me that the “design” of Web pages more closely resembled computer code than books. The type choices had to be what was universally available and the proprietary fonts of the publishing industry were left out of the mix. Even when designers and typographers entered the mix, the results of their efforts remained buried in select software that did not transfer from device to device.

The resulting typography and, by extension, design was terrible, and it is no wonder that the bulk of traditional print designers eschewed the Web and then eBooks. Typography is terrible, letterspacing is terrible, there’s no pagination, the design falls apart, everything is linear, you can’t control what it looks like, it is unreadable. Sound familiar? Those traditional designers who did transfer into electronic design often attempted to assert their control by specifying type in number of pixels, forcing exact page sizes, and even embedding fonts or using graphic images of pages to preserve exact formatting. As soon as these pages left the computer they were designed on, they fell apart. Designers couldn’t control what readers read on.

gutenbergsiteSo a new breed of content designer began to emerge that understood both publication design and computer code. What they discovered was that giving up control over some aspects of the design resulted in better-looking documents across a wider range of devices. The engineers weren’t all as design-blind as we thought they were. And when we applied appropriate document structure to our content, the design could be enhanced many times over.

Designing for eBooks is still a tricky process. Converting print documents (whether through scan or conversion of PDF or text files) often results in poorly structured content that cannot be effectively laid out on the electronic page. It takes a designer who understands the structural code of XHTML and CSS to create a good looking eBook, and one that understands the limitations of the various reading devices to create a great one.

Sometimes I envy the designers who worked with hot lead, but I imagine those who converted from hand-lettered manuscripts to the metal bits of type bemoaned the loss of artistry and control they had when they dipped a stylus in ink and drew each letterform on the page.

As shown in the story of The Gutenberg Rubric, there have been multiple revolutions in the design and creation of books. Each one requires the use of new tools and those who reach the highest levels of artistry do so because they take the time to learn how to use their tools well.

(The Gutenberg Rubric, a novel by Nathan Everett, will be released on July 28. Order your copy today!)

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