The art of book design

Originally published as ‘Cover Story’ in Vogue Australia
May 2017

Instead of cats and over-styled food, my Instagram feed is a stream of book covers. I spend hours perusing the artfully designed rectangles floating across my phone screen, each representing a printed book that promises to entertain, challenge or educate me. Books flow in from the accounts of large publishing houses, independent presses, designers and bloggers. The high number of followers of these accounts heartens me: I am not alone. I belong to an expansive community of book lovers who enjoy browsing books, even on digital platforms.

A few of the bookish Instagram accounts that fill my feed

Rather than killing the market for printed books, digital media is creating new ways to admire and acquire. In 2016, sales of print books in Australia, the UK and the US increased as sales of ebooks declined. Accompanying the growth in book sales is an expanding social culture around books and reading. Writers festivals report record attendances. Readers young and old queue for book signings, revering writers almost like rock stars. There is renewed interest in book clubs, from traditional wine-fuelled gatherings in living rooms to ‘alternative’ clubs that invite participants to discuss books while walking, knitting or visiting art galleries. ‘Top ten’ reading lists regularly pepper magazines, newspapers and websites letting us into the reading habits of celebrities, critics and authors.

In the fast-paced, ever-changing digital age, there is something comforting about the fixed nature of printed books. A book is for reading one thing at a time; we cannot be distracted by phone calls, email, social media or become lost following links. We don’t have to plug a book in or update it. Each time we return to a printed book, its content is exactly as we left it. A book is a rock in the stream of information swirling around us. At a time when so much of our culture is disembodied and ephemeral, books transcend their function as vessels to carry information and take on a more symbolic value.

For many of us, the intimacy of cradling a book and retreating into our internal world is a sacred ritual. There is a sense of ceremony in buying, borrowing or being given a book object. A printed book is uniquely our copy, to have and to hold, to dog-ear and scribble in. Books rest on our bedside tables, the first and last thing we see in our day. Books are object to be read but also totems that tell stories about us through their physical presence in our lives. Favourite books line our living spaces, their spines display titles and authors that communicate something about us to our guests, and remind us of worlds we have inhabited through reading.

The art of book design lies in considering the book as an object that a reader develops a relationship with. In response to the kinds of reading and viewing experiences we have on screens, book designers have embraced the tactile qualities of the book. Next month the Australian Book Designers Association will present its annual book design awards, highlighting the spread of innovative talent at work in this country.

Recent years have seen a trend for books with cloth or exposed board covers, such as Evi O’s design for Edible Garden Design, and embellishments such as elaborate foils, coloured edges and ribbons, as seen on Stuart Geddes design for Mongrel Rapture. There is more hand-rendered typography and original illustrations – such as Allison Colpoys’ covers for Foreign Soil and A Fairy Tale, or W.H. Chong’s art direction and design for the Text Classics series – a return to craft, the hand of the designer creates something unique for the hands of the reader. Cookbooks have become such fetishised objects that it seems a sin to take them near the mess of the kitchen. Far from eradicating these tangible qualities, the digital age has reaffirmed their importance.

Yet photographs of books on digital platforms like Instagram are only shadows of the tangible objects. For those of us who belong to that expansive book loving community, having and holding beautifully designed books will remain our sacred ritual.