The Yellow Book

edited from Wikipedia The Yellow Book

Cover of the Yellow Book by Aubrey Beardsley

The Yellow Book was a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897. It was a leading journal of the British 1890s and lent its name to the “Yellow Nineties” and the magazine contained a wide range of literary and artistic genres, poetry, short stories, essays, book illustrations, portraits, and reproductions of paintings.

It was published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane, and later by John Lane alone, and edited by the American Henry Harland.

Aubrey Beardsley was its first art editor, and he has been credited with the idea of the yellow cover, with its association with illicit French fiction of the period. He obtained works by such artists as Charles Conder, William Rothenstein, John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert, and Philip Wilson Steer. The literary content was no less distinguished; authors who contributed were: Max Beerbohm, Arnold Bennett, “Baron Corvo“, Ernest Dowson, George Gissing, Sir Edmund Gosse, Henry James, Richard Le Gallienne, Charlotte Mew, Arthur Symons, H. G. Wells, William Butler Yeats and Frank Swettenham. A notable feature was the inclusion of work by women writers and illustrators, among them Ella D’Arcy and Ethel Colburn Mayne (both also served as Harland’s subeditors), George Egerton, Charlotte Mew, Rosamund Marriott Watson, Ada Leverson, Netta and Nellie Syrett, and Ethel Reed.

It was to some degree associated with Aestheticism and Decadence, but also style. The first issue of The Yellow Book‘s prospectus introduces it “as a book in form, a book in substance; a book beautiful to see and convenient to handle; a book with style, a book with finish; a book that every book-lover will love at first sight; a book that will make book-lovers of many who are now indifferent to books”. The periodical was priced at 5 shillings.

Cover: The Yellow Book‘s brilliant colour immediately associated the periodical with illicit French novels – an anticipation, many thought, of the scurrilous content inside.  It was issued clothbound.

Art separate from text:  Harland and Beardsley rejected the idea that the function of artwork was merely explanatory: “There is to be no connection whatever [between the text and illustrations]. [They] will be quite separate”. The equilibrium which The Yellow Book poses between art and text is emphasized by the separate title pages before each individual work whether literary or pictorial.

Page layout: The Yellow Book‘s mise-en-page differed dramatically from current Victorian periodicals: “… its asymmetrically placed titles, lavish margins, abundance of white space, and relatively square page declare The Yellow Book’s specific and substantial debt to Whistler”. The use of white space is positive rather than negative, simultaneously drawing the reader’s eye to the blank page as an aesthetic and essentially created object. 

Typography: The decision to print The Yellow Book in Caslon-old face further signified the ties which The Yellow Book held to the Revivalists. Caslon-old face, “an eighteenth-century revival of a seventeenth-century typographical style” became “the type-face of deliberate and principled reaction or anachronism”. A type-face generally reserved for devotional and ecclesiastical work, its use in the pages of The Yellow Book at once identified it with the “Religion of Beauty”.

Use of catch-words on every page enhanced The Yellow Book‘s link to the obsolescent. Both antiquated and obtrusive, the catch-phrase interrupts the cognitive process of reading: “making-transparent … the physical sign which constitutes the act of reading; and in doing this, catch-words participate in the ‘pictorialization’ of typography”. By interrupting readers through the very use of irrelevant text, catch-words lend the printed word a solidity of form which is otherwise ignored.

Front covers

The role of the cover

The cover, or dustjacket, serves two purposes:

  • to protect the book: In the Victorian era cheap paper-covered reprints had been widely available.
  • to express something of its contents and nature – to sell the product in a highly competitive market.

Early books were handbound with strong heavy covers. In 19C as books became cheaper to produce, and with developments in printing processes, using colour lithography, the book cover became more than a functional protective device: it was a space to advertise and communicate information about the book’s content. Poster designers and graphic designers of the era began to use it as such.

Aubrey Beardsley’s The Yellow Book (1894–97) is a good example of design to promote a book.

Cover of the Yellow Book by Aubrey Beardsley

The Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century revitalised interest in book cover design and this began to influence and infiltrate mainstream publishing.

In the 1920s radically modern cover designs were produced in the Soviet Union by Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky.

El Lissitsky, book cover for the Isms of Art: 1914-1924.
El Lissitsky, book cover for the Isms of Art: 1914-1924.

In the late 1920s the publisher Victor Gollancz carried out research on busy railway platforms, noticing which colours caught the eye on the book covers that appeared on newstands, as seen through the crowds. Based on his research he designed his publishing ‘house style,’ using what was at the time a very bright yellow, with inventive black and magenta typography. After black and white, yellow and black is the most easily readable colour combination.

Victor Gollantcz book covers

Penguin Books:‘What is cheap need not be nasty’ Britain’s approach to cover design was somewhat more restrained. When Allen Lane approached the established publisher Bodley Head in the late 1920s, with ideas for a new, affordable approach to book design, his ideas were turned down. Lane went on to form Penguin Books and to champion a new publishing model in economically depressed Britain. Penguin’s iconic orange, black and white covers from the same era are a striking example of simple and effective design: clear, uncluttered and an early example of successful branding. In the mid 1930s Penguin formed part of the ‘paperback revolution’, producing affordable books with quality design, and their publishing identity sought to be associated with this approach. Penguin’s designs used classic yet modern typography within a clearly defined structure. The template was set up by Jan Tschichold in 1947 and broadly applied to all Penguin’s books. Penguin’s approach has become a defining mainstay of British book design and an excellent example of successful book branding.

Penguin book covers
Penguin book covers



Typography: the title, the author’s name, subtitle and quotes.


Imagery : As a general rule of thumb, to have maximum effect the cover usually bears a single image. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule; many manuals, non-fiction and ‘how to’ books use multiple images. Dorling Kindersley publications, for example, are recognisable for their crisp colour cutout photographs on a white background.


The cover has been likened to a mini-poster, and in many respects serves the same purpose, in that the design needs to grab the attention of its audience within a few seconds. Sometimes it is a new book. Publishers periodically re-vamp cover designs, to tie in with promotional features, anniversaries of the book’s original publication, film versions and other marketing opportunities.

To spell out the contents:

  • So that you are in no doubt as to what you are buying? This has a tendency to mean that many titles within a particular genre look the same.
  • Sex sells: Twentieth-century American pulp fiction covers often used an archetypal hour-glass figure of a woman (with smoking gun) to entice its buying audience. These covers were printed post-war, using inks that produced vibrant colours.

 Branding for the publisher:  to create a positive association with a particular publisher and to build a relationship with the book-buying audience.

Producing a cover

In publishing workflow, the cover is treated as a separate entity to the main book contents. The evolution of a cover design, from inception to completion, can take as long as the design of the main book itself. For example, a reasonable timespan for the design and publication of a 256-page illustrated book could be nine months. The cover or jacket design for the same book can take just as long,
even though the image and textual material is significantly less. This is due in part to the many requirements that a cover has to fulfil, including commercial and marketing aspects.

The marketing and sales departments within publishing organisations know the importance of the cover with regard to revenue, so often the design of a cover involves considering a great many aspects, to meet multiple needs. This can sometimes confuse the brief. Cover design meetings can turn into ‘design by committee’, with all parties – editor, designer, sales and marketing – having their input, often with different approaches to the project. This inevitably
slows the process and can lead to conflicting messages for the designer.

Whilst it’s important to take on board everyone’s input, and adjust designs accordingly if required, ‘design by committee’ can be confusing. Essentially, the brief for a cover design needs to be clear at the outset, so that the designer has clear parameters to work within. As a designer it can occasionally be your role to argue the merits for what you consider to be a strong cover design, one that has quality and integrity within the various elements of the design.

See design workflow

  • get a feel for the content: read some of the text of the book, or at least a
    synopsis, to get a feel for the content.
  • stick to the design process so that you generate your own ideas and responses
  • in the case of re-designs, be aware of, though not influenced by, already- existing approaches to the cover design.

Research examples

George Orwell 1984   images 

  • the original 1949 version shows a formal typographic design, adhering to Tschichold’s guidelines: simple black typography on the branded Penguin orange.
  • the American pulp fiction style, brightly coloured and showing pictorial characterisations from the book.
  • a later version bears a film still, reflecting the movie tie-in.
  • the nineties cover bears a digital eye, a minimal and conceptual reference, and
  •  a typographic representation of the existing text, highlighting the ‘Big Brother’ reference, a concept that has parallels in contemporary television.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
florid sci-fi colouring with expressive typography, to a much cooler palette,
organisation and layout in the original French.

  • If you walked into a bookshop with no idea what the book was about, what impression would each of these covers give you?
  • Which cover would be most likely to make you pick up the book, and why?
  • Check the date of each image and try to speculate about the historical, political or social context for each one.
  • What approach would you take to the cover design if you were asked to design a new  edition today? Make some thumbnail sketches.


Golden Ratio

Sources: Elaine J. Hom, LiveScience Contributor | June 24, 2013 07:02pm ET

What is the Golden Ratio?

In the golden ratio, a + b is to a as a is to b.

The Golden ratio is a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. It is often symbolized using phi, after the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet. In an equation form, it looks like this:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420 …

As with pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the digits go on and on, theoretically into infinity. Phi is usually rounded off to 1.618. This number has been discovered and rediscovered many times, which is why it has so many names — the Golden mean, the Golden section, divine proportion, etc.

Golden Rectangle
Golden Ratio Construction
Golden Spiral

To form a golden rectangle from a square, the square is divided in half. The diagonal of the half square is rotated to the horizontal, defining the length of the rectangle.

Golden ratio in history

Historically, the golden ratio can be seen in the architecture of many ancient creations, like the Great Pyramids and the Parthenon. In the Great Pyramid of Giza, the length of each side of the base is 756 feet with a height of 481 feet. The ratio of the base to the height is roughly 1.5717, which is close to the Golden ratio.

Phidias (500 B.C. – 432 B.C.) was a Greek sculptor and mathematician who is thought to have applied phi to the design of sculptures for the Parthenon.

Golden ration and pentagram

Plato (428 B.C. – 347 B.C.) considered the Golden ratio to be the most universally binding of mathematical relationships.

Later, Euclid (365 B.C. – 300 B.C.) linked the Golden ratio to the construction of a pentagram.

Around 1200, mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci discovered the unique properties of the Fibonacci sequence. This sequence ties directly into the Golden ratio because if you take any two successive Fibonacci numbers, their ratio is very close to the Golden ratio. As the numbers get higher, the ratio becomes even closer to 1.618. For example, the ratio of 3 to 5 is 1.666. But the ratio of 13 to 21 is 1.625. Getting even higher, the ratio of 144 to 233 is 1.618. These numbers are all successive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.

These numbers can be applied to the proportions of a rectangle, called the Golden rectangle. This is known as one of the most visually satisfying of all geometric forms – hence, the appearance of the Golden ratio in art. The Golden rectangle is also related to the Golden spiral, which is created by making adjacent squares of Fibonacci dimensions.

In 1509, Luca Pacioli wrote a book that refers to the number as the “Divine Proportion,” which was illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci later called this sectio aurea or the Golden section. The Golden ratio was used to achieve balance and beauty in many Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Da Vinci himself used the Golden ratio to define all of the proportions in his Last Supper, including the dimensions of the table and the proportions of the walls and backgrounds. The Golden ratio also appears in da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the Mona Lisa.

Other artists who employed the Golden ratio include Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Seurat, and Salvador Dali.

The term “phi” was coined by American mathematician Mark Barr in the 1900s. Phi has continued to appear in mathematics and physics, including the 1970s Penrose Tiles, which allowed surfaces to be tiled in five-fold symmetry. In the 1980s, phi appeared in quasi crystals, a then-newly discovered form of matter.

Golden Ratio in nature

Phi is more than an obscure term found in mathematics and physics. It appears around us in our daily lives, even in our aesthetic views.

Flower petals: The number of petals on some flowers follows the Fibonacci sequence. It is believed that in the Darwinian processes, each petal is placed to allow for the best possible exposure to sunlight and other factors.

Seed heads: The seeds of a flower are often produced at the center and migrate outward to fill the space. For example, sunflowers follow this pattern. Sunflower seeds grow in Fibonacci spirals.

Tree branches: The way tree branches form or split is an example of the Fibonacci sequence. Root systems and algae exhibit this formation pattern.

Pinecones: The spiral pattern of the seed pods spiral upward in opposite directions. The number of steps the spirals take tend to match Fibonacci numbers.

Human and animal bodies: The measurement of the human navel to the floor and the top of the head to the navel is the Golden ratio.

Golden ratio in human anatomy Zeisling

The length of our fingers, each section from the tip of the base to the wrist is larger than the preceding one by roughly the ratio of phi.

Studies have shown that when test subjects view random faces, the ones they deem most attractive are those with solid parallels to the Golden ratio. Faces judged as the most attractive show Golden ratio proportions between the width of the face and the width of the eyes, nose, and eyebrows. The test subjects weren’t mathematicians or physicists familiar with phi — they were just average people, and the Golden ratio elicited an instinctual reaction.

Dolphins, starfish, sand dollars, sea urchins, ants, honeybees  also exhibit the proportion. Many shells, including snail shells and nautilus shellsare perfect examples of the Golden spiral.

DNA molecules: A DNA molecule measures 34 angstroms by 21 angstroms at each full cycle of the double helix spiral. In the Fibonacci series, 34 and 21 are successive numbers.

Spiral galaxies: The Milky Way has a number of spiral arms, each of which has a logarithmic spiral of roughly 12 degrees. The shape of the spiral is identical to the Golden spiral, and the Golden rectangle can be drawn over any spiral galaxy.

Hurricanes: Much like shells, hurricanes often display the Golden spiral.



One of the most essential components of the Bauhaus was the effective use of rational and geometric letterforms. Moholy-Nagy and Albers believed that sans serif typefaces were the future.

Stencil by Joseph Albers: Albers designed a series of stencil faces while teaching at the Dessau Bauhaus. The typeface is based on a limited palette of geometric forms intended to remove any other artistic elements like expressionism from the forms.  Drawn on a grid, the elements of square, triangle, and circle were combined in a size ratio of form letters with an economy of form. Never intended for text and is difficult to read, but the face was designed for use on posters and in large scale signs.

Universal type Herbert Bayer: geometric forms made by strokes of universal thickness. Designed to be used in print.

Creative Design Process

Working to a Brief

Working to a ‘Brief’

A book designer generally works to a ‘brief’ – a specific set of requirements for a particular project. The brief may be set by an external agency, or it may be self-initiated. The scope of the brief may vary in terms of how much creative input the designer can exercise. In some assignments the designer is provided with text and images, along with clear guidelines as to how these are to be set out. In other cases they may be provided with a brief outline of content and title and asked to ‘come up with ideas’ – to devise concepts for cover images, for example.

The role of the designer

The designer’s role is collaborative and communicative. The designer is responsible for the visual elements on the page, the structure, arrangement and layout of typography and images. The role can be highly creative, particularly when the role crosses over into art direction; where this is the case, the designer’s ideas play a major part in shaping the visual book form.

There is a clear distinction between:

  • editorial roles: an editor deals with all the text
  • designing roles: a designer deals with the images and layout. A designer deals with the arrangement of the text and images but never edits the text. Although errors in the text may be apparent, a designer never makes corrections without first alerting the client and the editor.

Depending on the publishing and production model used, the designer may
be largely responsible for aspects of the proposal, development and realisation of the book form and may oversee the control of various elements as the book makes its way through the production process, ultimately checking printer’s proofs and ‘signing off’ a project when it is ready to go to print.

Creative Design Process

Book design is related to graphic design and a similar working process underpins much of the creative thinking and evolution of any particular design job. The creative design process includes the following stages:

  • Ideas generation
  • Research
  • Development
  • Visuals
  • Presentation

But it is not a prescriptive process – key phases (eg research and development) often overlap and link quite organically. Design work generally follows a cyclical rather than a linear process, repeating the phases many times from a micro to macro scale and back to refine and ultimately conclude the design.

Generating ideas
The design process begins with the generating of visual ideas. In this early formative stage, be as wide-ranging and imaginative as possible in your ideas. ALL ideas are valid at this point, so don’t censor; this is not the stage to decide what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ idea – at this point they are all just ‘ideas’ with equal
merit. Record your thought processes and ideas using (in no particular order):

  • Brainstorming/spidergrams/mindmaps: ideas expressed in short sentences, ideas can be triggered by previous, or be new, bizarre ideas are encouraged – good triggers, freethinking – the more the merrier, all ideas stated uninterrupted and accepted – none are rubbished. Concept maps like spidegrams can be used to explore concepts and the connections between them, these can be coloured, rearranged and reworked and redrawn to progressively clarify and then link, or deconstruct again to get new thoughts and angles. It may be useful to mix working with computer programmes like Mindjet, Inspiration or iThoughtsHD and work on paper.
  • thumbnail sketches: quick pen or pencil line drawings to give a reminder of a fleeting idea, and can give an indication of composition and art direction. For example, how does the subject sit in the frame? How is the subject lit? What particular attributes does that subject have? Often experimentation in digital form using Illustrator or Photoshop can usefully complement the work on paper to quickly explore different compositions and colour combinations from scanned sketches.
  • annotation in wiring or ‘sketchnoting’ on the paper thumbnails. Again it is often useful to scan in combinations and get printouts that can be scribbled over without overshadowing the original ideas.

It is important to let one idea flow fluidly, intuitively and organically into another to make unexpected links and associations.


Review and selection
Review your thumbnail sketches and analyse each one through a process of critical evaluation. Which ideas are you drawn to? Which ideas have ‘legs’ – possible interesting outcomes which are worth pursuing? Often the ideas which are strongest are those which have depth, or many layers of association. Perhaps you are intuitively drawn to a particular idea. Select several ideas/thumbnails which you would like to develop further.

Research and development

The form your research will take depends on the individual elements of your idea. It may be that you need to make some objective drawings, for example, to understand your subject better, and to consider aspects of composition. Other research activities include arranging a photoshoot to further explore your visual ideas, or going on-line to source material that informs your ideas. You can use both primary and secondary sources of research in this way. Research feeds into the development of your visual work, informing and advancing your ideas. Document this phase of the work accordingly.

This is the culmination of all your preliminary work. Work up some more developed visual sketches. These can be hand-drawn illustrations, photographs, and/or include typography. The presentation can be a little rough around the edges but should show the main elements of the design.

Present your ideas as finished visual images. Create digital files of your images, making sure these are a reasonable resolution – 180dpi is a good minimum, 300dpi is optimum.


Modernism in design and architecture emerged in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution – a period when the artistic avant-garde dreamed of a new world free of conflict, greed and social inequality. It was not a style but a loose collection of ideas. Many different styles can be characterised as Modernist, but they shared certain underlying principles:

  • a rejection of history and applied ornament;
  • a preference for abstraction;
  • a belief that design and technology could transform society.

Wikipedia overview

Key movements


De Stijl


Key Graphic Designers

Herbert Bayer

Laszlo Moholgy-Nagy

Jan Tschichold

Theo van Doesburg

Massimo Vignelli

Joseph Muller-Brockman

See Modernist Typography