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History of book design


Book Design History

The language and terminology we use in book design today stems from early Egyptian books.


The earliest forms of books were scrolls produced by Egyptian scribes over 4,000 years ago.

Images and vertical text were hand-drawn onto palm leaves, then later onto papyrus scrolls. Papyrus was made from the pith of the papyrus plant and was rather like thick paper. It was used throughout the ancient world until the development of parchment.

Parchment was a superior material to papyrus. Made from dried, treated animal skin, parchment could be written on on both sides and was more pliable than papyrus, which meant that it could be folded. Folding a large parchment sheet in half created two folios – a word we still use today to number pages. Folding the sheet in half again created a quarto (4to) and folding that in half again made eight pages – an octavo (8vo).The development of parchment created a break with the scroll form. Folded pages were now piled together and bound along one edge to create a codex, a manuscript text bound in book form.

Paper, invented in China, spread through the Islamic world to reach medieval Europe in the 13th century, where the first paper mills were built. See ‘Paper’ full post.

Skilled hand-lettering was laborious and time-consuming and a world apart from the printing methods of today.

Illuminated manuscripts

The term manuscript comes from the Latin for hand ‘manus’ and writing ‘scriptum’. Illuminated manuscripts, often containing religious, historical or instructive texts, were coloured with rich and delicate pigments, often with the addition of gold leaf. These were objects of rare beauty. Bound manuscripts were produced in Britain from around 600 to 1600.

The advent of movable type

Movable type brought about a massive revolution in the way books were designed, produced and perceived.

Sandcast type was used in Korean book design from around 1230 and woodblocks were used to print paper money and cards in China from the seventh century.

Johann Gutenberg produced the first western book printed using movable type in 1454. This was the Gutenberg Bible or ‘42-line Bible’. This led the way for a revolution in the way books were designed and printed. Having set the metal type, the printer could then produce multiple copies.The printing process made books much more widely available to a larger audience. By 1500, printing presses in Western Europe had produced more than twenty million books.

Arts and Crafts movement

Private English presses such as Doves Press and the Ashendene Press typified the publishing industry in the early part of the twentieth century. The influential designer, craftsman, artist and writer William Morris (1834–96) founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891; this was dedicated to publishing limited edition, illuminated style books. The designer Eric Gill (1882–1940), a
fellow member of the Arts and Crafts movement, designed books for both English and German publishers. Gill also produced The Canterbury Tales (1931) for Golden Cockerel Press, which was one of the last English presses still going strong after 1925.

While English and German publishers were known for the quality and craftsmanship of their typography and overall book design, French publishers such as Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) focused on the illustrative elements of book design. ‘Livres de luxe’ were expensive editions of books illustrated by contemporary artists such as Bonnard, Chagall, Degas, Dufy and Picasso.

20th Century

Artistic movements had a real and direct impact on book design in the twentieth century, with the Fauvists, Futurists, Dadaists, Constructivists and Bauhaus feeding into a febrile pot of manifestos, ideas and approaches to typography and book design.

Allen Lane founded Penguin Books in England in 1935, with the aim of producing affordable books for the masses. The books were characterised by strong typographic and design principles. In the early 1950s designers Jan Tschichold and Ruari McLean created modernist iconographic cover designs for Penguin books.

Advancing print technologies, letterpress, offset lithography and the development of graphic design, gave rise to a plethora of colour printed material, making book design one of the earliest and best examples of mass communication.


The digital era

The 1980s and 1990s saw the burgeoning of desktop publishing (DTP). Book design was no longer bound by the constraints of metal typesetting. Apple Macintosh computer systems enabled book designers to integrate text and images into multiple pages digitally, on-screen. This move away from traditional design and printing processes created massive upheaval in the publishing industry, and many long-established forms of working were usurped by the new digital technology.

A new wave of graphic and book designers emerged who embraced the new technology and, like the Futurists and Dadaists before them, questioned and experimented with some of the conventional approaches to typography and book design. Designers such as Neville Brody (Fuse magazine) and David Carson (The End of Print) captured the experimental mood of the time.

The revolution in printing processes continues apace today, but the book in its traditional form remains a pervasive presence alongside its digital counterparts – the ebook is a good example. The internet has revolutionised the way book designers work, making distance book design work a  commonplace reality. In addition, a huge and often overwhelming range of fonts, images and resources is immediately available online. The word ‘font’ has entered everyday vocabulary – even for schoolchildren – and choosing the best font for the job is now something that many of us do almost without thinking. DTP means that everyone can potentially access what they need
to design a book. From a purist perspective, the inherent danger with this creative freedom is that poor design choices result from uninformed ‘quick-fix’ solutions. The positive aspect is that the designer has never before had so many options to choose from, in terms of typography, design and production values.

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