Book Design The Features of the Analog Medium

Motto Bookshop in Berlin-Kreuzberg, which exclusively sells books and Magazines from self-publishing-projects und independent publishers
Motto Bookshop in Berlin-Kreuzberg, which exclusively sells books and Magazines from self-publishing-projects und independent publishers | Photo (detail): Alexis Zavialoff

The shaky book market continues to break up into increasingly distinct segments. Niche markets like self-publishing are expanding, and the trend towards e-books both shocks and boosts the industry. How are graphic designers reacting to these trends? An overview of current trends in book design.

Since June 2010, there’s been a video making the rounds on the internet that shows a young Spaniard explaining what these objects known as books are all about, as though his audience no longer knew what to do with them. The Spaniard demonstrates how a book works, how to turn its pages, how the latter are bound and what a list of contents and a bookmark are good for. He explains, beaming with joy, that it’s a new device, a knowledge machine that doesn’t need a cable, a wireless network or a battery. “And you don’t have to turn it on,” he adds.

Electronic Competition

Catalogue design for the design brand kkaarrlls, Thomas Mayfried Catalogue design for the design brand kkaarrlls, Thomas Mayfried | Photo: Evi Künstle In reality, though, there is no need to worry that things will ever go this far. In an interview way back in 2012 Markus Dreßen, Professor of Graphic Design at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts asserted: "Printed books will always be around". He believed digital publishing venues, especially e-books, didn’t represent a threat, but rather an “additional choice.” 

Experimental ground

Book „Masterpieces“, printed with a risograph, Jung + Wenig Book „Masterpieces“, printed with a risograph, Jung + Wenig | © The question is another, though. Is the dematerialization of the traditional paper book – an alleged threat – also affecting its design? How are graphic designers reacting to this phenomenon? For a couple of years now it has been evident that graphic designers are emphasizing the unique features of the analog medium, its materiality and the intrinsic character of the body of a book as a physical object, and have set out to showcase books as a visual and tactile experience. Graphic artists are using very unusual paper qualities, often several different ones within a single book, and experimenting with various types of bookbindings and print finishing techniques such as embossing, die-cuts, glossy lacquers and edge coloring, such as colored edges. Book design has become a new field of experimentation precisely for young graphic designers. “A lot of thought has been put into books in a very intense, almost excessive way”, according to Markus Dreßen in that interview. So much, in fact, that one could regard it as “the last great hurrah,” he added.

A large number of graphic designers, including Dreßen himself, have benefitted from the boom in the art market, which invested heavily in books to present the artwork and placed, and continues to place, interesting orders. Such experimental book designs, however, are still hard to find in the mass market and at the big publishing houses. Whoever heads for the fiction section at a branch of the book retail chains Hugendubel or Thalia will readily encounter book covers with non-descript photos or illustrations that allow plenty of room for interpretation in order to appeal to as many customers as possible, but in reality don’t have a whole lot to say. Since design doesn’t particularly matter in this segment, neither do independent graphic designers come into play.

Independent publishing

Self-Publishing Book Fair for Design and Art Self-Publishing Book Fair for Design and Art | Photo: Christiane Feser It is no surprise, then, that more and more designers are taking the matter into their own hands – they are creating the book contents, designing, printing, binding and, finally, publishing the books themselves. In Germany, too, self-publishing and independent publishing have quickly expanded to become a widespread movement. It has its own printing processes, its own aesthetic and look, its own online platforms, its own bookstores – like Motto in Berlin – and its own trade shows that run parallel to the Frankfurt and Leipzig book fairs. Markus Dreßen also joined this trend. In 2006, together with graphic design colleagues, he founded Spector Books, an independent publisher that now organizes the annual Leipzig trade fair “It’s a Book, It’s a Stage, It’s a Public Place.” Today, many design studios are equipped with a risograph, an almost forgotten technology. It is a stencil printer that looks like a copy machine and despite its many limitations, is perfect for printing small runs of 50 to 500 in a fast, uncomplicated and affordable way. Making a virtue of these shortcomings, however, designers have created a distinct aesthetic that now dominates the self-publishing scene and has long spilled over into mainstream products: color typography; monochrome-printed, grainy images and a coarse look oozing with retro charm.

Counter-trends

Book „Masterpieces“, printed with a risograph, Jung + Wenig Book „Masterpieces“, printed with a risograph, Jung + Wenig | © But above and beyond these trends there are also graphic designers who, as far back as 2012, were setting a counter-trend of keeping to the essentials: their quest is to strip the book subject to the core and then take this as point of departure for the design. “The way I see it, ‘contemporary’ means not being trendy,” Thomas Mayfried from Munich pointed out then. “To me, it’s about the appropriateness [of the design].” His catalogs for Haus der Kunst in Munich, and for artists such as Jonathan Meese and Florian Süssmayr may first strike us as stark and minimalist. On closer inspection, though, they reveal an interplay between emptiness and density with a virtuosity and rhythmic structure of their own. According to Mayfried, the most important thing in book design is the dramaturgy, “a kind of arc of suspense generated through omission and inclusion.” And for the moment, and probably longer, no e-book can nor will be able to offer this.