Richard Hendel is a true dignitary in the world of book design. His work has won nearly every possible award, including from the Association of American University Presses, AIGA, Print magazine, Chicago Book Clinic, Leipzig Book Fair, and National Book Award. He is currently a freelance designer, but has been a book designer and art director at the University of Massachusetts Press, the University of Texas Press, Yale University Press, and the University of North Carolina Press. He is also the author of On Book Design, Aspects of Contemporary Book Design and co-author of the Glossary of Typesetting Terms. We’re honored to include his commentary today as part of our ongoing blog series, From the Designer’s Desk.
Why did you pursue design rather than, for example, painting or architecture?
I went to Rhode Island School of Design with the intention of becoming an illustrator. While at RISD, I discovered that type and lettering interested me far more than drawing and thought that I might actually spend my life pursuing printing history. My mentor, Alex Nesbitt, author of a book on the history of lettering, encouraged me in that direction. Immediately after I left art school I joined the Army and was trained as a Chinese translator. Being away for three years, I needed a job immediately and so instead took the position as designer at the Toledo Museum of Art. A year or so later I was offered a job teaching graphic design at RISD where I stayed for two years, never really liking it enough. While teaching at RISD I was freelancing as an illustrator working for ad agencies. I then learned that the newly formed University of Massachusetts Press was looking for freelance designers. When I showed them my portfolio, they unexpectedly offered me the job as design and production manager. Though I had never designed a book, and knew virtually nothing about book production, I eagerly accepted. Having always regretted my somewhat inadequate liberal arts education, I thought I might make up for it working at a university press. I can’t honestly claim I have learned so much in the 45 years I have been at it, but I have absorbed just enough to be what my British friends might call a ‘pseud.’
Have you ever completed a project, and only after the book was printed did the perfect or better solution occur to you?
Alas, far too often. It isn’t so much the basic concept of what I have done that seems wrong, but I see every missed detail that might have been better. In the literally thousands of books I have designed, rarely have I been totally satisfied. I have learned to be more philosophical about my own mistakes, though it has often taken me years to abandon far-too-many questionable practices I have had in the past. Curiously, the first book I designed in 1967 seems more honest and right than much I have done since.
Is your work on a book project usually more of a slow, progressive effort, or is it moved forward by unpredictable moments of inspiration?
Unlike others who have contributed to this blog, I am not principally a designer of art books, or for that matter, heavily illustrated ones. The books I enjoy designing most are those that offer the greatest typographic challenge: encyclopedias, guide books, instruction manuals, language learning texts, etc. One of the first books I designed was a 160 page book that was essentially a table of plants growing on Nantucket. Books like that don’t require so much inspiration as they do a combination of knowledge of typography and legibility of text. The longer I have been a book designer, the more I have come to realize that design innovation is to be used with great care. I have found myself too often influenced by dubious ‘inspiration.’ It is only when I am designing book jackets do I hope for (but rarely seem to get) inspiration.
Do you feel that a book’s design can, or even should, play an assertive role in how a reader experiences the book, or do you feel that the best book design is a kind of behind-the-scenes art where the reader isn’t even always aware of the influence of the design?
It depends. For many of the books I design (mostly unillustrated typographic) I try to follow the philosophy expressed by Beatrice Warde that a book’s design should be invisible. However as a freelance designer, I have learned that publishers expect to see some clever bit of design. They want some visual value for their money. My English designer pals think we Americans overdo it. Ron Costley, former head of design at Faber in London, says that what typifies American book design is the designer’s restless urge to find a new place for the folio.
Of course, the function of book design can be more than simply making the text legible. When it is appropriate I make a conscious effort to find a typeface that might in some way reflect the time or content of a book. While I don’t want to be a sort of co-author, I cannot entirely avoid influencing how the text is read.
That said, design for art books is a different business entirely. Budget, format, style of art all dictate a different approach, so when I am confronted with such a project I have to abandon some of my own rules about how ‘visible’ the design should be. I admire designers like Daphne Geismar whose DADA book is one of the perfect examples of making the design reflect the content.
As the publishers I normally work for have very restricted budgets accompanied by extensive texts (e.g., encyclopedias), the design problem often comes down to how to accommodate thousands of characters on the page while still making the text readable, and, for want of a better word, inviting. There is no room for design cleverness in such projects.
I learned, much to my own chagrin, of the dangers of too much design. While typographic fashion does move on, it has taken me nearly half a century to completely realize the value of traditional book design. I have often railed against the pernicious influence of book design competitions that encourage designers to do things they probably shouldn’t. God knows, I have done some truly awful work that managed to get into design competitions, that I now look at and cringe.
What is your favorite font?
It depends on what day you inquire. This month the font dujour seems to be Fred Smeijer’s Arnhem — the font I used in my own recent book on book design (Aspects of Contemporary Book Design, a shameless plug as the University of Iowa Press seems uninterested in promoting it). At the time I designed my On Book Design for Yale, I was enamored of Monotype Garamond. I often ask other designers about their ‘desert island’ fonts and am surprised at some of the typefaces my colleagues like. Back in the days of hot metal, I used to think that there were no really terrible text faces. But that was before the likes of Comic Sans. Looking back over what I have used most recently, other than Arnhem, I find I have used Mathew Carter’s Miller — a font that seemed (in style ‘chronologically’) appropriate for the 19th- century subjects of the books I was designing. Also Utopia — as much because it is so nice to say in the colophon ‘This book was set in Utopia.’
Do you design books in genres and categories other than art and architecture?
As I said, I rarely design anything but. I truly am somewhat of an interloper contributing to this blog. The aspect of my work that is different from ‘normal’ is when I design the jacket. It is not always the case that, unlike for art books, the kind of publishers I work for, do not always have the text designer do the jacket design. I have most usually done both text and interior, but these days some publishers I work for hire me to do just one or the other.
How can an author make a book designer’s job easier?
The author is rarely the problem for me. It is the editor who makes most of the difference.
The eminent English designer John Ryder tried to encourage editors to think visually —being concerned as much with how something might appear as with correct grammar. Designers can deal best with a text that takes into account how much sense it makes structurally. For example, some authors require five or six levels of subhead when such an overly-complicated system might not be necessary. Tables are too often ill-conceived to fit on the text page. There is only so much even an editor can do, when scientific or technical books require multiple levels of subheads, or when poets demand eccentric spacing or excessively long lines of poetry (even Walt Whitman broke long lines in his own hand written manuscripts).
Who are your favorite book designers?
Without doubt, for me, Richard Eckersley was the model of what a book designer should be.
I cannot think of any book he designed that ever seemed to have an incorrect detail or concept. He had intelligence and integrity and could design a book as complicated as Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book and as traditional as the standard edition of the works of Willa Cather with equal skill. George Mackie’s bilingual editions, done half a century ago for Edinburgh University Press, are gems of how elegant and perfect small books should look. The now forgotten but once famous, Merle Armitage violated almost every rule of book design, but made the most amazingly vital books.
The list of my favorite designers would include: Jan Tschichold, Hans Schmoller, P.J. Conkwright, Ron Costley. These are designers I still look to, to see how it should be done and wish that I could do it as well.