Thoughts on Standards, Usability, and @abookapart

by Elana Roth Parker in ,


I need to establish a few givens before I begin: I work in both print and web. I love form and function and objects you can touch and products you engage with. I believe strongly that you have to make a thing well in order to use it well. Proceed accordingly.

The Story

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed a stack of books on one of our designer's desks. Where I work being a web company, books aren't usually floating around everywhere, so I picked them up, as I am wont to do. The stack was 6 volumes of A Book Apart's web series. Something immediately caught my eye:

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The text on the spines is totally broken. On every book. All broken. All broken differently. And they don't even add up to anything when you stack them together like other brilliant broken-text spine designs do. The one that immediately comes to mind pops up a little farther down this page. 

I tweeted (like I do...), wondering if it was just a printing issue. It surprised me that any publication coming from a group of high-level designers would let something like that slip or—gasp—do it intentionally.

By the end of the day, I was still stuck on these books and the response I got on Twitter indicating my second fear was true. I appreciate innovative design that breaks the mold, but not at the cost of function, legibility, or aesthetics. The notion of it being an intentional design decision just wasn't working for me. Nor was the excuse that the spines don't matter because the books aren't being sold in stores.

The Production Editor in Me

I've seen hundreds of books to press. There is a reason books have specifications. They are physical objects intended for hands-on use. They sit on shelves a certain way. People hold them a certain way. And we look for information on them in a certain way. Each part of the form has a function and a standard.

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When you print a book, you have to know a few things, like how long the book is so you know how thick the spine needs to be. In some cases you have leeway. The spine will adjust accordingly. In other cases, you have set parameters across a series. For example, when I worked on mass-market paperback series, every book had to be exactly the same number of pages. Every time. No exceptions. This helped reduce printing time (there were no surprises), cost (we were printing LOTS of them), and the books all looked great next to each other on shelves.

Spines can be nitpicky and annoying, but they serve a crucial function: holding a title. A legible title. First and foremost, there's the consumer experience component. Most books don't get to be face-out in stores, so spines are how you find things. I know...A Book Apart doesn't sell them in stores. What about libraries though? A Book Apart went as far as to give their books ISBNs, so I assume they want them sitting somewhere, even if just the Library of Congress. Forget that though. What I really care about is the book's life at home. I can't name a single collector who doesn't love how a set of books in a series look next to each other on their shelves. Not just for legibility, but for overall aesthetic. 

Finally: Standards and Usability 

A List Apart, the parent of A Book Apart, prides itself on being the evangelists of web standards and usability. Where did those standards go here? I can't find them. I've been watching book publishers screw up websites for years because they don't understand the other medium's standards. Now I see web designers doing the same with books. 

Looking at the copies in my hand again, I can't help but feel that lack of homework (and maybe some cost cutting) is hiding behind an artificial mask of brave design. I just don't see who they're fooling. The books don't attempt to conform in length. And the design of the spine doesn't bother adapting to that variable. I find this especially ironic considering Book #3 is titled "Responsive Web Design." Book design has always been inherently responsive, except in this case, which is unfortunate.

From where I stand, it's just not good enough. Because at the end of the day, everyone I showed the books to, marketing people and designers alike, had the same reaction: "That looks fucked up."