Olivia Croom is a local book designer who will be teaching the class Book Basics: How to Design a Book at Literary Arts on Wednesday, October 8th, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. We interviewed her about her favorite book designers, local publishers who impress her, and why book design is so important. 

Q: What inspired you to teach this class?

There are more authors with more channels for releasing their writing to the public than ever before, and with the digitization of content and online retail, the book as an object is under a lot of scrutiny. My hope is that this class will give participants insight into how a manuscript becomes a physical book, and by understanding the process a bit better, have a stronger understanding of the ongoing discussion about ebooks and print books.

A lot of people think book design is all about the cover. Great book design—particularly great interior book design—can be difficult to pinpoint because the best design is invisible. If a book designer has done her job well, the reader does not even notice the book as a physical object. Is it comfortable to hold? Does the cover reflect the content? Can you read without having to crack the binding? Is there room for your thumbs on the outside margin of each page? These are just a few of the considerations.

Q: How did you become interested in book design?

Both my parents love to read, so I grew up around books. When ebooks became popular, I read a few novels on my iPad, but that form of reading simply didn’t take—I’d have to remind myself I wasn’t checking Facebook; I was attempting to engage with a writer’s story. I first realized how beautiful physical books could be in college while interning for Willow Springs, a nearly 40-year-old literary magazine based in Spokane, which has wonderful design and high production value. My senior year of college, I was the editor of Eastern Washington University’s undergraduate literary magazine, Northwest Boulevard, and part of my responsibilities was the design. Other than some basics I learned in high school as part of the yearbook, I didn’t have any experience with Adobe InDesign, but that year I bought InDesign, spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and taught myself how to use the software, basing the interior layout of Northwest Boulevard heavily on Willow Springs. That spring, I found out that I had been accepted to Portland State University’s Master’s in Writing & Book Publishing program and decided I wanted to concentrate in book design. Since then, my interest has been in the craft that makes the physical books we’re all most familiar with—novels, poetry collections, anthologies, etc.—a pleasure to hold and to read.

Q: Obvious question, but why do we need well-designed books?

Stories are always going to need a package, whether that’s paper, ink, and glue or a digital picture attached to a text file. The most efficient, effective, and enduring means of communicating in writing that humans have found is physical books. When you’re wandering around a bookstore, in my case Powell’s City of Books, what causes you to pick up a particular title off the shelf? Why do you pick up one book and immediately put it down versus the book you handle for a moment, turn over or open to read the jacket copy and maybe a page or two? Why do you pass over some books entirely? While it’s impossible to ever fully answer this question, design is usually a large part of it.

Q: Are there specific designers who inspire you?

My favorite modern designer is Chip Kidd. He sums up the book as a package for the story in his TED talk.

Ruari McLean, who worked for Penguin in the 1940s, is one of the most prolific writers about the history of book design and how it became recognized as a profession. His views on the difference between graphic designers trained for advertising and visual representation and book designers trained in typography hold true today, which he outlines at the end of his autobiography in a great short essay titled: Is typography necessary?

Q: Is book design more art or science?

As with any craft, great book design is a combination of art and science. Expertise in InDesign is definitely the technical or scientific foundation of book design and there are definitely considerations about how a cover will appear onscreen versus in print. Well-designed books carry indicators of a craftsman at work (like margin size, type size, leading, indents), some of which can be mathematically justified, but that’s not what causes book design to be successful or not. A book’s design needs to have a personal element, evidence that another human read and cared about the author’s words. It becomes painfully obvious to readers when a designer is not invested (non sequitur covers being the most obvious), just like a reader can tell if an author has lost interest in working with her words.

Q: What is one of your book design pet peeves? (Beyond using comic sans for anything, ever.)

Fewer and fewer book designers are using an optical margin. An optical margin nudges quotation marks slightly outside the grid that the letters adhere to, ensuring that the first letters of paragraphs all line up exactly. So if you have two paragraphs, one a line of dialog with quotes and the other a new paragraph without quotes, and you do not have the optical margin, the first letter of the second paragraph will align with the quote mark in the piece of dialog instead of the first letter of the dialog. The point to such a tiny detail ties in with the need for interior book design to be invisible, to keep the reader’s eyes moving without interruption. If the letters at the beginning of paragraphs aren’t all lining up exactly, it could potentially distract the reader, if only for a split second.

Q: Any local publishers in particular who are doing great design work?

There’s an astonishing array of books coming out of Portland. This list is by no means exhaustive, but some of the most memorable design, in my opinion, is coming out from the following publishers:

Future Tense Publishing (designer: Bryan Coffelt)

Check out their Scout Books Series immediately.

Hawthorne Books (designer: Adam McIsaac)

Two of my particular favorites are I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer and The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal (and A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost for an example of hybrid design between a novel and zine).

Propeller Books

A Simple Machine Like the Lever by Evan P. Schneider and The Parable of You by Tony Wolk exemplify simple, elegant book design from cover to cover.

Tin House Books (designers: Diane Chonette and Jakob Vala)

The first book I ever bought from Tin House Books was Householder’s Guide to the Universe by Harriet Fasenfest. I haven’t had a backyard in seven years and I still keep this book on my shelf because it’s so pretty. For other pretty books, check out Moby Dick in Pictures and Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself.

Olivia Croom Offers Book Design Class This Fall