In 1919, William A. Dwiggins published Extracts from An Investigation into the Physical Properties of Books as they are at present published. It was fairly critical of publishers and unions for putting profits and jobs ahead of the craft of bookmaking. It was also critical of the public for being distracted by automobiles, the motion-picture drama, professional athletics, and the Saturday Evening Post. The publishers, the printers, and the public were deemed to be collectively responsible for the decline of printing and standards of book production. And the decline of those standards was represented by the following chart.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_2I’m not entirely sure how accurate this chart is. Dwiggins doesn’t give any sources. And it only covers the years 1910 through 1919. I suspect it would have been the contention of many early twentieth century designers that things would only get worse—not because things actually got worse, but because grouches always think things are getting worse and that the Golden Age has already passed. And, being a grouch is far more intellectually provocative than being a cheerleader.

Now, the thing about this chart and the general consensus by certain book designers and practitioners of printing, is that it encourages the notion that as book manufacturing moved away from the hand crafts, book design must have suffered. When applied to twentieth century book design, this assumption that the machine is bad and the hand is good overlooks two things.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_5aFirst: Over the twentieth century, the number of books published went up, up, and up. In 1910, Publisher’s Weekly announced that an unprecedented number of books had been published in America: 13,000—of which 11,000 were new titles. In 1996, 63,000 books were published.

That area in red is what’s covered by Dwiggins’s chart. That downward trend is World War I. The next dip is the Depression, and the next, World War II. Still, it’s clear to see that book publishing had a pretty good run. According to Dwiggins’ chart, however, that’s a tremendous number of poorly made books.

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition On Line. Cambridge University Press, 2006

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition On Line. Cambridge University Press, 2006

Over that same period the illiteracy rate in the US decreased dramatically. Now, what counts for illiteracy is a tricky thing, and quite frankly I had a miserable time deciphering all of the charts and graphs. Over the course of one hundred years of surveys, the definition of illiteracy changed from time to time. But this much is true: A greater percentage of Americans had the ability to read at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning. And all those people were reading books that Dwiggins’s chart would suggest were poorly made.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_7How could so many books be published, sold, and read, facilitating an increase in literacy, if production standards were so miserable, so feeble, so unconducive to reading?

Well, books simply weren’t that bad. The standards and expectations of the readers simply adapted and changed. The oldtime crafters would, I think, suggest that our standards were lowered. I know I would have suggested that back when I was a letterpress bigot. Now I would argue that over the course of the twentieth century our standards were simplified. Aided by advances in printing technology, publishers and designers worked to eliminate what was not necessary, and in doing so they made books more available and more useful.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_9By the end of the century there were fewer distractions in books and more people reading them. That sounds like a symptom of Good Design. When talking about book design, however, people often limit that discussion to typography and the architecture of the page. I think a better way to think about book design is to not stop with the arrangement of ink on paper, but to consider how well a book works

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_10How well does it do its job? How well does it facilitate the act of reading and the communication of ideas? And that is not determined by typography alone. The paper and binding are just as essential. The grain of the paper should be running in the right direction and not be too textured, precious, or heavy. The binding should be light and unobtrusive.


Walton, Izaac. The Compleat Angler, Or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation. [Cambridge, Mass.]: [Designed by Bruce Rogers for] The Riverside Press [for Houghton, Mifflin], 1909.

But what was considered a well-designed book in the 1990s was very different from what was considered a good book at the turn of the last century. In the early twentieth century the good books were printed on heavy, textured paper with deckles. Bindings were heavy and bulky, decorated, and precious. By the end of the century a well-designed book was light and portable and without excessive decoration. And it makes sense that books made 100 years apart would be so different because the tools and materials changed so drastically over that time.

The design of the telephone, 1918–2010

The design of the telephone, 1918–2010

The design of any book or tool or thing is the product of two things: the available tools of manufacture and the expectations of the user—in our case, the expectations of the reader. The abilities of the tools move faster than the tastes of the reader. Designers and engineers often know what a user wants and need before the user does. And that’s a primary function of the book designer: to anticipate the needs of a reader.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_15Consider the evolution from the stone tablet to the scroll, or the codex to the Kindle. They all have the same basic purpose, but they fulfill that purpose in different ways in order to best meet the expectations of the readers of their time period.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_16Early in the twentieth century, designers and readers expected a book to look like it had been made by hand because they were following an era in which everything was made by hand—or, at least more actual hands were involved. So we had a lot of books manufactured to allude to their handpress ancestry. Early on, books had more character as a result of the tools being less consistent.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_17There was also more showing off in book design because there were so many people involved that needed to justify their place in the process of production. By the end of the twentieth century there were fewer hands involved in the manufacturing of books and fewer opportunities for multiple visions to be imposed. Machines were doing more of the work—and there were fewer machines in fewer plants.

Book designers become full-service operators and they hand over a file for a completely conceived book to a printer—which more often than not does the binding as well. A book is now put together under only two roofs.

In the early twentieth century each task in a book’s production was often carried out by a different plant—and every plant had highly specialized machines and operators. Even the printing of illustrated books was often carried out by more than one printer—one printer for the text, one for the plates. By the end of the century, with the work being carried out by fewer hands and presses more versatile, books are smoother, regular, and more consistent. They are more likely to represent the vision of one person—and when done well, that vision is more likely to be aligned with that of the book’s author. There are fewer mixed messages, fewer distractions. Books made at the end of the twentieth century are simply easier to read because they are made for reading—not for showing off.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_20Now, this is certainly not to suggest that showing off ceased to exist in late twentieth century book design. And I also don’t mean to suggest that all late twentieth century books were well made. They weren’t. Just as they aren’t now. There is always rubbish design—just as there always has been rubbish design and there always will be rubbish design. But the rubbish of the late twentieth century was made with the tools of the late twentieth century for the readers of the late twentieth century. The readers were familiar with the materials and comfortable with these books. And by these books, I mean the paperback. The paperback is the book of our time. Well, not our time.

The book of our time is the ebook on a Kindle or iPhone. But way back fourteen years ago, the paperback was king.

Now, in the scheme of things, a paperback is not a great book form. It’s not pretty. It does not conform to the ideals of the Book Beautiful. It’s the Book Useful—a glorified pad of paper. But that’s all it needs to be. Think back to 1999 and recall how people read their paperbacks everywhere.

Subways, parks, restaurants, in bed, in the bathroom. There were more people reading books everywhere because the paperback was a simple tool designed to do a simple task. They weren’t these precious things that needed to be cradled or kept in special rooms. We were so relaxed with books that we tossed them in bags and pockets and brought them everywhere we went. We were comfortable with these books. And we are comfortable with things that are well designed. Typographically, they may not have been anything special, but they did their job: They facilitated the act of reading and the communication of ideas. That’s good design.

Because books of the early twentieth century were produced in smaller quantities for fewer people, they were more often precious things. When newer methods of manufacturing allowed for books to be produced in greater quantities at better prices, their design had to change for two reasons: The Economics of Business and the Audience for Books. The former seems obvious:

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_24One can’t dilly dally with decoration when there are units to move. And when one is moving units to anyone, the design has to appeal to everyone. Not everyone likes flowers and stuff on their pages, but everyone likes letters on their pages. So over time, designers eliminated the stuff and stuck to what was essential to the task at hand. Paper was smoother for faster printing. Pages were trimmed to eliminate irregularity. The book becomes more uniform and less distracting. Typographically and physically it is a simpler, more efficient tool than its forbearers. It’s better for reading and better for the reader.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_26So that covers books for reading. Books for looking at are another story. Art books change even more radically over the twentieth century. Early on museum and gallery publications were rarely illustrated.

They were often checklists of works on display. All text. Not many pictures. And when there were pictures they were printed as crude letterpress halftones. Or there were illustrations of the artworks being discussed—by which I mean drawings or engravings meant to illustrate, not reproduce the artwork.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_27When works of art were reproduced by halftone, they were limited to the odd page of slick coated paper here or there or segregated to a section of plates in the back. The printers, presses, and papers were not conducive to printing type and illustrations at the same time. One read page after page or an entire book about art before coming upon any actual art. Often one could not simultaneously read and see the work being referred to. It was akin to going to a museum, seeing art in one gallery and the labels in another down the hall. The limits of the technology were a terrific distraction.

The alternative was to illustrate the artwork with engravings or line drawings that could be printed along with the type.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_29Certainly this was more conducive to reading and understanding what was being discussed, but the illustration could be no more than a cheap imitation of the original. This was a technique often used for books about architecture, historical art, and ancient artifacts, whose makers were not around to contend with.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_30With the introduction of offset printing, artworks could be reproduced with greater fidelity, but as texts were still printed by letterpress these reproductions were still segregated to black and white art ghettos or the token pages scattered throughout.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_31With the abandonment of letterpress as the primary method of putting ink onto paper it became easier to integrate text and images, all printed on the same paper, making for a unified experience. Black and white was still the primary method of printing so now color was sent to the odd page or the back of the book.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_32Finally, multi-color presses become the norm, and text and color reproductions are printed as one. The reader gets an accurate representation not only of the art, but of what the author or curator has in mind as careful designers are able to arrange images and texts so that an artwork is never too far from where it is referenced.

TwentiethCenturyBookDesign_33Or, with the ability to affordably have page after page of full-page reproductions, the art book becomes more like the experience of being in a gallery and is potentially closer to the intentions of the artist or curator.

So the text-driven book becomes more streamlined, allowing the reader to develop pictures in the theaters of their own minds and comfortably read anywhere. By the end of the twentieth century books have fewer distractions imposed by the designers. Art books, however, become more complicated, but better approximate the experience of attending a museum, gallery, or studio. Fewer distractions are imposed by the technology.

Either way, advances in printing technology facilitated better design and better books. There were missteps along the way, of course, but on average things got better for everyone involved. Well, not for printers, I suppose. Things don’t look too good for them. But for readers and designers, the technology of the twentieth century brought us away from ornamental silliness with better design for better reading.

Originally delivered on March 14, 2014, at the 2014 History of Art Series at the Center for Book Arts.