AAUP 2001: Why Design is Important

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Why Design is Important: Five Designers Speak to Non-Designers

The panel "Why Design is Important? Five Designers Talk to Non-Designers," with Cameron Poulter, George Mackie, Jenny Armour, Henk van Assen, and chaired by Robert Tombs was very successful on some levels, while less so on others. The understanding that was imparted by our panelists was perhaps more about the new problems that have arisen for book design in an era of new technologies and new stresses. As Chair, I attempted to situate today’s university press designer along the continuum of a five hundred-year tradition (the full text of my introduction appeared in the October 2001 issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing). Each panelist followed with a topic of personal interest, and finally, questions were taken from the floor.

The designers, each in his or her own way, suggested that maintaining aesthetic and production quality in today’s rapidly changing marketplace is the primary challenge facing designers. Sounding at times perhaps old-fashioned, they nonetheless stood their ground and spoke of "the old ways" where the best examples of scholarly publishing were the result of a rational collaborative process between designer, editor and, sometimes, author. They expressed chagrin that every aspect of the physical book seems to be under pressure to be conceptualized faster, made more cheaply, appear more sexy, sell in greater numbers and that the designer is the magician who is expected to make all these things converge.

Fundamental in this grid, said George Mackie, is the importance of a good client, one who is to a great degree hands-off, and he outrageously wondered aloud whether such a client even existed today. Jenny Armour engagingly gave three examples of design processes—how she worked towards a result—and this was helpful in explaining the mysteries of the creative process to the non-designers in the audience. Cameron Poulter spoke of the shape, size and weight of a book as something that should be determined by the scale of the human hand and eye, and stated that much contemporary bookmaking does not take this into consideration. Henk van Assen quoted Ellen Lupton, Curator of Design at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, who wrote in her book Mixing Messages: "Perhaps the most conservative field of book design is academic publishing. Traditionally addressed at narrow audiences trained to ignore the sensual appeal of design, academic books have earned a reputation for dry and dusty graphic presentation." He then essentially urged designers to resist predictable solutions to new design problems.

Henk also framed the designing of a text as something that is printed over multiple pages, and that its presentation should be treated as a temporal experience which is given equal consideration to the spatial organization of the text on a single page or spread. And finally, referring to the "Wal-Martification" of the book, he lamented that designers have increasingly become viewers, rather than readers and that this ultimately affects the decisions they make. He suggested that this might function well when designing a poster, but for the design of a book, it is still of great importance that one reads and analyzes the text before making choices as to typographic form.

Certainly for the designers, as a presentation opportunity, it was a success. The panelists have indicated that numerous contacts were established, both immediately following the session at the conference, and in subsequent days by electronic means. Often these contacts can turn into friendships where prolonged exchanges can take place. The question and answer session at the end of the presentations seems to have been less successful as audience participation introduces another, perhaps less focused element. This was compounded by our time constraint. Though we may not have turned back the page on so-called progress, ultimately, and especially when considered in conjunction with other design sessions at the Toronto meeting, "Why Design is Important" contributed to sharing ideas and building infrastructure within the university press extended community and of this, there can be little doubt as to its value.

by Robert Tombs, Senior Designer, Cornell University Press

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