Who’s the designer? I think we should be told

Oxford University Press’s in-house newsletter, Recorder, gave over most of page 2 in its latest issue (charmingly dated ‘Hilary 2008’) to an article about the cover design of its successful Bookworms series. This is a series of popular literature re-written with controlled vocabularies and grammar for the English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) market. Clearly they are successful, as there are 218 titles in the series, and the series and its associated marketing have been awarded a British Council innovation award.

‘In short,’ the article says, ‘these attractive covers are an appeal to all learners to pick up a Bookworm and: [sic] ‘Read your way to better English!” ’ A footnote explains that the series relaunch involved the design of 236 new covers. (In case you’re wondering, that’s because there are 18 teacher’s books.)

So who is responsible for all this design effort? The article is strangely silent about who the designers are, yet the effort must have involved hundreds of hours of briefing, picture research, commissioning, artworking, quality control … Is British reticence about claiming kudos still alive in Oxford? Is this part of the tradition of ascribing such things, when carried out by in-house designers, to the anonymous hands of ‘publisher’s staff’? Perhaps the designers will let us know – and if I find out, I’ll certainly tell you!

Are they related? – part two

Donna Payne, art editor at Faber, has replied to Peter Collingridge, pointing out that the Faber Children’s Classics covers, designed by Pentagram, predate the Penguin Classics design by five years or so. Let’s just recall the basic Penguin Classics look, combining Futura Medium caps with Mrs Eaves Italic. Although the Penguin design transposes author and title, the configuration (line of caps; centred logo; line of caps, line of U&lc italic; all type centred) is remarkably similar.

So, just how many variants are possible in the presentation of series name, author and title? As an antidote, here is website praising Penguin UK’s designs (but panning Mother's Kafka covers).

Do not obey this sign!

Just a few yards away from the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at Reading is this illegal direction sign, carefully set in Helvetica instead of the prescribed Transport alphabet.

Driver location signs – information or noise?

Driving regularly on the M4 and M25, I started noticing new signs, which I couldn’t immediately understand. They turn out to be driver location signs, and seem to be unique in not being part of the Department of Transport signing system – they are in fact put up by the Highways Agency, the body that repairs and provides emergency services on UK motorways.

What was it that puzzled me about the signs? There seems to be an ambiguity about them – are we supposed to see them, and understand them, or are they really intended for highway engineers? I tried to work out why they seemed ambiguous to me. They share the graphic language (colours, typefaces, configuration, media) of motorway directional and warning signs, but these design elements have been tweaked to make them just a little less clear. Orange letters on a blue ground do not have the obvious contrast of white on blue, and the lines are centred. The coded form of language used (‘M25 | B | 43.8’) also sets them apart from the straightforward use of placenames or pictograms on other motorway signs. They are really quite large, and certainly frequent – they occur every half-kilometre or so, but the Agency seems happy to place them beside other roadside objects, or just behind other signs, in a way that would not be acceptable for warning and direction signs. So they look like an add-on to the system.

All of this brought to mind thoughts of how unnecessary elements, especially pattern elements, can distract the reader from information content. It seemed to me that every other motorway sign is encountered only when the motorist actually needs to know the information – on the approach to a junction, or a hazard. These signs really look like signs (because they share the features listed above with true signs) but I think they are really more like the labels on grid-lines or chart axes: they orient, rather than give new data. My first guess was that they were replacements for the much more modest kilometre posts (actually every 100 metres along motorways), and this is pretty much the case: DLSs are intended to give drivers location information that they can relay to the emergency services by mobile phone. The size is dictated by the need to be legible from a moving vehicle in the fast lane – meaning that they have to be as prominent as other signs.

So, do they constitute necessary information or are they the motorway equivalent of ‘chart junk’? And another question is thrown up by a note on the Highways Agency web-page on DLSs:

‘Promoting and communicating the function of the signs is central to them being successful. The public need to be fully aware of the three pieces of information on them so they can then communicate accurate locations to control rooms. The current strategy to disseminate this information will be done through a national press launch which will publicise the purpose of the signs. This will be further supported by local press notices through regional media.

‘Aside from using external communication methods the Highways Agency will also be distributing leaflets and information cards on driver location signs to drivers within areas of installed signage. They also plan to display pop-up posters in prominent locations frequented by drivers.’

So, did you know about them and what they mean? If you see a pop-up poster (whatever that is) do tell me!

Is typography more than typefaces?

I saw the following link to Michael Bierut’s interview with TheAltantic.com

I’m always hoping that a designer will use an opportunity like this to talk about something more that font choice, but when you are publicizing a book typeset in no fewer than 79 typefaces (Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design) it's difficult not to reduce typography down to playing around with fonts.

Jane Austen gets a makeover

Angus Phillips of Oxford Brookes University questions publishers' approaches to 'relevant' images for classic books here.

Could they be related?

If you spot a Puffin Classic it may be a Faber Children’s Classic … Peter Collingridge explains why here.

Relaunching Oxford World’s Classics

This piece by Judith first appeared on blog.oup.com

This week sees the culmination of two years’ planning and preparation with the relaunch of Oxford World’s Classics in new covers. It’s been ten years since we last had a new look, so it was time for a makeover, and yesterday at the London Book Fair we officially unveiled the new livery at a seminar on ‘How to edit the classics’ in the morning, and a drinks reception in the evening.

Managing a relaunch on this scale involves a lot of people and coordination between different publishing functions. There are over 700 titles in the list, and we had both to schedule reprints for those books we wanted to re-cover in the first few months, and deal with other titles whose stock in the old look was going to run out after April 2008. We had to research and choose a new design, and in many cases new images, allocate new isbns, devise a marketing campaign, and talk to the retailers about promotions.

We wanted a new look that would be fresh and contemporary and appeal to general readers and browsers who might previously have thought Oxford World’s Classics were a bit too academic for them. So we have a clean white title panel, and white back and spine, and we have chosen dramatic crops of appropriateillustrations to intrigue and entice the reader. We also wanted a sense of continuity with the old look, so we have retained a red strip at the top of the spine and back cover, and added a tantalizing detail from the cover image in a small thumbnail on the spine (older readers may remember that we used to have a similar feature on a previous incarnation of the series, but at the bottom of the spine, not the top). We also chose a new typeface for the cover, Capitolium, a modern take on classic lettering, based on classical Roman inscriptions and Renaissance calligraphy and designed by Gerard Unger. The insides of the books are unchanged, and we will continue to publish high-quality editions and translations with outstanding introductions and notes at truly affordable prices, editions that are designed to satisfy the needs not just of students, but of the lively general reader as well.

As a way of introducing new readers to the list we have created some collections under the ‘More than Words’ banner. Themes such as Desire, Dream, Escape, and Believe gather familiar as well as unexpected titles as a way of inviting readers to approach books from a new direction, to find connections with works that chime with their own tastes and current interests. Look out for the themed collections in the bookshops from this month.

At the London Book Fair seminar yesterday, John Mullan, Margaret Reynolds and myself, under the lively chairmanship of David Freeman, took part in a discussion about editing the classics and the ways in which different books and markets call for a variety of editorial approaches. This month’s new publications demonstrate this variety at work, with new translations of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and the Mabinogion, new editions of Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks, and a fascinating new anthology of Gandhi’s Essential Writings. Relaunching OWC has been an exhilarating ride, with plenty of highs - and the occasional low - and I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the series roll out in new covers in the course of the coming year.