Design – Pt. 1

Hi everyone. We’re going to approach this update a bit differently than in the past. We’d like to talk about the design process of our book, but doing so will get pretty involved. Trying to encompass everything in one single update would be fatiguing to read, so we’re going to break it up into pieces over the next few days. I’m going to lay some groundwork in this update, then I’ll hand it over to Sarah to let her discuss what things look like from her perspective as the book’s designer.

The Canvas

A thing that strongly impacts Sarah’s design choices is the page size on which she’s working; it is her canvas. This one factor affects almost every subsequent decision we will make while creating this book, so it’s something we have to carefully consider right from the get-go. But how do we decide on our page size?

A book effectively begins with a large roll of paper created at a paper mill. This paper is one of a broad selection of widths, weights, textures and opacities, and the available choices vary from mill to mill around the world. We are currently considering papers made at mills in Finland, Japan, and China.

Paper mills routinely cut a subset of their rolls into sheets for book printing plants to use. It is these sheets that you’re ultimately buying when making a book, and the goal is to make as efficient use of your chosen sheet as possible. If the available choices of standard-sized sheets don’t meet your needs, it’s possible to have a roll of a particular paper stock custom cut into sheets by a mill. The mill’s general willingness to do this is highly dependent on the quantity of paper you need. For our Alinea Project book, Sarah and I knew our potential audience was quite small (as was our ability to house and distribute our books by ourselves), so the print run we did for that book was small enough that ordering custom-cut paper wasn’t an option. In the case of the Aviary book, however, we hope to reach a far larger audience, so we intend to do a much larger print run. This makes us interesting to a paper mill if we want to have custom-cut sheets made.

We are working with a company called iocolor in Seattle to navigate these waters. Gary Hawkey at iocolor was an incredible resource to us for our Alinea Project, and electing to work with him on this project was an obvious choice for us. He’s seriously awesome. Gary helps us balance the various qualities we seek in a paper with what’s available and economical for our goals. For example, we seek a paper that feels nice to touch and which will allow us to faithfully reproduce the brilliant colors and details we’re capturing in the photography for this book.

Paper is usually made from wood or other cellulose fibers, so its natural color tends to be somewhat warm, which can tint images when ink is applied to the paper. To offset this warmth, mills add various optical brighteners to paper, pushing it towards warm or cool tones of white. This allows photos to be printed in truer, more vivid color. Some optical brighteners, however, fade over time, which can lead to white pages appearing to brown. This is more pronounced at the edges of the page, where the book is more likely to be exposed to UV rays and environmental fluctuations. We seek to balance printing quality with archival quality to ensure this book looks good on day 1 and continues to look good for many years.

The thickness of the paper we choose will be dictated by the total number of pages in the book. If we elect to have fewer pages, we can stand for the pages to be thicker, which will feel more luxurious and add to the satisfying heft of the book. But too many of these thick pages would threaten the structural integrity of the book and cause it to fall apart more easily as it’s used, so again we must balance our final paper choice with how much content we want to generate.

Once we’ve narrowed down a paper stock, we can turn our attention to the aforementioned cut sheets from the mill. On this sheet, we will print several geographically-adjacent pages (“folios”); these pages are printed on both sides of the paper. Once the sheets have pages printed onto them, they’re referred to as “forms”. A form can hold multiple folios:

We can see that if we print at a size that allows us to fit 4 folios on a sheet, but only actually fill the sheet with 3 folios, we’re incurring a bit of waste. Likewise, if we want a particular page size that can’t fit efficiently onto a given sheet of paper, we need to bump things up to a larger (and more expensive) sheet of paper, which might potentially incur waste if we don’t use it up completely.

We needed to decide early on, then, how big we’d like our page to be. To do this, we used a super-scientific, hyper-precise procedure: we sat around with Nick and Chef with a bunch of cookbooks and held them all. We talked about heft, dimensions, and overall feel of the various books. Do we want a small, short, thick Bible-like book? Do we want something large and thinner? How do we feel about the page aspect ratio? Do we like a square format?

We shortlisted five books, ranging from “this is the absolute smallest we’re willing to go” to “ridiculously big”. Our five choices were:

Of these, we decided that a square format (Eleven Madison Park) wasn’t ideal for us, as most of our “dishes” are fairly vertical.

We also noticed something curious about the larger sizes. It’s easy to imagine that bigger is better, especially with large, colorful photography. But the page size is also the canvas for text. In early design experiments, Sarah felt that filling a large page with our recipe text meant either scaling up the text size (which ended up making the book feel as if it were written for kids or those with poor eyesight), or having large swaths of empty space. It was a bit like trying to fill a really large room with furniture. We also realized that above a certain threshold, page size began affecting the usability of the book; it began to feel cumbersome to flip through when sitting on a kitchen countertop. This led us to ask ourselves whether we wanted this book to be purely an art piece, to be displayed on a table, or a usable book (we’ve decided on the latter).

Our current favorite size is close to that of Quay, which is just over 10×12”. At this size, Gary explains to us that we can order custom-cut sheets on the paper stock of our choice. Our pages will print on the sheet like this:

As a point of comparison, here’s a full sheet of signatures from the Alinea cookbook. The form contains eight folios, or sixteen total pages. One could imagine something like this being a cool thing to have mounted and displayed as a piece of wall art.

After being printed, the forms are folded in such a way as to bring the various pages into their correct order. Arranging the pages on the form such that they fall into their correct order when folded is called “page imposition”. The folded form can be stitched together along its spine, yielding what’s called a “signature”. The edges are then trimmed to yield the final pages of the book.

Here is how the form of the Alinea cookbook above is folded into a signature:

The complete book is made up of many such signatures gathered together. Because of the gathering process and the way pages are printed, we need to be careful about content that spans two adjacent pages (e.g. a panoramic photo). If we don’t choose the placement of this kind of content carefully, we can run into alignment issues. The ideal spot(s) for full-spread content is on pages 8/9 of a set of gathered signatures, and a decent plan b is between the last page of one gathered signature and the first page of another.

We originally estimated that we’d have around 400 pages to fit into this book. At 12 pages per sheet, it’s ideal to come up with a page count that’s a multiple of 12, to minimize waste and maximize paper use. To that end, 408 pages would be a more ideal page goal for us.

We hone our decisions by working with Gary to create dummy books. These are simply cut and bound books with blank pages made using the page sizes and paper stocks we’re considering. Dummy books help us make physical sense of our book and help us verify or discount the choices we’re making.

Once we’ve established some page guidelines for ourselves, we can begin to consider other matters of design.

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