Design – Pt. 3

The State of the Art

Since our Kickstarter campaign ended, Allen and the Aviary chefs have been diligently writing recipes and photographing drinks. We use Google Docs as our collaborative writing tool; this has proven useful as part of our team has temporarily relocated to New York to open our second Aviary location there. But the recipe text eventually needs to be moved to inDesign, our design software. For the Alinea Project, Allen composed his text in an offline writing tool called Scrivener (which worked well for him), and once he was completely done writing, he delivered a PDF to me that I think I copied and pasted over into inDesign. This move strikes me as remarkably amateur now, and not one that’ll work for us on this project. As much as we aspire to completely lock the recipe writing off before I typeset it, we’ve learned this isn’t practical: we’re constantly finding ways to correct or re-word things as our recipe collection grows, so we need a more robust way to move text from Google Docs to inDesign.

Our solution for this came during the Kickstarter campaign. The campaign made its way onto Hacker News, at which point we got an email from Chris Ryland of Em Software, offering us access to a plugin his company had developed called DocsFlow. DocsFlow is awesome. The plugin provides a bridge between inDesign and Google Docs: I can link text directly from our online recipes, and when we edit text in Google, it’s updated in inDesign. It’s made keeping track of edits effortless. Two big thumbs up.

Once we got our writing pipeline sorted and began to get some recipes completed, I started exploring two-column designs. These allow me to fill the page better while keeping line lengths readable:

The fact that we’re providing both single and batch portions for most drinks has been a fun design problem to solve. The layout below works well for me as a clear solution to this choose-your-own-adventure problem…

…but it’s ultimately problematic for us. The design is based on a single column, which splits into two columns at the end of the recipe, emphasizing there’s a decision to be made. But I worry the book will get enormous if I limit myself to one narrow column per page for the majority of each recipe.

I tried adding thin line rules between recipes, and instantly liked the organization the lines provide. At quick glance, it’s easy to understand where one component ends and another begins:

I’m actually a little annoyed that I like this design; it hasn’t been the most straightforward to typeset. As far as I know, inDesign doesn’t support unequal column widths in text frames (if you’re reading this and know otherwise, let me know). I could use tables…but I hate tables. I’m currently going with a wonky workaround, using an empty frame with text wrap applied to push the columns around. The whole thing feels inelegant from a file organization standpoint, and makes me a little itchy, but I’m pushing forward with it for the time being.

With a general page layout dialed in, I’m now able to obsess over the smaller typesetting details. For this, I often find myself consulting my favorite design book, The Elements of Typographic Style. This book has the most amazing turns of phrase:

On adjusting space between letters within a word:
“A man who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep,” Frederic Goudy liked to say. If this wisdom needs updating, it is chiefly to add that a woman who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep as well.

On using a font you don’t need:
The marriage of type and text requires courtesy to the in-laws, but it does not mean that all of them ought to move in, nor even that all must come to visit.

On the importance of negative space on a page:
If the text deserves the honor, a handsome page may be made with very few words. […] However empty or full it may be, the page must breathe, and in a book — that is, in a long text fit for the reader to live in — the page must breathe in both directions.

This book offers advice about all manner of typesetting minutiae. I’m typesetting fractions properly, for example –  ½ not 1/2 – and ensuring the 2 in CO₂ is a proper subscript. I’m picky about em dashes and smart quotes ( ʼ vs ‘ ). But there are questions at every turn. Should there be a space before units? Should recipes read as “8g” or “8 g”? (I prefer the latter):

What happens when ingredients stretch to two lines? Do they get tabbed over or should I just use more space after each hard return?

What’s my rule with rules? If a recipe continues onto two pages, should the component at the start of the second page have a rule above it? Each recipe offers new design problems to solve.

After we completed preliminary photography and design for a dozen recipes or so, Allen and I printed everything out, hung it on our wall, took a step back, and surveyed the scene to see what the overall rhythm of our book felt like. We used this early design work to talk about what we wanted to change, and how we wanted to refine our approach to further work.

This spread, for example, caused us to drastically change how Allen is approaching photography:

It’s worth noting that Allen’s not a professional photographer. He taught himself how to use a camera over the course of his Alinea cooking project. For that adventure, his photographs were going onto his blog, which is a pretty simple 1-column text layout. The most consideration he afforded his photos was whether they were being viewed on a desktop screen (for which horizontal photos tended to work better) or a phone (for which vertical photos were more pleasant). Without having control over his page size (since a browser window can be arbitrarily resized), he could only really hedge his bets and take some of each orientation. But in almost every case, his photos stood on their own. When we decided to create our Alinea Project book, we treated the text and photos as two independent elements.

But when regarding the above spread, we both immediately noted how awesome it would be if we had a single photo spanning across both pages, with the vapor from the cocktail spilling into the left page and the text hovering above it. But Allen had composed the photo vertically, so we didn’t actually have any photo data to stretch across the page. Furthermore, while the camera we used to shoot this photo (the Canon 5D mkiii) offers ample resolution for a single full-page image, using it to shoot full-spread images would result in a loss of resolution that would force us to either scale images up or scale our entire book down (neither option was particularly appealing to us). What we needed, we decided, was a reshoot of this cocktail with a different camera and a different composition.

When we originally began testing for this book, we discussed what photographic equipment we would use. Allen rented a medium-format digital camera and shot some tests, but we ultimately discarded the idea of using this camera because it was slow, expensive, and produced images that were much higher resolution than we would ever need for a single-page image. But we hadn’t considered the idea of full-spread images like the layout above begs for. So, after some discussion, we decided that we do want to be able to make spreads like this, which mandated a camera upgrade. (We’ll talk more about the photography side of things in a future update.)

We are able to make decisions like this – which we feel will ultimately yield a better book – because we made the unusual decision during our Kickstarter campaign to forgo offering stretch goals or extras, which we worried would spread us thin, distract us from our ultimate goal, and expend finances in areas that were less important to us. That decision bought us runway to be able to modify or upgrade things mid-production as we learn during this process.

There’s still a lot of work to do, and we are far from settled on many creative issues on this project. When I see 20 recipes in a row, the design starts to feel too rigid and predictable, so Allen and I are both pushing ourselves to add visual interest to break the book up more. He’s exploring ways to incorporate different textures and lighting into his photos, for example, while I’m exploring illustrations and layouts for essays to scatter throughout the book. Understanding our page canvas and considering how our text will fold around his photographs informs Allen on how he composes images moving forward.

And what of the cover of the book? We have a handful of ideas, but that’s a different update…


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