On the challenges of designing a book spine

Tall, awkward and skinny: no, not your average graphic designer but the spine, key to a book’s structural integrity, but a bugger to do anything interesting

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Jennie Edwards; jennieedwardsillustration.co.uk

So I’ve decided to start today by tutting at the cereal boxes.

Look at them there, all lined up and colourful. There’s something about the sides of these boxes that is so utterly infuriating. All of that minuscule type and gleeful clutter. Who could possibly need this much immediate information about riboflavin?

Okay, so maybe I’m channeling some unrelated design frustration here. Last night I was struggling with a book design, and these cereals were the first book-shaped, designed-by-somebody objects that caught my eye this morning, so … well they had it coming. Idiot boxes.

Tutting done, I’d better get back to work and get that cover finished. Actually, it wasn’t the cover that stumped me last night, it was the spine. It just wasn’t coming together quite how I wanted it to … and I think I actually managed to injure myself whilst working on it. Trying to typeset a few words at a right angle to the rest of the universe, I had my head tilted awkwardly to one side for far too long and now … is designer’s crick a thing? I definitely have designer’s crick.

I always find this bit to be a peculiar challenge, mentally as well as physically. It tends to be tackled late in the process, the rest of the cover designed, debated and signed off before the publisher has figured out the precise girth of the book. When the magic measurement does arrive (invariably in headache-inducing fractional inches), it’s incredibly satisfying. The existence of a spine promises a physical manifestation for something that has so far only existed on screen. It is the reward of a third dimension.

But doing that dimension justice is fiddly. The spine is the simplest distillation of the text: all you have is the title, maybe the author and publisher. It reduces the book to an entry in a great sideways list that spans the shelves of libraries and homes and bookshops. The spine must be functional yet distinctive; it demands a certain typographic purity that can easily end up looking generic.

Despite all the attention lavished on the cover, it’s the spine that will be on display for the bulk of the book’s life (unless it lives in Amazon Books, the burgeoning real-world version of the online retailer, which retains the face-out, cover-is-everything approach). But you don’t see them being celebrated or revered in the same way as covers. Visual discourse is increasingly biased towards squarish rectangles, dictated by the dimensions of all of our screens and screens and screens. Tall and skinny, spines are an awkward shape: they don’t lend themselves to being shared or discussed or loved, unless they’re part of something bigger. One of a series perhaps, or as a repeated element in a regimented imprint. Or a shelfie. Spines just go about their business, unburdened by glory.

Before I get back to work, it occurs to me that there is one particularly glorious example of design that goes against all of this. In 1999, Dave Eggers managed to get an entire David Foster Wallace short story onto the spine of the third issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Just getting the title on there – Another Example of the Porousness of Various Borders (VI): Projected But Not Improbable Transcript of Author’s Parents’ Marriage’s End, 1971 – is quite a feat in itself. It’s so utterly wonderful, all of that minuscule type and gleeful clutter. I only have half as many words as that to contend with and …

Okay, so maybe I need to apologise to the cereal boxes.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a freelance designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

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