Seventy ways to start a novel

In GraphicDesign&’s first book, Page 1: Great Expectations, 70 designers reinterpret the opening page of the Charles Dickens classic. The results reveal much about the decisions designer’s face in setting any text

Neil Donnelly‘s treatment of the opening page of Great Expectations evokes the layout of a tabloid newspaper

In GraphicDesign&‘s first book, Page 1: Great Expectations, 70 designers reinterpret the opening page of the Charles Dickens classic. The results reveal much about the decisions designer’s face in setting any text, and what effect these choices have on reader experience…

Perhaps one of the more unlikely, certainly more experimental, tie-ins with this year’s Dickens bicentenary, the decision to dissect the opening of his 1861 novel came about because of the references to lettering on its first page. At the beginning of the story, Pip Pirrip’s search for clues towards his own identity has led him to imagine how his parents might have looked, based on the shapes of the letterforms on their tombstones. (“The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.”)

So in Page 1: Great Expectations, what may at first seem like rather a repetitive read, the opening page of the novel really serves as the sample material from which the designers work from, with each interpretation of the page offering up a different approach and affect.

Using Caslon, A Practice For Everyday Life built on the symbolism contained within the opening; the obelisk glyphs standing for the five gravestones of Pip’s siblings

While there are, perhaps understandably, a number of examples that take a conventional approach to the typography – set in a range of faces from Caslon (above) and Arnhem Pro Blond, to Fabiol and Miller – there is also a range of more outlandish and conceptual approaches, which occasionally push the boundaries of legibility, let alone a sense of linear narrative. But more often these experiments explore the wider notions of reader interaction and even challenge the preconceptions we bring to the experience of reading.

Julian Morey (abc-xyz) used Helvetica Neue 65 Medium to reimagine Dickens for tablet devices

In Aaron Merrigan and Fred North‘s concept, for example, the text is set over both halves of the page, but readers have to read along with a friend sat opposite, in order to read each alternate word of the sentences. Jon Barnbrook meanwhile, tongue firmly in cheek, has reorganised the words of the opening page in terms of their frequency, the grammar structure, and the use of sentiment which might manipulate the reader’s emotions.

Susanne Dechant has detached the words from the page and rearranged them in alphabetical order, so the opening line runs as “a a a a a a a Above all Also am an and and and and and”. Vivóeusébio studio, however, reduced the page to its initial word, “My”, apparently as a way of “emphasising Pip’s great expectations and delaying the readers’.”

Ian Noble set his text in Mrs Eaves and used symbols to convey a second level of information about the relationships in the novel

Individually, many of these unconventional approaches could appear just a touch indulgent, but as part of a collection of treatments they work as another (esoteric) voice in the larger mix, and as an interesting counterpoint to the more straightforward and accessible versions of the text.

Workshop’s approach was to create a ‘tipped in’ version of All The Year Round, the weekly journal in which Dickens’ novel was first serialised

And some approaches tell us more about the life of the text itself. Alexander Cooper and Rose Gridneff of Workshop, for example, reference the genesis of Dickens’ novel, which first appeared in the weekly publication, All The Year Round. When the story came to be published in book form, the first edition didn’t sell particularly well so publishers Chapman and Hill ‘tipped in’ replacement title pages stating that these were new editions, when in fact they were actually from the existing print run. By the end of 1861, Workshop explain, five of these so called ‘new’ editions of Great Expectations had been published.

In looking at the novel’s movement from an ephemeral state (a weekly magazine) to a more permanent one (a bound book), Workshop address how the format of a text, let alone how that text is displayed, informs a reading. As with the other 69 versions that tell of Pip’s first reading of the gravestone letterforms, context is everything.

Page 1: Great Expectations is published by GraphicDesign& and is currently available for the offer price of £12.50 from After May 26 the book will be £15. The CR iPad app will also be showing a selection of different treatments from the book very soon.


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