When we talk about books today, the younger generation will immediately think of e-books, while the older generation will immediately recall machine-made books with perfect bind. Both are correct; both are mass-produced and positively impact the dissemination of knowledge and improved literacy rate. It is this rapid production that allows us to access and obtain information easily. However, the appearance of books has become so similar that one book differs from another only in its content. But in fact, book design, especially physical book design, contains far more components than its content.

The design of a physical book consists of many factors, which combine to provide readers with a reading experience. Book design is to design a system so that readers can easily navigate through the book. Different systems work for different types of books, and each system has its own functions. For example, a sequential novel will guide readers to read linearly. In contrast, readers adopt a non-linear reading mode for factual or theoretical books and refer to contents page and chapters to get the information they need. On the other hand, artists use books as a medium to present a concept. Uniqueness is usually associated with the artist’s books because they are one-of-the-kind and handmade. Therefore, compared with theory books, such books are more fun to read. The question is, how can we designers make “boring” content more attractive and fun to read?

An enjoyable reading experience is first created by the reader’s ability to understand what they are reading. Illustrations and visual imagery are an integral part of the book and usually help understand the content better. We believe that the interrelationship and interdependence of text and images that produce meaning, to a certain extent, are part of larger social, cultural, economic, historical, and artistic practices. Visual literacy, therefore, is as critical as language literacy development, and it largely depends on personal experience, background and preferences. Such as, the images and typography on the cover of a book serve to depict the accuracy of the content and, within seconds, to determine the level of interest in the book. We argue that to have a pleasant reading experience, imagination is the key because it requires further exploration by the designer to allow readers to participate in the story-making or meaning-making process. Here is where we take a close look at the book concept.
︎︎︎ Concept and element of book design

The concept of book design is now in a situation where a stereotypical design mode should be developed into a new way of design thinking. However, we cannot discuss book concepts without discussing book structure and bookbinding.

When readers first encounter a book, they are not mainly exposed to the contents of the books but the elements of the books. From the weight of the book to small details, such as how our hand hold an open book, is highly informative for determining the purpose and genre of the book. Elements of the book include the binding, the pages, text and/or images, turning pages and display. These structural elements are also subtle communicative elements that can inform different emotions and reading behaviours. Lu Jingren, a well-known Chinese book designer, believes that perfect book design consists of the three processes that the designer completes, bookbinding, typography, and editorial design.

Bookbinding plays a vital role in determining the type of book. Eastern and Western bookbinding is well developed in terms of functionality for different contexts. In the fifth century, handscrolls from the East have been the dominant book form for nearly a thousand years. The advantage of the handscroll is that the storage space is small, and it is convenient to display only the required information. It was later improved into a Whirlwind handscroll, where the pages spread out consistently, and readers could easily cross-reference between pages. The Flutter book is also a version of the Whirlwind format, which can be regarded as the precursor of the thread-sewn binding we see nowadays; it is more durable than adhesive binding. Generally, books are bounded by methods of glueing, stitching and folding or a combination of these methods. Examples of Eastern bookbinding are four-hole binding, receipt book, multi-section book, butterfly book, flutter book and handscroll. On the other hand, Western bookbinding consists of pamphlet-stitch, single, multi-section binding, perfect binding, post binding, concertina binding and flag book.

The concept of book design can be developed, enhanced, and transformed through the concept of bookbinding and folding. Such as, Heather Weston uses a dos-à-dos binding (back-to-back in French) to bind two books into one cover. This book structure is very suitable for argumentative writing, which its opposing opening structure reflects that every argument has a flip side. Another work, created by Matilda Saxow, explores structural elements through a single fold in the centre of each page, splitting the two-dimensional page into three-dimensional planes, reflecting the content of the book (multiple personality disorders).

Many books experiment on folding also include the participation of readers to complete the designer’s work. These experiments often contain elements of transformation, interactivity and self-exploratory from readers. "Bookmaker" by Deb Rindl teaches readers how to make a book with a sheet of A2 paper.  Deconstructing the conventional instructions of read-and-follow, Deb Rindl uses the technique of transformation to give readers hands-on experience, unfolding a small-folded book into the A2 paper. It intrigues and motivates readers to read on and, at the same time, understanding complex folding. Using a similar folding method, the book “Did you see what I saw?” by Hollie Lubbock used concertina folding to raise the question of whether visual language can convey the same information. This format requires readers to interact through folding and form their own narrative. On the other hand, Jesvin Yeo designed a folded book, "Vanishing Crafts", to signify the folding up of traditional crafts businesses. Her book also invites readers to become co-authors, provides plenty of blank space in the book for their curatorial input, and records any stories of artisans from all over the world. Through a simple folding idea, the designers bring the interest of the book to higher ground.

The exciting interaction between the reader and the book is not limited to folding. When die-cutting is imposed as a structural element, it can change the way readers read. In “Zeit für die Bombe” by Susanne Berkenheger, the online hypertext with all its links and paths are translated into a typography project. By grasping the cut-out holes, the reader turns the page to continue the storyline. It involves the reader deciding which cut-out hole to grab and thus intervening in the story. A more linear and progressive book by Mette Ambeck, “Boy Meets Girl”, combines a series of die-cutting on every page. The physical actions of turning pages will slowly pile up, revealing two three-dimensional robots made by the layering of papers. The die-cutting in the book provides suspense and anticipation of reading and stimulates the curiosity that readers discover when reading.

Some designers push the boundaries of book design, linking concepts with innovative use of materials. Adele Outteridge is known for exploiting the materiality of book design. The work “Vessels” explores the idea that the book is a container of space, rhythm, and form. Using transparent pages and lines, the book serves as an object/sculpture for viewing. Without any text, this book is open for interpretation and requires the viewer’s reflection. With the understanding of materials, “Well Done” by Bruketa & Zinic creatively uses invisible, thermo-reactive ink to print a recipe book. In order to reveal the recipe, readers need to bake to read it. If not done correctly, the book will burn like an overcooked meal. The completion of this book is left to the reader, giving people a sense of novelty and ownership. Along with the same concept, "Singapore Pangram" by Jesvin Yeo is printed with thermo-reactive ink to indicate that Singlish (Singapore English) is always hidden in the dark, a hush-hush thing. Readers need to rub on the pages to reveal Singlish text and images, just like you need to interact with a Singaporean to understand Singlish.

︎︎︎ Concept and content of a book

The elements of book design are essential in addressing curiosity and interest in reading. Books communicate with readers in visual, tactile, imaginative, and intellectual ways. Designers should not neglect that the sum of these elements is greater than the whole. The book communication in the above examples is achieved by emphasising the physical structure to create a pleasant and exciting reading experience. Alternatively, interesting content is also essential. The content does not convey information all on its own but requires covert actions for the text to be actualised. Imagination should be in play to allow books to provoke further thought, as not everyone who reads the same text will receive the same information. The book “Dolly” by Karen Bleitz addresses the subject of animal cloning through repetition of page structure, which uses structure as a metaphor to convey its content. The book successfully provokes different thoughts in different ages. Similarly, “Pig 05049” by Christien Meindertsma has interesting content. It records a pig after death, and it has been made into products that readers would never think of. Despite it being a factual book, the photographs of the products are taken at actual size, making the subject matter realistic and may trigger a personal experience in relation to the content.

A book is an object connected with a human hand, which requires the reader’s physical actions to release information from within. Designers must understand that reading a book involves the interaction of materials and always treats a book as a physical object in a specific time and environment. However, this interplay with materials and form in books dedicated to typography is by far few. “Dissected Matter - An Experiment” by Marion Mayr experimented with the elements of a book and explored typography in a three-dimensional form. The convex page is cut into 300 sections, allowing readers to perceive the typography from the head, tail, foredge and by flipping the book. It enables the perception of “non-existent space”. Some designers creatively use content to express the similarities between humans and typefaces. Maxime Delporte’s “At the Foot of the Letters” is a book that compares human feet with the serif of letters, while “The Origin of Letters by Means of Human Selection” by Marion Mayr uses typography as a living existence, comparing the anatomy of people and typeface.

︎︎︎ Reader motivation and book design

In addition to the elements and materials of book design, reader motivation is another aspect that designers need to understand. People read for pleasure. A pleasant experience is made possible by internal and external factors. Reading motivation is a multi-faceted structure, including reading goals, self-efficacy, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and social motivations. The theoretical books (or textbooks) that are more common in the school environment are usually related to extrinsic motivation. It responds to the external values and requirements that students read to achieve a certain grade. However, reading will become more interesting

if we regard reading as an activity to communicate with the subject, freedom and open-ended topic where we hold a discourse within ourselves. The following is an extracted reading process by Philip Pullman in “The war on words”:

“Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book…. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. …we are active about the process… We can skim or we can read it slowly; we can read every word, or we can skip long passages; we can read it in the order it presents itself, or we can read it in any order we please; we can look at the last page first, or decide to wait for it; we can put the book down and … we can assent or we can disagree.”

This is where intrinsic motivation is needed. Intrinsic motivation is observed while readers interact with unusual and innovative books because of their interactivity and challenge readers to complex ideas. Readers are motivated by curiosity to learn and participate in the interaction with the book. Thus, it is fundamental for designers to understand how intrinsic motivation can be investigated to combine with theory books, not only in terms of content but also consider a book as an object of interactivity.

In addition, in order to capture the motivation of readers, the designer must thoroughly acquire various elements, including the form of the book, the hierarchical structure of information, well-designed typography, relevant and interesting image selection, breathing space (white space), rhythmic visual and text arrangement and unique paper selection. In this era of globalisation, it is also the book designer's responsibility to understand the cultural elements related to the text and express and implicit visual feelings in a rich manner. Last but not least, the aesthetics of books and the function of reading information should be fully expressed. The book design ensures the above factors will be captivating because it sets the stage of the book that motivates readers.  

︎︎︎ Conclusion

In this 21st century, technology has surpassed books regarding the amount of information it can provide. Is book design still an area worth pursuing? Is the printed book dead? What happens if we designers think more deeply and see physical books as an object, as opposed to identity and things, we are dealing with quite an interactive object, with page-turning and such. As a designer, you must be aware of the readers, the elements and the content when designing. Books are not just a medium for transmitting the information. They are objects held in human hands that also convey certain moods and feelings. Reading a book involves the interplay of materials, the object of reading, especially the interaction of the fourth dimension, time and space. Books provide a process, an event, where the reader's perspective about the text is constantly changing. The beauty of a book is not how much information it can contain equivalent to technology, but that the information can trigger the diversity of certain experiences or senses at different times. Therefore, when reading the same book at home or on the train, different experiences and understandings will be triggered.

This is one of the many reasons why e-books cannot wholly replace traditional book formats. In addition, we now spend most of our time looking at screens and books, which in turn will give us a sense of relief. As Fawcett-Tang stated in his "New Book Design", "Immersing yourself in a book, whether it’s turning over the beautifully proportioned pages of a book on medieval manuscripts or racing through the high-octane pages of an airport lounge James Ellroy paperback-noir, is one of life’s greatest and most basic pleasures, and one that has remained virtually unchanged for centuries." Therefore, the physical properties of books have the potential to be explored and create a pleasurable reading experience that is unique to printed books.

To create novel and intricate book designs, book designers must be aware of the nuances between East and West, tradition and modernity, art and technology. Only by understanding the necessity and significance of integration can we give full play to our design capabilities. The influence of these ideas and materialisation can expand the traditional book culture and pass it on to our future designers, pursuing the high value of contemporary books and directly referring to the aesthetics of book design.

Jesvin Yeo