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Writing Books for Graphic Design Students
Guest Editorial by James Craig

As the author of six books on graphic design and an adjunct professor at the Cooper Union I was asked to write an essay on the subject of writing books for graphic design students. The following is a shortened version.

1. Have a clear idea of what you wish to cover David Belasco, the theatrical impresario, once said, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of a calling card, you do not have a clear idea.” Often authors want to write a book that will appeal to a wide audience: students, practicing designers, scholars, and their peers; they are afraid to leave anything out, lest they be judged poorly by their peers. I recall advice I received years ago from an editor, “Jim, the reader will never know what you leave out.”

Write as simply as you would speak or teach. Do not try to impress the reader with grandiose or pretentious words. As Churchill said, “Anyone who uses a big word when a small one will do is an ass.” Never use a term you haven’t defined. Following this advice, I knew my book Designing with Type had to begin with basics and build upon that. Do not attempt to invent terms, hoping that someday you will go down in design history as the originator of some timeless phrase. Or quote foreign sources without a translation — or something equally pretentious.

At the same time you don’t have to be an English major to write a book. Your liabilities may be your best asset. What I perceived as a personal liability — poor reading skills — turned out to be an asset in reaching my audience. I was determined to write a book that was accessible to someone like me. I resented having to read a sentence or paragraph multiple times in order to understand it. (I should add that I do read and write a little better now than I did forty years ago…)

I never considered impressing my peers with profound insights into typography. In fact some of my fellow graduates were rather embarrassed for me and thought Designing with Type was too basic. (I must have done something right because after forty years it is now in a fifth edition along with two web sites.)

2. Know your audience My audience was the graphic design student. Generally speaking, I believe the majority of graphic design students prefer to practice design rather than read about it. And they certainly don’t want to read about typography, such as a lengthy treatise on the elegance of the Garamond lowercase “g,” or… This perhaps explains in part my original dedication for Designing with Type, “Dedicated to everyone who had to take typography and hated it.”

3. Find the right publisher Research various publishers and make certain you approach one that serves the graphic design market. This can be done by going through bookstores, googling publishers, or studying their catalogs. It’s a terrible waste of time and effort to have a publisher accept your manuscript if they cannot sell your book.

Once you have found the right publisher you must sell your idea. Publishers have to see something before they can make a decision. To begin, make an outline consisting of the contents, parts, and chapters. Next, write a sample chapter and include all the relative illustrations. This will be enough for any publisher, or editor, to get an idea of both your book and your writing skills. This can be accompanied by a basic design illustrating a grid and and the overall design concept. The details will come later.

4. Select the right title
Like many authors I had a number of titles that I wanted to consider, I typed up a list of about ten and went in to see Don Holden, the editor-in-chief, at Watson-Guptill where I was the art director. He looked over the list and said, “Jim, if the book is any good the title won’t matter and if the book isn’t any good, a good title won’t save it.” So, Designing with Type it was.

5. Designing the book Although most publishers have their own design staff, you may wish to design the book. Don’t be disappointed if it is rejected out of hand as being impractical, which will probably be the case if your format is not based on the standard sizes, or your design makes too many special demands. Books have to be printed within a budget, which may be a five or six times markup; that is, a book that costs $10.00 to manufacture, will have to sell for $50 to $60.00. Your ideas may be too expensive.

6. Contracts If the publisher is interested in your book they will offer you a contract laying out all the terms and how you are to be paid: flat rate, royalties, etc. You will be assigned an editor who will work with you to make certain the book conforms to the publisher’s specifications.

7. Permissions Most publishers will not print a book until all the permissions are in house. If your book requires a large number of copyrighted images, such as illustrations, manuscripts, posters, etc., allow plenty of time — months or years — to collect all the necessary permissions. This will mean contacting museums around the world who may not consider your request as urgent as you do.

8. Cost of illustrations After you have attained the permissions you — and not the publisher — can expect to pay handsomely for reproduction rights, especially if the reproductions are in color or used on the jacket. The bill for my last book, Thirty Centuries of Graphic Design, was over $10,000.00 and all the illustrations were black and white… and that is 1988 dollars!

9. Advice from friends and peers You will be tempted to ask advice as you proceed. A word of advice: While Designing with Type was still in dummy form I decided to go to my Alma Mater, Yale, to solicit advice from my august professors. They politely flicked through the dummy as they ate their sandwiches, ask a few polite (condescending) questions, but contributed nothing of consequence: praise or critique. I left rather confused and the book remained as it was before the visit.

After the book had been published I visited the one instructor I admired the most and had not seen earlier: Paul Rand. He did take the time to look through the book, and after considerable thought he spoke. Rand wondered why I chose blue for the cover — bad choice, he said, blue fades easily? Why had I chosen Helvetica as one of my five typefaces and not Univers or Akidenz Grotesk for the sans serif?

Why had I spent so many pages on type specimens — sixty to be exact — when all the student had to do was to get a type specimen book from a typographer (yes, if your name is Paul Rand). There were other short comings which I have conveniently forgotten. In the end, Paul Rand said, it was a shame I hadn’t come to see him earlier… before the book was printed.

Years later we had lunch at the Yale Cub and Paul Rand ask me how many copies of my books had been sold. By then I had written six books. I thought about it for a moment and said I would guess about a half a million. “That many,” he responded, somewhat taken aback “perhaps I should get a new publisher.” I explained that it was not a fair comparison as I was writing textbooks primarily for undergraduates while he was writing books for graduate students or working designers; my potential market was far greater than his. I think he remained unconvinced… meanwhile I picked up the check.

Looking back, I realize that had I followed the advice of the “experts” I am certain that Designing with Type would have been out-of-print within a year instead of into its fifth edition. The lesson here is, after you have to listened to all the experts, and weighed their advice carefully, follow your own best instincts.

10. Finally, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but don’t expect to get rich by writing a book on graphic design In fact, if you weigh the time spent writing against royalties earned you will probably find that you worked for less that minimum wage. Certainly less than you would have earned had the time been spent designing or teaching. You can also expect to drive your loved ones and friends crazy — writing a book might even be grounds for a divorce.

However, if you do decide to write a book, when it is published you can quote Gloria Steinem when she was asked if she enjoyed writing a book, “No, she said, but I enjoy having written a book.”

James Craig, well-known author of books on graphic design received his BFA from The Cooper Union and his MFA from Yale University. He teaches typography at the Cooper Union in New York City.

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PUBLISHED ON Nov.07.2008 BY Speak Up
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Wonderfully written. Accessible and informative.

On Nov.07.2008 at 03:44 PM
Tim Lapetino’s comment is:

Thank you, Mr. Craig. This was excellent. My only complaint is not being able to read the longer version of your essay. No need to budget for additional pages on the web. :)

On Nov.07.2008 at 04:45 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

if the book is any good the title won't matter and if the book isn't any good, a good title won't save it

As someone who still has his copy of the first edition, I’d have to say that Designing with Type is a damned good title. It tells you what the book is about and why you’d be interested in buying and reading it.

It has been a while since it was in action but thanks for many years of tracing type and consulting specimens. It was probably the most useful and most used book of the first many years of my career.

On Nov.07.2008 at 10:30 PM
Josh’s comment is:

Very nice essentials. I never came across this book. I did fall into Emil Ruder's Typographie. My school actually had multiple copies and the school was nowhere near New York.

Having had the chance to look back on my design education I think there is much that could be written about especially in light of the changing mediums, but a lot of what is essential in design is the act of doing.

What a book can't do is ask students to do typographic exercises repetitively. You can teach the theory of typographic hierarchy, but it is in practice that students develop the skill. I guess what I came to find after the fact is that I probably would have hated it, but basic typographic exercises in concept, hierarchy, usage, setting and experimentation should have been more like daily exercises.

With books like James' – Designing With Type, having been a manual for 40 years that teaches the fundamentals that will rarely ever change is there a need to write new books, especially on the fundamentals? I definitely think that more books should be written with students in mind regarding many subjects, but after all the books I bought and combed through(of which many were visual as well), sometimes i guess I would have rather had more exercise time and attention on building skills than buying books that I thought would help me more than they actually did.

On Nov.08.2008 at 12:04 AM
Cleopatra Dinga’s comment is:

An immence "thank you" to the teacher for all the exellent work he has done,his books and the D.W.T.com ,that create a community of theachers and students for us, all over the world.
Many thanks Jim from Greece.

On Nov.09.2008 at 07:28 AM
Billy’s comment is:

Well written, I loved it. I purchased the book in college and found it a great asset in learning the complexities of typography, especially when just starting out.


On Nov.14.2008 at 01:19 PM
Emily Wilkinson’s comment is:

This is great! It's so important that designers aren't scared of writing. I think the common attitude is that visual people can't write, which isn't true at all. Designers are perhaps better educated to see the relationship between word and image than many writers. I am studying my postgrad at Goldsmiths in London, and there is a great network run by one of my tutors called writing-PAD (Writing purposefully in art and design). They publish a journal called the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, which I've found very inspiring for my own writing.

On Dec.02.2008 at 11:16 AM