What is good book design?

Last Wednesday 24 March I had the pleasure of joining a panel discussing book design as part of Geelong Design Week. The panel, chaired by Pooja Desai, consisted of book designer Vaughan Mossop (founder of the innovative micropublisher Somekind Press), designer, writer and typographer Stephen Banham (founder of Letterbox), and me.

(l-r) Pooja Desai, me, Stephen Banham, Vaughan Mossop.
Stephen Banham and I

I have known Stephen for years and we have collaborated on many projects in various ways. The two of us were in Geelong to talk mainly about Death of a Typographer, my mystery novel about typography. Stephen’s involvement in this book was much greater than is usually permitted by the relationship between designer and author. For a start, the novel originated in conversations about type between Stephen and me stretching back over almost 20 years. From those discussions of glyphs, swashes, ligatures and type crime the idea for a mystery novel emerged, which I subsequently developed into Death of a Typographer.

Once the novel was accepted for publication, there was clearly only one person who could give the book the perfect design. Stephen came up with a striking, witty cover, evoking the classic Penguin books of the 1960s.

Stephen’s involvement in the design extended to the internal pages, particularly the chapter divider pages. Each chapter – there are 26 – is introduced by a page with the chapter title in a different font. The font chosen represents the content of the chapter in some way – a chapter set in London uses the font Underground Book; one set in a French bar uses the mid-century French font Peignot; the horrific chapter in which the arch-villain appears uses the ghastly Graveblade. The examples below are Gothic Outline Title D (22) Austin Light (21) and Compstyle. (For font nerds, all the fonts are listed in the appendix.)

The discussion turned to the question: what is good book design? Obviously, from the point of view of most publishers, a good design is one that will persuade customers to buy the book. That can lead to a certain homogeneity, as the covers of new books aspiring to commercial success imitate the the proven formula of those that are already bestsellers. It sometimes seems as if every new Australian crime novel has a cover based on Jane Harper’s bestseller The Dry, for example, with its big brooding skies and scary farm buildings .

There is a reasonable basis for this approach – if you are a fan of The Dry, then you will probably be drawn to covers that suggest another book is similar. From this perspective, designs that are original and bold are a commercial risk. But from an author’s point of view, I want the design of my books to reflect their contents in ways that go beyond marketing appeal.

Of course, authors rarely get much, if any, say over the design of their books. In my case, I was fortunate that my publisher agreed to my choice of designer, and that Stephen agreed to take on the job (for which there was little financial remuneration, book design being one of the lowest paid forms of graphic design).

In the case of Stephen’s design for Death of a Typographer, the cover suggested the nature of the book without a literal representation of its contents. In doing so, it stepped away from current book design cliches, and Stephen deservedly received the Designers’ Choice Book of the Year Award at the 2020 ABDA Awards.

You can view a video of the conversation here.

Talking psychogeography on Life Matters

I had a lovely conversation with Hilary Harper on Radio National’s ‘Life Matters’ program about walking the streets of Melbourne with my late wife, Lynne.

On our two-year walk around and through the suburbs of Melbourne, Lynne and I described a kind of wobbly circle, beginning in Williamstown, passing through 50 or so suburbs on foot and ending up in Port Melbourne – from where we took a ferry back to our starting point.

On the way we discovered ghost signs, fascinating old buildings and remarkable stories and characters from Melbourne’s past – including the strange tale of the monkey jockeys of Sunshine Road.

Not long after the journey finished, Lynne died of cancer. My book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss is the story of our journey and a memoir of our life together in Melbourne.

Listen to the audio of the interview here.

You can buy the book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss (published by Australian Scholarly Publishing) here, here, here or ask at your local bookshop.

Melbourne Circle book published in December

My new book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss was launched on 3 December 2020.

You can buy the book here, here, here or ask at your local bookshop.

The cover art, by the Melbourne artist Jim Pavlidis, captures exactly what I am trying to express in the book: the sense of magic and mystery that exists in ordinary suburban streetscapes, and the way we carry our own histories with us as we walk.

The book is based on a series of walks my wife Lynne and I took in 2014-2016, which together formed a big circle around Melbourne. During our journey on foot, which passed through some 50 suburbs, we encountered ghost signs, derelict buildings and lost places, and uncovered countless forgotten stories from the past. I wrote a blog about these walks, titled Melbourne Circle.

In 2018, I experienced another kind of loss when Lynne died of cancer. Writing the book about our walks became a way not just of exploring the history of Melbourne but of coping with my grief by telling our story. The book is a personal memoir as much as it is travelogue or social history. In addition to some sections which originated as blog posts, the book reflects on how our lives unfolded in the Melbourne suburbs, and how we built meanings together through our relationships with these places.

As the title suggests, the themes are loss, memory, connection to place, and regeneration. The implicit argument of the book is that connection with place is a key to the meanings of our lives.

Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss is published by Arcadia, an imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Ned Kelly Awards shortlist

The shortlists for the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards have been announced and I’m absolutely stoked that my font-based mystery, Death of a Typographer is on the shortlist for best Australian crime novel of the year. The judges described it as a ‘quirky and original story which is funny and very Melbourne’. Thank you very much!

The Australian Crime Writers Association does a great job of promoting Aussie crime writing through the Ned Kelly Awards every year. The last time I was involved in the Neddies was in 2009, when my first novel Ghostlines won the award for best debut crime novel.

The full shortlist in this category is:

  • Nick Gadd, Death of a Typographer (Australian Scholarly Publishing)
  • Pip Drysdale, The Strangers We Know (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
  • Christian White, The Wife and the Widow (Affirm Press)
  • Dave Warner, Rivers of Salt (Fremantle Press)
  • David Whish-Wilson, True West (Fremantle Press)

I think the announcement of the winner might be some time in October.

Here are the shortlists in the other categories.

If you would like to buy Death of a Typographer, and/or Ghostlines, please click here.

Here’s a cool little video of the shortlists:

Australian Book Design Awards – cover of the year!

I was absolutely thrilled when Stephen Banham won the Designers’ Choice Cover of the Year award at the 2020 Australian Book Design Awards for his brilliant, witty design for Death of a Typographer.

The Cover of the Year Award was shared between two books: Death of a Typographer and The Glad Shout, designed by Jenny Grigg.

The moment I saw Stephen’s design for the first time in a Carlton cafe back in mid-2019, I knew he had nailed exactly the vibe I was looking for. The design is clever, original, and striking, showing a stylish blood-stained punctuation mark.

Stephen was really the only person who could have designed this novel. Not only is he a typographer, graphic designer and font expert, he is also a good friend, and my conversations with Stephen inspired the novel in the first place. It was from Stephen that I first learned that there is such a thing as font crime, what kerning means, and the difference between a glyph, a ligature and a swash.

Stephen also designed the internal pages of the book, creating a special divider page at the start of each chapter in a different font, with the selected typeface reflecting the content of the chapter. Among the fonts he selected (all listed at the back, for the enthusiast) are Peignot (for a chapter set in a French bar), Underground (set in London), and the hideous Graveblade (in which the arch-villain finally appears).

Stephen has also recently designed a new cover for my first novel, Ghostlines, which first appeared in 2008, and has just been republished in a new edition.

Both novels are available from your local bookshop or from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Stephen’s design studio is Letterbox.

Ghost signs on Channel 9

This clip recently appeared on the Channel 9 news in Melbourne. It features me talking to reporter Tony Jones about some of the little-known stories behind old Melbourne signage.

Some of these signs are described in more detail on my blog Melbourne Circle, and in the forthcoming book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss.


Some of the ghost signs that appear in this clip:

Penfolds wine/Monkey Brand Soap/Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills – Abbotsford St North Melbourne

Maison Marney Brandy – Canning St North Melbourne

Cinzano – Buckley St, Footscray

Alex Barfoot shoe repairs – Little Collins St, Melbourne

L. W. Holmes paperhanger – Glenferrie Rd, Malvern

Capstan cigarettes/Temple Bar – Stephen St, Yarraville

Family chemist/Palcolor – Ballarat St, Yarraville

J. King … self raising – Cecil/Bank St, South Melbourne

Wines and Spirits – Epsom Road, Kensington

Robur tea / Bushells tea – Park St, Carlton North

Greys – Arden St, North Melbourne

Atco Jeep etc – Macaulay Rd, North Melbourne

Melbourne Circle: the book

Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss was published in December 2020. It is an account of a journey on foot around Melbourne in the years 2014-16 which I made with my late wife, Lynne. On the way we observed ghost signs, derelict buildings and lost places, and we uncovered countless forgotten stories and characters from the past.

In 2018, I experienced another kind of loss when Lynne died of cancer. Writing the book about our walks became a way not just of exploring the history of Melbourne but of coping with my grief by telling our story. Melbourne Circle is a personal memoir as much as it is travelogue and social history. In addition to weird and wonderful stories of how past Melburnians lived (monkey jockeys, anyone?) the book reflects on how our lives unfolded in the Melbourne suburbs, and how we built meanings together through our relationships with these places.

As the title suggests, the themes of the book are loss, memory, connection to place, and regeneration. All of this adds up to what I understand as ‘psychogeography’, meaning a recognition of our connection with place as a key to the meanings of our lives.

You can buy the book here, here, here or ask at your local bookshop.

Here is the audio of my interview about the book with Hilary Harper on Radio National.

You can check out my original blog, Melbourne Circle, here.

A chat with 30 Books

Stella Glorie of the Aussie book blog Thirty Books recently interviewed me about my novel Death of a Typographer. We had a lovely chat about typography, Dutch design, men writing women characters and avocados. Stella also asked me for some recommendations of Australian books I’ve recently enjoyed – I mentioned Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree novellas, Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney and Stephen Banham’s Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed Through Typography. Here’s the video. Make sure you check out Stella’s other videos too and follow her blog, Thirty Books.

A selection of books about type

I’m no expert on typography, just a fan, so in the course of researching and writing Death of a Typographer I educated myself by reading many books about type. I spent months in the Redmond Barry Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria, sitting in the typography section, browsing through a great selection of works on the history and practice of typography. I also ended up buying quite a few books for my own collection. If you’re interested in delving further into fonts, glyphs, adnate serifs, swashes and ligatures; if you pine to know more about typographers from Aldus Manutius to Zapf, then here are a few books you will enjoy.

Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed Through Typography by Stephen Banham

Type is not just what appears in books: the term can embrace all kinds of letterforms. In this copiously illustrated book, accompanied by witty and informative text, Stephen Banham takes us on a tour of Melbourne’s public typography. He discusses the stories behind well-known icons such as the neon ‘Skipping Girl’ sign and Pellegrini’s cafe, as well as lesser known delights such as the historical logos of Melbourne’s fire services, old painted adverts, and parking and traffic signage. Whether in Melbourne or elsewhere, Characters is guaranteed to open your eyes to the typographical delights of the city.

Type: the Secret History of Letters by Simon Loxley

Simon Loxley tells the story of type, focussing on how it developed through the printed word. On the way we encounter some of the great names of type, beginning with Johann Gutenberg, credited with inventing moveable type in the west, along with critical figures such as William Caslon, Frederic Goudy, Jan Tschichold (creator of the New Typography, later a refugee from Nazism and the designer of Penguin Books) and Edward Johnston, who designed the font used on the London Underground. There are fascinating anecdotes along the way, including the story of why obsessive publisher Thomas Cobden-Sanderson threw all his type into the river Thames. To inform yourself on the history of type, this is the book.

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

Bringhurst is both a poet and a typographer, and this classic work is essential reading on the aesthetics of type. He explains the differences between font families such as Renaissance, Neoclassical, Baroque, and Modernist; provides sound principles for font choices (“Choose faces that suit the task as well as the subject”); and emphasises the value of tradition while not rejecting innovation. I particularly appreciated his lengthy glossary of terms, including such gems as ‘adnate serif’ and ‘lachrymal terminal’ (it looks like a teardrop). A work for type professionals and design students as well as general enthusiasts.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

This jokey, accessible book about type by the prolific Simon Garfield was a bestseller a few years ago. He goes into the stories of several well known fonts – including the much mocked Comic Sans, Gotham (which is said to have helped Obama win the presidency), Futura (the font sent into space) and Brush Script. Having grown up in the UK, I particularly enjoyed his chapter on how British motorway signage evolved as it did. Will make you think about the psychological and emotional effects of certain fonts.

Amsterdam in Letters by Maarten Helle

This book is simply marvellous – a collection of photographs of gorgeous public type that can be seen on buildings in Amsterdam. Focussing on letterforms as part of architecture, photographer Martin Helle shows us letters of every conceivable size, shape and material: carved in stone, cast in metal, shaped out of bricks and mosaics … There is little in the way of commentary, you are simply invited to let your eyes wander over these fabulous letterforms, which reveal Amsterdam to be one of the world’s most type-rich cities. This book was a source of inspiration for the Amsterdam chapter of Death of a Typographer.

Typographic Universe by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson

This book takes typography out of the printing office and into the world at large, where letterforms can be seen, found and made out of literally anything: clouds, fruit and vegetables, utensils, Doritos, bones, vapour trails, shadows, random sights in the urban environment … Once you have looked at these photographs, you will start to see letterfoms everywhere. Inspired by this book, I had my hero Floogstraten create a font based on an aerial view of the canals of Amsterdam.