Secrets of the design trade revealed!

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 24 2002 1:25 PM

Secrets of the Design Trade Revealed!

Book cover

Modern society is full of unsung heroes. Did you ever stop to think how important your local garbage man is? Or your mailman? The people who keep your town's power grid operating are pretty important, too. And so are the ones who pave your street, staff your hospital, filter your water, landscape your park, and teach your kids.

And yes, designers are important, too, especially since they help create the tools of all the above-listed trades, as well as just about everything else we see around us. But if you've ever been around designers, then you probably know that they're not just important—they're self-important. No other profession tries so hard to convince us of its significance. Flip through design magazines, and you see articles that begin with phrases like, "If we're going to educate the public regarding the crucial role of design …," and "People will never understand design's importance unless we ..." Granted, design toiled away in fine art's shadow for generations before getting some long-overdue credit, but you'd think the profession would have gotten over its little-brother complex by now.

The latest argument of this type is John Heskett's Toothpicks & Logos: Design in Everyday Life, a slim volume that modestly posits, "Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human, and is an essential determinant of the quality of human life." Heskett may be right, but his overly academic prose and utterly humorless writing style do little to advance his case. Given design's capacity for wit, play, and cleverness, it deserves a better champion than this.

In fact, Toothpicks & Logos' most interesting aspect is the design of the book itself. Heskett's manuscript must have come in a bit shorter than the publisher anticipated, because the book's designer (uncredited, unfortunately) has used an array of tricks to stretch the book out, most of which will be familiar to anyone who ever had trouble getting a 10-page term paper to actually fill 10 pages. Among the more obvious gimmicks:

  • The book's 5-by-7-3/4-inch page size is tiny, especially for a hardcover title discussing a serious topic.
  • The table of contents is followed by a wholly unnecessary two-page list of illustrations.
  • Each chapter title is given an entire page to itself.
  • Each illustration—even those only about a quarter-page in size—is given an entire page to itself.
  • One chapter just happens to end on a page that has only four lines of text; the last page of another chapter has only five lines.
  • Instead of having the folios (i.e., the page numbers) in their typical spot, alongside the running heads at the top of each page, the folios are at the bottom while the running heads remain at the top, which essentially eats up two additional lines of space per page.

And so on. Of course, it would be churlish to suggest that the designer stretched the book's page count just to help the publisher justify the book's excessive $24 price, so I looked in Heskett's text for a more benign explanation. Alas, the finer points of publication design are not discussed in Toothpicks & Logos, a book with which my garbage man—a really important guy—will soon be getting acquainted.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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