A view from behind the stage

About two weeks ago I was flooded with an overwhelming nostalgia for someone I revered deeply. I kept wanting to voice my thoughts but it seemed as if no word could do justice to my emotions. Only three images kept flashing in my mind’s eye, almost like a montage—a pair of dark-rimmed spectacles, a red pipe and sketchbooks. Inextricably linked to all of this was the musty smell of a room full of books. Despite my efforts to ignore these images, they kept growing stronger and more overpowering. I knew that I had to put them down on paper, in a way that would help me express my feelings. And so I found myself rummaging about on the Internet for these images, anything that would bear some resemblance to the pictures in my head. I found myself placing these images on an A4 page in QuarkXpress—flipping, shifting, adding, deleting—trying to piece together the innerscape of my mind.

My urge stemmed from the visual way of life that I have known so closely at Seagull. It made me realize how visual we all are—how our every thought is accompanied by an almost exclusive visual element that corresponds to that thought. And the greatest and, perhaps, the oldest embodiment of this is the book. In a book, matter and form are intricately linked, word and image feed off each other, as much an intellectual experience as a visual one. For those who live and breathe in the world of the word and the image, books corroborate expression and, often, existence.

The books that live with us through our life—thoughts that dance in our head long after we’ve read about them, words that define who we are and images that form a part of our everyday memory—are those that we treasure and caress, devour and respect. These are books that have been blessed and nurtured by good designers—those who care as much, if not more, for the author’s words and ideas and provide them with the appropriate vehicle for expression, build a bridge between the author’s imagination and the readers’ mind. It is the design of the book that allows this congenial passage of thought.

Being guided by such a designer into the wonderfully creative world of book-making helps validate both the form and function of the book as we know it. Tangible. Beautiful. Treasure-worthy. At the Seagull School of Publishing, the design students were gradually initiated into this magic-making world where form and font, colour and image, word and space all collaborate to form the book.

And I have been privileged to partake in this adventure.

Having devoured books that are beautifully crafted, tastefully set and lovingly produced, I now glimpsed backstage, where the magic is wrought. I was like a child in a toy shop. With every foray into the world of word, colour and images came the joy of self-reflective creation. Armed with a Macintosh computer, scanners, adept softwares like QuarkXpress and Adobe Photoshop and an unfettered imagination, book designing began as play—collecting and arranging, cloning and erasing, layering and peeling—and opened up a world of possibilities.

Every word let free a gamut of images, every colour pulled along with it another from the palette. And ideas swirled in the mind. But book designing is about knowing which ideas to let go of and which to nurture and value. The art of the book embodies restraint, not excess. The design of the book must never call attention to itself and undermine the act of reading nor be a jarring presence where the words get lost in the exhibition of the designer’s skills. It must never upstage the text.

Designing the text, the pages of a book, the words on the page are as important as the cover, by which a book although perhaps not judged might often be identified. Having been taught the intricacies of a dependable page layout software at work, having toyed with various aspects of typesetting, of format and page size, I realize that an ideal design is one that arises out of necessity. It is beautiful because it is in consonance with that to which it gives form and shape. With every change in form, every alteration in layout and every new font, the content of the book too lends itself to a variety of interpretations.

Good design contributes to much more than the dialogue between the reader and the author. It forms the visage by which a book is recalled and remembered. Design is often enmeshed in our imagination in such an intricate way that, when we reread the words of a book later, in a separate context, perhaps in a different form, the image, font and design with which we were first acquainted floats in front of our eyes. The success of a book lies in this unity of content and design.

My exploration of the world of book art, in the Seagull School and across the street from it—having been inspired, given free rein and having had my hand held and eccentricities respected—made me realize that creativity can never be justified with reason and vision can never be explained with strategy. As an art, the aim of book design, to quote Aristotle, ‘is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’.

The last three months of the Design course at School has been a training in skill, in thought, in vision and in values. The first crop of designers setting out to breathe life into the words they touch have a portfolio that can boast of cover designs and text layouts, of books of different genres, of catalogues for different markets but what it can boast of most is the range of skill, technique, imagination and talent.

For me, the education that has taught me to question ‘why’ and ‘why not’,  continues beyond the class as it allows me to participate daily in the creation of various possibilities of imagination, expression and magic-making.

Sohini Ghose

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