concept to publication

Month: May 2008

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Photo Wednesday: woodtype figures

woodtype figures

This image of woodtype figures sorts at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, is from Nick Sherman‘s photostream.


How much of this page will you read?

According to Jacob Nielsen, in a post of nearly 500 words, such as this one, readers can be expected to spend an average of about 45 seconds on the page, an amount of time in which they might read some 187 words, or less than three-eighths of the content.

In a study called “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” researchers at the University of Hamburg tracked twenty-five web users’ behavior as they surfed the web as normal. From this data Jacob Nielsen analyzed 45,237 page views of pages with more than 20 words in which the visits lasted longer than 4 seconds and less than 10 minutes. Since users average an additional 4.4 seconds for each 100 words of copy on a page after the first hundred words — an amount of time in which they could be expected to read about 18 words on average — the results suggest that 18 percent of the copy subsequent to the first hundred words is being read.

Nielsen references a scatter chart in making his case:

The following chart shows the maximum amount of text users could read during an average visit to pages with different word counts:

percent of text read

This is a very rapidly declining curve. On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.

In the full dataset, the average page view contained 593 words. So, on average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.

I think this analysis is flawed, because it aggregates different types of page visits. Some readers are looking for just one piece of information, for example, while others want to follow the full argument of the text. In other words, one interpretation would be that regardless of the length of the copy, a lot of people are only looking for some particular thing. It just takes them slightly longer to find it as it gets surrounded by more verbiage.

I think the lesson to draw here is not that all your web writing should be 100 words or fewer. Rather, it is that if you have items on your website intended for a broad audience — a list of blog policies, for example, or a contact page — you probably want to keep them brief to maximize the amount that will be read by the largest number of visitors. But longer articles could well be the most effective in some ways. With these you are reaching a small group of more dedicated readers.

Short page: many casual readers; long page: few, but dedicated, readers. Some go for brevity, some go for length. For myself, I like a mix of different kinds of content.


the whole brevity thing (audio clip)


via SEOMoz


Market testing book covers

super crunchers book titles

Book publishing has always been a little backward in some aspects of marketing. For example, while a graphic designer might produce several covers for a book, these are usually reviewed only by a select group of decision makers involved with its production and marketing. I’m not aware of many focus group tests, even for titles that will be receiving massive resources.

Now Bantam Dell is running an online poll to help choose among three different covers for the paperback edition of Ian Ayres’ Super Crunchers (which “explores how detail-rich data and our increasing ability to ‘crunch’ information is changing the way we live”). I suppose it’s a positive step, although I’m not sure that online votes correspond directly to potential sales.

In an extravagant gesture, Bantam Dell will give a free trade paperback copy of the book to twenty lucky winners (a value to the publisher of perhaps a dollar per book in direct production costs, so they are committing some $20 to prizes an an inducement for people to vote) — this is announced by a huge red checkmark together with the words (all caps) ENTER TO WIN, followed by a screamer. I can’t imagine this kind of overselling is effective.

Is one of these covers better than the others?


via Buzz, Balls, and Hype


Friday Roundup

“Lynx-eyes to our neighbors, and moles to ourselves.” — La Fontaine

RR Incoming links

Books and Buddha-nature

alberto manguel's library

Alberto Manguel, author of The Library at Night, among other books, writes lovingly in the New York Times about his current library south of the Loire Valley in France and his other libraries that grew into this one.

But Manguel is a hoarder — a habit I’ve been trying to rid myself of. As books overflow their places throughout the house, I am trying to be freer about sending them on their way to other readers, like a kind of wheel of literary samsara.

Manguel goes so far as to write “I have dozens of very bad books that I don’t throw away in case I ever need an example of a book I think is bad.” He does describe a single prisoner he released: “The only book I ever banished from my library was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which I felt infected the shelves with its prurient descriptions of deliberately inflicted pain. I put it in the garbage; I didn’t give it to anyone because I wouldn’t give away a book I wasn’t fond of.” He won’t even lend books, writing that “If I want someone to read a book, I’ll buy a copy and offer it as a gift. I believe that to lend a book is an incitement to theft.”

I am devoted to books, but if we keep all the things we love and only give away those that we don’t love I think we are very far from achieving Buddha-nature.


Via Sans Serif, who writes of a modest literary inheritance, “Some of the books I decided to give away, some were so beaten up they had to go in the recycling bin…. But a number of the books from Alabama made it onto the bookshelf.”


Shown: A portion of Manguel’s library, from the NYT article.


Photo Wednesday: abandoned books

abandoned books

This photo of books simply left behind after a St. Louis Public Library move comes from nathansnider’s photostream.


Op ads

No, not op eds — op ads. I had forgotten how pervasive op art was in advertising of the 1960s and 1970s. It was also a period of increasingly globalism, as design fads trends quickly spread from one culture to another.

Italy produced some of the boldest op art ads, such as these ads for a film festival, left, and a design company, Alfieri & Lacroix, right.

Examples from the U.S. include ads for Fresh Start (whatever that is), left, and Ford Fairlane, right.

Some of the quirkiest examples come from Japan, such as this (completely inappropriate) Yukio Mishima ad, left, and a book or movie called A La Maison de Civecawa, right.

These examples are drawn from Pink Ponk’s 1950s-1970s advertising set on Flickr.


Writers’ websites

authors on the web

A website called Books Written By is documenting authors’ sites on the web. It has assembled screenshots of many writers’ websites; the screenshots link to the sites themselves (although it takes a couple of clicks to get there from the main page).

It’s a good idea, nicely executed. While some of the authors represented are not particularly distinguished, several interesting folks do crop up — on the page shown above, for example, you can see the sites of Jonathan Lethem and Haruki Murakami, among others.

Some of the sites are quite good. But I’m not sure the writers’ distinctive styles and personalities always come across in this medium as well as in the one for which they are known. This is probably in part because in many cases someone other than the author has designed the site or written code to realize the author’s vision.

Still, it’s interesting to see the variety and range of author sites, and there is a host of good ideas to be found in these pages. (If the site grows, it might need to add indexes by names, genres, nationalities, and so on. I imagine this would not be too difficult to implement.)

To visit the site, click the screenshot above.


Print publishing caught in pricing bind

odysseus between scylla and charybdis, by fussli

Print publishers are currently caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of a weakening economy and higher prices for essential costs such as paper, freight, and postage.

The soft economy pressures publishers to lower prices on books, but this is difficult to do with the cost of paper at an all-time high. Gas prices have caused freight charges to rise markedly. New federal regulations make it easier for the postal service to raise rates, and another increase takes effect today.

Many publishers will respond by lowering quality — using cheaper grades of paper and cutting costs wherever possible (although eventually I think they will be forced to raise prices nonetheless). But with the web as an always available instant provider of content that is almost free to users, can print publication compete for large numbers of consumers? Another approach would be to recognize print as an exclusive product for a literati class and accept smaller print runs and higher prices.

Difficult choices.


Shown: Odysseus between Scyla and Charybdis, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1794-1796.


LINK: As costs soar, will prices follow?


Friday Roundup

“Lynx-eyes to our neighbors, and moles to ourselves.” — La Fontaine

RR Incoming links

What is design?

Paul Rand offers some answers in this four-minute video. According to the youtube info, it was “created for his posthumous induction to the One Club Hall of Fame in 2007.”

Adjusting map color

iranian bowl with foliate decoration, approx. early 13th c.

In yesterday’s discussion of the map for my Persian ceramics book, I mentioned that I hadn’t settled on a map color scheme. Subsequently I decided to pick up the scheme from one of the objects in the book. Shown is a detail of that object, which I’m using as a section opener.

This is a beautiful fritware bowl with underglaze and overglaze foliate decoration. It dates from 1180-1250 and is thought to come from Rayy or Kashan in Iran. The abstract patterning is unusual on this kind of bowl.

spread from persian ceramics book showing map with colors adjusted in photoshop

In order to replicate the object’s color scheme, I simply adjusted the main hue/saturation slider in Photoshop until I approximated the reddish brown colors of the dark areas of the bowl. Because the type is not part of the underlying image, it was unaffected. Then I picked up the teal blue color from the bowl with the eyedropper tool. I had made the water areas of the map flat, so they were solid colors. I selected a portion of one and then chose select similar color from the selection menu and filled the selection with the new color.


On the making of maps

persian ceramics map

After a long interval in which nothing happened, suddenly I’m back working on my little book about Persian ceramics (the trim size, 9.5 x 10 in., is small by museum publishing standards; it would have seemed large back in my text-based literary publishing days). This book required a map. I originally intended to send it out to a professional map maker, but because the budget is tight, I ended up doing it myself.

The curator wanted to show a lot of information, including modern country names (but not boundaries), rivers, seas, a mountain, a regional designation (I think this is analogous to something between “the Bay Area” and “the Midwest”), and a lot of cities/kiln sites. He also wanted some “light topography.”

Shown is a screenshot reduced in size, so it’s slightly crude. This is a work in progress, and I haven’t decided on the final color scheme yet.

I don’t kid myself that I can produce a map of the same quality as a professional (although this compares favorably to the maps I was given as aids to positioning elements). But I do have certain principles that I hope keeps my maps from sucking too badly:

  • Information must be legible
    It is remarkable how many maps break this seemingly obvious rule. This meant I had to keep my background map rather light and make the overlay text as dark and large as possible.
  • Map elements should be clearly distinguished by typography
    While country names are among the largest geographic elements, in this map they function just as modern reference points, and the main information is historical. I set the country names in small caps in a nonassertive color and the city names (really the main map information) in black in the typeface’s bold caption font.
  • All type should be horizontal
    This isn’t always possible, I guess, but I will go to great lengths to achieve it. The model maps I was given had type running this way and that, following the directions of rivers and mountains for example. I think this is migraine-inducing.
  • Map typefaces should be compatible with the book text
    Maps sometimes are produced seemingly without any reference to the context in which they will be placed. This map uses the same type family that I use in the text of the book (Garamond Premier Pro).

At some point in making a map like this you will be tempted to fudge some elements to make the map look better. Cities that are too close together, for example, present problems when you are pushing the size and weight of the type for legibility. As I mentioned, this is a work in progress,. But I have done my best to be fairly accurate in positioning the cities. is a helpful database of geographic coordinate information.

I suppose you could view maps on a sort of spectrum. At one end you have satelite photography, which captures geographic relationships with absolute fidelity but offers no filtering or organizing of information. At the other end you have something like Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 New York subway map, which presents information pertinent to the map user with scant regard for actual geography. For each map, the maker must determine what information the map is attempting to present and then find the appropriate point on that spectrum to achieve the desired result.


Friday Roundup

“If Folly link with Elegance no man knows which is which ….” – William Butler Yeats

RR Incoming links

Overblown prose for the ages

spirit of 1976, by thomas christensen

Overblown prose often springs up exactly where you would expect to find it. But shouldn’t this extraordinary opening by Peter Hartlaub to his review of Grand Theft Auto IV in the San Francisco Chronicle get some sort of award?

Cultural revolution often comes from seemingly imperfect people and unpopular places.

The most influential athlete was labeled a draft dodger. The man who helped bring rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream grew a huge gut, wore sequined jumpsuits and then died in the bathroom. One of this country’s greatest defenders of free speech was dismissed as just a pornographer. But Muhammad Ali, Elvis and even Larry Flynt are remembered for their contributions – just as one day, the makers of Grand Theft Auto will be known as more than peddlers of video game sex and violence.


Shown: Spirit of 1976, by Thomas Christensen


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