10 Characteristics of Good Design in Bookarts


Art is SO subjective. What you like I may not and vice-versa. And yet, we have established rules (more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules) that help us evaluate what's good in painting, in the culinary arts, and in commercial book design. What's tricky, is when you're trying to create or curate a project in a medium that is less widely discussed. 

Penrose Press is structured in such a way that I straddle the river between fine art printmaking and publishing, art and business, empathy and math, ideas and execution. And as a bookartist, I buck the norm by collaborating with living writers, by soliciting submissions instead of taking comissions. None of the guidelines perfectly apply to me... so I've created my own.


You may be surprised to learn that these elements didn't make the list:

  • the book must be made with only the best quality ink and paper
  • the book must be perfectly executed according to plan
  • the book is bound with traditional hardcover techniques and laborious leather tooling.

 These were some of the things I thought might be important when I started learning about bookarts. Now I strongly believe that they are less important (if not completely irrelevant) than the items on my checklist. For example: I strongly believe that mistakes, revisions, and acomodations are one of the most interesting elements of a handmade book. And, I believe in accessible art. You don't need leather or hardcover to make a book wonderful; these things just make it more expensive.

Curious yet?

While we're thinking about bookarts and expanding our horizons, I want to share with you an artists book definition by Faith Hale that blew things wide open for me:

"An artists book is anything an artist tells you is a book." 

Without further ado:

My checklist for evaluating creative projects

  1. They have details you don’t notice until the second look. (easter eggs)

This is mostly for fun. I enjoy hiding things, and my collectors enjoy finding them. It also seems to be a quality of good novels. You reread them with more/different life experience and you find something new. I want the visual/physical aspect of reading to also embody that characteristic.

  1. They have images/art/illustration that adds to the conversation of what the text is saying.

This is extremely important to my practice, because strong illustrative skills are part of what I bring to any collaboration. I will admit that images are not essential to every book. They are essential to MY books.

  1. They have a physical format that adds to the conversation of what the text/images are saying.

In Caterpillar Portraits, the first, I mean very first idea I had was this: 

If Joyce's story were published as a book, I would take that bit about repairing library books and make it physically important. I would put a repaired tear in every single copy. 

I can remember where I was when I had this idea. I was in the computer room bed at my parents' old house over Christmas holidays. I think I may have emailed Joyce on the spot. This idea was powerful enough to fuel the whole project, this press, and my future career. That's amazing. 

  1. They have a hook, or a one sentence way to talk about the book that conveys the goodness/uniqueness of the content.

This is a marketing thing. Which is less important to some people, fair enough. For me, marketing and selling my books means I can afford to continue to do it. It also means that more people get drawn into hte experience of reading in a way they may have never imagined. If I can't introduce this experience to them in a way that makes sense and is appealing, they'll never take a chance!

  1. They have a way for the viewer/reader/collector to participate in the book: to make a decision about how to read it, display it, alter it, or share it.

This one has been the governing aspect of my practice lately. It can be obvious, like in Conversations with the Ocean by Evelyn Elgie, wherein the reader has to soak the book once before reading it. It can be subtle, like in Avebury by Wendy McGrath, wherein the reader gets to decide the order of poetry, how and when to unfold various aspects, where to position themselves compared to the page and the light source for different effects.

  1. The project should be interesting for the creator(s) to work on from conception to launch. If they are excited to work on it, the excitement can be passed to others.

For me, this rule ends up coming into play when I'm deciding whether or not to take on a project. For a writer, it probably comes into play during the outreach phase and after I've expressed interest, when they get to decide whether this piece of writing is still relevant to them, still represents the work that they want to put out in the world. Personally, I'll only take on a written project that really sparks me. If something is "good" but not "exciting" then it's for someone else to publish. 

  1. The book needs to walk the line between obviously handmade and too perfect.

Not that I think this is a real problem personally, but in my quest for perfection, I need to keep failing and keep trying, over and over. 

(The Solitudes by Ola Bjelica)

  1. The text and images (the author and designer) need to be saying similar things but not the same thing. A direct translation isn’t as interesting as an interpretation.

I have been so lucky to work with writers lately who are very open and encouraging of my interpreting their work however I like. I check in, of course, and share ideas in progress, but the freedom is beautiful. I would really struggle to be a creative who had to submit many thumnails and multiple rough drafts. I think it's partly because linocut cannot be adapted after the fact. If someone wants to change the colour a little, I have to start over. 

On a less personal note, there is a strong history of illustrators conveying more or different than the writing. Beatrix Potter, for example (who illustrated her own writing) wrote in a fairly generic way, but her illustrations convey cheekiness, even a hint of sarcasm, which makes her stories timeless. 

  1. A good collaboration is between 2 or more living humans. Works in the public domain aren’t as good at the give and take.

Plus it's lonelier to work on a book by yourself. You need a sounding board to avoid indecision and frustration.

  1. The creator(s) of the book need a really good answer to the question “why?” as in “why did you make this?”. This seems like it’s something a person has, but believe me, if the person has it, the book will have it too.

I could write something more here, but I'd really like you to reread the above instead, until it sinks in and means something specifically to you.

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