While starting to work on my Salton Sea photo book, I had a decision to make. What tools should I use to create the book with? In the past, I’ve defaulted to either Microsoft Word or Libre Office. Like many people, this seems like the natural choice because, while most word processors are not ideal for book typesetting and layout, they do have all the rudimentary functions needed to produce a decent final product. Also, the myth is that if you are already familiar with a word processor, it shouldn’t be that much harder to figure out how to click all the right buttons to layout a simple book.
Well, from experience, let me tell you, “It isn’t that simple!” In their quest to make a do-everything package, word processor makers end up producing a product that is sub-optimal for almost everything it does! So many important things to the desktop publisher are buried three dialog boxes deep and have poorly documented side effects. This is where the whole what-you-see-is-what-you-get promise falls flat! So when I started to think about this book project, the idea of having to choose between my two word processors I let out a huge groan of anticipated dread!
When I was a young art student going to the Chicago Art Institute, I would often spend my afternoons at the downtown Main Chicago Library just going through all the stacks and I was always fascinated by the subtleties of good book design, typography and typesetting. So much so, that I took a few basic classes while pursuing my fine art. This was a time when computers were just starting to reach the masses so most of what I learned was old-school font development on vellum or Letraset dry-transfer lettering on illustration board.
While looking through all the example books to learn about typesetting, part of me imaged if I was ever going to make a living from my arts education, perhaps it would be as a typesetter in a major publishing house. I had a Dickenson fantasy of sitting in the dark at a drafting table and working into the night to get my layouts just right. Of course, being a young artist hoping to be catapulted into art-star fame, I never really pursued what it would entail to get into this profession (or any other for that matter!)
But that never stopped me from being interested in the craft or appreciating a well laid out book. For the most part, I think that a truly beautiful book layout seems transparent to the reader — where everything seems like it’s just in the right place and that it was really simple to put it that way. I belief that the content should be designed for impact and not the layout.
While both the Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists showed in their early efforts to develop a new aesthetic and train artists to serve in art’s new societal function, it is more in their graphics where they really shined. Both movements produced book cover and poster designs that are still a marvel to look at today. But when it came to layout and typography for actual books, their new methods for laying out the content, while applying the same aesthetics to their work, ended up producing books where the layout actually gets in the way of delivering the content — being kind of at odds with the “form follows function” directive.
In his 1923 book, Towards an Architecture, Le Corbusier discusses the abandonment of style in favor of an architecture based on function and a new aesthetic based on pure form that facilitated a natural interaction between humans and buildings. His principles can be directly applied to the typesetting of books. Le Corbusier describes it as, “build[ing] simple, effective structures that serve their purpose and are honest in construction.” “Regulating Lines,” and constructing forms around naturally pleasing and simple ratios with little or no embellishment can lead to a beauty of a structure that transcends style or fads — and really, a book can be seen as a structure or construction.
While appreciating the simplicity of creating a professional looking document in any one of the current word processors, it always felt like a fight to me. Part of it was my approach, but this seems to be somewhat common. When working in a GUI world of the word processor, I have always tended to get all my content into the application and then try to navigate the multi-level dialog boxes to hammer the content into the form I wanted.
When I was recently complaining about this to a friend (who is currently working on his PhD and uses LaTeX all the time), he started raving about how I should go to LaTeX too. I had never really heard of the package or how it works, but as I said, I was dreading the inevitable journey to the center of the word processor hell and was open to any alternative.
As it ends up, LaTeX is more an open-source typesetting programming language than an actual software package and is rather daunting to get started with. But last week, I made the commitment to both learn it and produce my Salton Sea photo book using it. After a couple frustrating days while getting started, I’ve now completely constructed the entire structure of the book! It feels like a real achievement — the type of feeling that I never got after doing my best with a word processor.
Conceptually, I’m finding that using LaTeX drove a fundamental change in how I saw the typesetting process because it shifted the process away from formatting content to building a book structure that content could be ported into. To me, this is a huge difference, even if somewhat abstract in nature. Part of this was due the ability to use previsualized parameterization and control of all placement variables and formatting commands and the ability to outline them all out in a single text file. The second being the manner I chose to debug my template — using self-generated Lipsum (dummy text) and gray rectangular placeholders for images. This let me focus exclusively on the actual typesetting and layout completely independent of the content.
In a sense, going this route let me revisit the joy that I had looking at the typesetting and layout in those old Chicago Main Library books. The whole process has become addictive, fine-tuning my book’s layout and parametrically shifting elements by fractions of a centimeter until they’re perfectly balanced to my eye. My inner OCD spirit is completely enthralled by the project!