The Book as an artifact

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Books, bound books in particular, have been a familiar design artifact dating back to the Roman empire. They have differed little over the years from the form we see on our shelves today and that is due largely to the affordances and constraints inherent in their use. As an artifact I look at books as having three arenas of interfaces: Physical, Visual, and conceptual or interpretive.


The fundamental purpose of a bound book is to provide a means of organizing two-dimensional substrates on which our design systems can be applied to communicate information (a term used broadly in this case). This means that the form of the book must facilitate the accessing of this information by a person. As such, the size and physical capabilities of a human are a limiting factor. On one hand, a book may be small enough to hold open in the hand but not so small that the symbolic artifacts used to communicate meaning do not fit on the pages contained. On the other end of the spectrum, some use cases involve the appropriate use of a stand to hold the weight of the book. While this gives a broad range of sizes, there is still an upward bound to book size due to the constraint of the reader needing to be able to see all of the information on the page in a relatively low energy manner – a 10ft tall book may be able to contain a great deal of information but would require a platform to read the top lines and a mechanism for turning the pages.

From a manufacturing perspective there are additional constraints based on the ease of writing or printing the text on pages that can be produced, and the longevity and production of the material used to bind the book.


The visual constraints of a book are a factor of the symbols they contain. Our modern text based communication takes a linear format, either left to right or right to left, making rectangular shaped pages, and hence books, an efficient medium. However, it is not too difficult to imagine a form of communication based in non-linear symbols that when grouped together take on an arced, rounded, or triangular shape. In such a circumstance, given appropriate production means, it would not be surprising to see a non rectangular shaped book.

One of the most readily noticeable aspects of a book has to do with the design of the text inside. Is it too big, too small, or just right? This differs by reader given factors including eyesight and general preferences often described as “comfort.” These decisions have guardrails in the form of number of pages in the book, amount of content desired, and limits of human capabilities.

Additional visual design elements include size of margins, distance between lines of text, and distance between paragraphs.


Another aspect of book design that is often overlooked until it becomes an issue is the organizing of the information. It is a decision of the author as to how to split the book into sections or chapters. The inclusion of a Table of Contents improves ease of access to the information in the book by the reader. For more content heavy books the use of an Index is invaluable, allowing readers to locate key concepts and ideas in the reading quickly. Both of these elements have been readily adopted in a fundamental way by digital reading interfaces that offer search functions in place of an Index, and tabs and menus in place of a Table of Contents.


Side note: nice quick video on affordances and the ever frustrating “Norman doors.”