Children’s book illustration & design

At the Vancouver ceremony for the 2014 Alcuin Awards, one of this year’s judges, Robin Mitchell Cranfield, moderated a lively panel discussion about the unique considerations in children’s picture book publishing. On the panel were:

Nugent began with a bit of background about children’s picture books—a timeless form that’s actually not all that old, emerging in the Victorian era as toy books meant as novelties to entertain children. According to Barbara Bader, a scholar in the field of children’s literature, “A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child.” Nugent explained that whereas a storybook can be completely understood without images, a picture book’s narrative results from the interaction of words and pictures. Reading a picture book is not a linear process; children will flip the pages backward and forward as they try to make sense of the story.

A picture book’s words and images interact in three ways, said Nugent:

  • enhancement, where they complement one another and are not redundant—the words and pictures fill in different details;
  • alternation, where words and pictures take turns telling the story—seen most often when the author is also the illustrator; and
  • contradiction, where the words and pictures do not agree—a tension that creates humour or irony.

Nugent aspires to this contradictory symbiosis of words and images, because “teaching humour is an essential life skill.” Contradiction can reveal an unreliable or naive narrator and thus playfully empowers readers with knowledge that the narrator doesn’t have.

Children may be the readers of picture books, said Mitchell Cranfield, but who are the buyers? And how do they affect the way picture books are marketed? Gillingham replied that the interesting thing about a children’s book as a product is that there are gatekeepers: parents, teachers, and librarians choose which books to put into kids’ hands. The book must appeal to both the children and the people giving the book to the children.

The cover is the primary marketing tool, said Gillingham. “It can be a bit icky to think of the book as a product or to think about its cover as packaging, but we do want books to get into the hands of readers.” Children’s book authors and illustrators can expect their publisher’s marketing department to become involved in cover design because it is a sales tool. But unless the book can be tied to a holiday—say Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—the publisher typically won’t have the budget to do much marketing, and authors and illustrators are often expected to market their own books.

“How do we reach and represent the full community of children?” Mitchell Cranfield asked Flett. “Are there communities being underserved?”

“There are so many communities being underserved,” said Flett, including people who are LGBTQIA, people of colour, people with disabilities, and people from ethnic or cultural minorities. Published demographic data are hard to come by in Canada, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison releases statistics about children’s literature in the U.S., and it last reported that, in a sample of 5,000 books:

  • 180 were written or illustrated by African Americans,
  • 38 were by aboriginal authors or illustrators,
  • 112 were by authors or illustrators of Asia-Pacific ancestry, and
  • 66 were by Latinos.

For more representative diversity, said Flett, “we need more books written by the community member, not on behalf of that community member. We need these books in schools, homes, and communities.” Picture books that feature diversity are often what Flett considers “tourist books,” which may focus on holidays, for instance. There is much less about everyday life. Flett would like to see books that are now shelved in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit section of the bookstore also in other sections, because “ultimately they are, like the majority of books, about humanity. And if we do not include diverse books, we’re implicitly exclusive.” She recalled an interaction she had with a young reader—a foster child—who was excited to discover that the main character of The Moccasins was also a foster child. Flett made the case for diverse books in all genres so that children with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences have characters they can relate to.

Mitchell Cranfield asked Morstad what children’s books mean to her. As a parent who loves art and design, Morstad replied, she’s interested in books that appeal to both children and adults—“books that tackle big subjects and that don’t underestimate children’s understanding of big subjects” like the emotions that come with death or sex or depression, for example. She enjoys books that are “deceptively simple but have philosophical or more complex components.”

“Kids have questions, and some are hard to answer,” Morstad said. “A book can be a great place for those conversations to happen.”

Mitchell Cranfield talked about her own work adapting a book for a TV show and remarked that when you’re reading with a child, “content gets presented to children in a filtered way.” Children can let you know when it’s too much for them. With a TV show, she had to be more careful about making sure the content would be “safe” to a broad group of viewers.

Flett likes the idea of empowering children in books. In Dolphin SOS (winner of the 2015 Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize), for example, the youth are themselves involved with the rescue in the story. Flett also mentioned Simon Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue, recently featured on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. Ortiz’s storytelling presents the history of Indigenous peoples, including treaties and reservations, in a matter-of-fact way, never once using the word “plight.” The book reflected how people simply tell each other stories: “These are the stories; these are the songs.”

Mitchell Cranfield asked Gillingham how changes in production have changed book illustration, design, and content. “What does the future of children’s book design look like?”

Gillingham said that digital art in children’s books “used to look a lot more digital.”

“I appreciate illustrators who continue to use their hands but use digital tools to make the process of making a book easier,” she said. “I love when there’s still evidence of the hand.”

Gillingham recalled when, not that long ago, illustrators had to send, nervously, their original artwork via courier, when there was always a possibility of loss or damage. “I love that we don’t have to worry about those things now,” she said.

As for the future of children’s book design, “I see it getting less compartmentalized,” she said. Traditionally, authors and illustrators were kept separate, but “I see that breaking down. Authors and illustrators are finding each other.”

“I see illustrators becoming more design savvy,” she added, speculating that the change might be tool driven, as more illustrators work in the digital realm. They’re more conscientious about page composition and the interaction between type and illustrations.

Nugent agreed that the process is much more collaborative. She said that she felt editorial pressure to create a sleepy-time ending to one of her books, When Cats Go Wrong. “With cuts to libraries and schools,” she said, book publishers have refocused their marketing toward parents, and in North America, “a picture book is used to separate parent from child at the end of the day”—a function that books in other countries don’t have to have.

Nugent had to rework the last spread of her book, which had depicted an active scene, to create a more calm ending. She admits to resenting the request at first but came to realize that inspiration was bottomless: she could find it regardless of the constraints she faced. “People don’t like to think about marketing considerations, but we have to respect that people are putting money into producing the book.” she said. She ended by encouraging everyone to check out the IBBY Silent Books Exhibit featuring wordless picture books from around the world on at the Italian Cultural Centre until October 22.

Seth on cartooning, book design, and the Canadian aesthetic

Cartoonist, book designer, and illustrator (though he prefers the term “decorator”) Seth took the stage on Thursday after the Alcuin Awards presentations to talk about his influences; cartooning as an expressive, symbolic language; and the design features he’s identified as uniquely Canadian that he’s incorporated into his own design aesthetic. Guided by questions from another titan of Canadian book design, Peter Cocking, Seth led us on an eye-opening tour of his artistic process.

“Let’s talk about where you came from,” said Cocking. “You have a very pronounced style. What were your influences?”

“I’m a book designer now—I do a limited amount of book design—but primarily I’m a cartoonist,” said Seth. Growing up in small towns in Ontario, before the Internet, he absorbed culture from the pop culture. “As a child, you don’t judge it with an adult aesthetic,” he said, “but there was some stuff—you were connected to it for a reason.”

Peanuts, for example, had a profound effect Seth. “It was not really written for children, but children responded to it.” Charlie Brown was an outsider character, which elicited a lot of empathy. Charles Schulz “set the standard for how I wanted to work as a cartoonist,” said Seth. “The cartooning was really his handwriting.”

Marvel Comics also captured Seth’s imagination. “Like every kid,” he said, “I loved the superhero comics of that era.” Like Schulz, artists like Jack Kirby drew in clear lines. “The figures were quite strange. The anatomy wasn’t quite right. That’s when I realized that cartoonists were working with a symbolic language. Cartooning is not about drawing. It’s about creating symbols that people instantly recognize. Drawings in a cartoon are more similar to typography.”

Later on Seth discovered the work of Robert Crumb, whose work proved to Seth that “you can do anything you wanted as a cartoonist.” Crumb’s work, he said, had a dirty vibe to it—“literally filthy. Yet there was something really enticing beyond its pornographic qualities. It could actually impart a genuine feeling of lust.” In contrast with many cartoonists who were just drawing to make a buck, Crumb was one of a handful of great practitioners who redefined the idea that cartooning “could be a personal medium.”

Particularly intriguing to Seth was that Crumb’s work “looked like it had come from some earlier era.” The quality of the cartoon looked like it was drawn in the 1920s, but the content came out of the hippie subculture. Seth realized that Crumb “was digging around in the past for inspiration.”

Seth’s other influences include the Hernandez Brothers, as well as Georges Remi’s The Adventures of Tintin, in which “the shapes were simple. He was not concerned with rendering. It was all iconically drawn,” reinforcing the idea that cartooning is symbolic.

“Cartooning is a graphic language,” said Seth. “People sometimes say it’s like a combination of film and literature, which to me has always been a poor idea of what a cartoon is. To me, it’s more a combination of graphic design and poetry. Comics are about condensing things—condensing time and space.”

“They can be as complex to read as poetry,” said Cocking.

“Sometimes people ask if they should be reading the words or the pictures first. To me that’s always been a peculiar question. I always read them at the same time.”

“Some people don’t understand the language of comics,” said Cocking. “They don’t know what a thought bubble means…”

“Yes,” said Seth. “In Japanese comics, characters will sometimes have a puff of smoke coming out of their nose, which means great sadness. That’s just as foreign to us as the sweat beads we have flying off our characters in North American comics. And we don’t really have words to describe these devices.”

The New Yorker’s cartoons made an impression on Seth as well, particularly Peter Arno’s bold, brushed lines. “As a cartoonist, you always have a temptation to tighten up,” he explained. A maximum of expression in a minimum of lines.

“We’ve talked about your influences,” said Cocking. “Now let’s move on to some of your own work.” Showing images from Seth’s book design on The Complete Peanuts, Cocking noted the “attention you bring to Schulz as an illustrator—really showing graphic quality.”

“People take for granted what he did,” said Seth, “but it was groundbreaking.” Schulz was one of the first post-war cartoonists to take a modern approach of using “very few lines. He kept things very simple.”

“Charlie Brown is not a drawing of a child,” said Seth. “It is Charlie Brown. This was Schulz’s hand—it was his handwriting.” Schulz was writing his own life into the strip,” Seth explained. “When he was having an affair, Snoopy was having an affair—and his wife didn’t pick up on it!”

When Seth first approach Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz, with the idea of The Complete Peanuts, he already had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. “Peanuts had never been very well packaged,” he said. “People were selling the image of Peanuts as a popular item. I wanted to take down the tone of the books. The strips really had a melancholy mood.” Initially Seth envisioned fifty volumes, each with Charlie Brown’s face on the front. In the end he compromised, including two years per volume and featuring a few of the other characters.

The end papers in all of the volumes were a compilation of the settings, devoid of characters. “I wanted to establish a feeling for the place—this netherland of suburbia,” he said. “It was never clear where they lived. But it was somewhere with four seasons.” Seth wanted to highlight the strip’s underlying nature: it wasn’t really funny; it was meant more to be moving. On the occasional spread Seth allowed himself to assemble settings and build scenes with elements from Schulz’s strips. “I was drawing with his hands.”

Seth’s book design was heavily influenced by the work of Thoreau MacDonald, son of the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. MacDonald. Thoreau MacDonald was Canada’s premier book designer before the 1960s: he was a pen-and-ink artist who had a “cartoonist’s sensibility,” said Seth. He incorporated hand lettering seamlessly into his designs and illustrations. “There was a great earnestness to the work,” said Seth. “His work felt Canadian to me. Why does it feel Canadian to me?”

This question prompted Seth to gather Canadiana: old pamphlets, books, other ephemera that exemplified “Canadian vernacular design.” He was driven by the need to explore cartooning as a personal medium. “A lot of my peers were Americans,” he explained. “We were part of a little movement. I was one of the only Canadians in that group. Is there anything different in what I’m doing? What is an essence of Canadian imagery? Maybe I was insulted by Americans who thought, ‘Well, you’re just American.’ I started to inevitably feel some sense of national identity.”

From his collection, Seth distilled three features he identified in the Canadian postwar aesthetic: imagery from that period always had

  • an idea of landscape,
  • some official reference to the government, sometimes heraldic symbols of Britain or France, and
  • humility.

“There was something about them that was small,” he said. American images of the same era were always more impressive, almost always more proud. “I always thought there must have been some Ministry of Enforced Drabness,” said Seth.

These themes made it into Seth’s own work, such as in his graphic novel, George Sprott. “Every page could be read on its own, so it was easy to add pages in between. I could edit a work that already existed and really pay attention to pacing.” The front cover, with the title, George Sprott, 1894–1975, “is a tombstone,” Seth explained. “I like sadness, I must say. Life is sad. There’s an underlying tone of melancholy that goes through people’s lives.”

Cocking noted a musical quality to Seth’s work and asked him whether he thought in musical terms. “Yes,” he answered. “Pacing is so important. You’re always thinking about how you’re controlling time. Rhythm is super important.”

“Cartooning is a tiny little medium with a few symbols—a toy medium, a miniature world. There are endless possibilities for what you can do with that,” said Seth. “It’s remarkable the amount of variation that’s barely been touched. The medium is being completely redefined by the people working in it.”

Interspersed among the cartoons in the George Sprott collection are photos of cardboard buildings Seth crafted in his basement. “I made a world called Dominion—a Northern Ontario town that I invented where all my stories take place.”

Another of Seth’s projects was designing and decorating a new edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which, as Cocking said, “celebrates and mocks the drabness” of the quintessential Canadian town. “It’s a mean book,” acknowledged Seth.

“What was important to me, as is always, was to get a sense of place.” The dust jacket is Seth’s depiction of the town during the day, the book’s title central and bold. The cover, in contrast, is the town at night, and features no type at all. “It’s going to end up at a second-hand bookstore, and nobody will know what the book is,” he said. “There’s an old cartooning rule: show, don’t tell. So when people draw literally what’s written on the page, I always think that’s a wasted opportunity.”

Seth took his mastery of covert symbolism to another level with The Collected Doug Wright. Wright was “Canada’s master cartoonist,” said Seth. His work was “very, very Canadian.” He created a pantomime strip—with no dialogue—and he worked from the late 1940s to the 1980s, when he had a major stroke and died a couple of years later. As Seth was thinking of how to assemble the collection of Wright’s work, he recalled that Wright’s father, away fighting in World War I, had written the boy a heartfelt letter of fatherly advice and pride shortly before he was killed in battle. Seth landed on the idea of having the Wright collection subliminally take the reader on a walking tour of the Vimy Memorial in France. He studied photos and plans and storyboarded the tour before echoing each of his sketches in the designs of the spreads in The Collected Doug Wright.

Seth’s archival sensibilities came naturally to him: “Cartooning is a collector’s world,” he said. He developed an affinity toward collecting, and “the more you do it, the more it becomes archival, historical. You’re not just an artist; you’re also a historian.”

Learning to type: Adventures in publishing

Huh. Well, I’ve been meaning to post a recap of Scott McIntyre’s talk at last Tuesday’s Alcuin AGM, but I’ve been swamped with work and haven’t been able to get to it. The Alcuin Society has since uploaded the full video of his talk here.

I promise to post something soon—after I get through this crush of work. Next week I’ll be heading to Halifax for the Indexing Society of Canada and Editors’ Association of Canada conferences, and I’ll make my write-ups of the sessions I attend available when I manage to get to them.

The Alcuin Society honours Will Rueter and The Aliquando Press

The Alcuin Society gave its sixth annual Robert R. Reid Award and Medal for lifetime achievement in the book arts to Will Rueter—teacher, printmaker, bookbinder, graphic designer, one-time senior designer at the University of Toronto Press, and founder of The Aliquando Press, a private press based in Dundas, Ontario. To celebrate this honour, the Alcuin Society invited Rueter and fellow private press owner Rollin Milroy (of Heavenly Monkey) to sit down for an informal interview and chat.

To kick off the evening, Alcuin board member Ralph Stanton acknowledged Leah Gordon, who helped organize the event, as well as special guests in the audience—patron Yosef Wosk; Don McLeod, editor of The Devil’s Artisan magazine; Stan Bevington of Coach House Press; typographer Rod McDonald; Chester and Camilla Gryski of Toronto; and of course Will Rueter himself. Stanton introduced Rueter, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, who established The Aliquando Press in 1963 and has published over one hundred books and broadsheets, as well as interviewer Rollin Milroy, who, through Heavenly Monkey, has published about three dozen books, the archives of which are housed in Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC Library.

Milroy began his interview by asking Rueter about his background; as it turns out, Rueter’s family has a long history in the book arts. His grandfather’s brother was a Dutch artist who created patterned papers, some of which found its way into Rueter’s Majesty, Order and Beauty: Selections from the Journals of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Rueter’s father was a printmaker as well, although because his parents were divorced, Rueter never got a chance to see his father’s private press.

He travelled to Europe to meet his Dutch family in 1960, and he lived in London for ten months. “I had no money but was able to find a small job and soak up whatever I could,” he said. When he got the opportunity to see the Book of Kells, which was being exhibited at the Royal Academy on loan from Ireland, he became excited about the physical properties of the book.

Rueter returned to Canada, where he worked for while in a bookstore and discovered the work of Frank Newfeld. He became inspired to be a book designer and wanted to be able to do everything himself. The hurdle, Rueter explained, was that he knew nothing about making books.

Rueter bought a tabletop press and, under the mentorship of Stan Bevington, began to design and print. It was an exciting time for typography in Ontario, said Rueter: advertising design was strong, and that aesthetic seeped out into book design. Private presses were experimenting with exciting ways of presenting information, poetry, and essays. With the encouragement of designer and typographer Leslie (Sam) Smart, Rueter returned to Europe in 1968 and spent three months reading, looking at time, and visiting the Monotype Works. When he returned to Canada, he had no job, and he applied for a graphic design position at the University of Toronto Press.

Milroy asked if Rueter was interested in publishing generally or in academic publishing specifically. Rueter replied that he would have been happy with any job in publishing but he was lucky to have ended up at the University of Toronto Press, saying that his boss, Allan Fleming, gave him an awful lot of confidence. Rueter noted that scholarly publishing pushed him to find creative ways of tackling what he called “the minutiae of scholarly design”—the bits and pieces including footnotes, block quotes, tables, charts, and images—and he adapted many of those ideas to his work at The Aliquando Press, which occupied his evenings and weekends.

Rueter told us that he and Jim Rimmer shared a mentor in Paul Duensing. Duensing loved monotype machines and designed and cast his own type. He owned his own foundry and was in the unique position of being a one-man shop. Through Duensing, Rueter met Leonard Bahr of Adagio Press. Bahr, said Rueter, was a type-A personality—“He was once hospitalized because he found a typo in a book he’d just printed,” Rueter said, prompting raucous laughter. “He was totally passionate about type and books.” Bahr had wanted to write a book on private printing and even set some of it in type, but he never completed it. Miraculously, Rueter said, he’d kept Bahr’s galley proofs, and on the fiftieth anniversary of The Aliquando Press, Rueter printed Pressing Matters, a book in Bahr’s honour. Bahr’s first two chapters became the first two essays of the book; Bahr had written an outline for the subsequent chapters but hadn’t gotten any further. Pressing Matters also included correspondence from Paul Duensing and a contribution about the economics of the private press publishing from Rollin Milroy. Rueter contributed an afterword, “Printing Is Pleasure,” about the state of the private press today.

“What about the future?” Rollin Milroy asked. “I can’t make any prognostications,” Rueter answered, adding that he hopes the private press will continue to exist even if technological changes mean that the physical book may not exist at a commercial scale. “I can’t imagine not having a private press,” said Rueter, explaining that he feels he’s been able to hide behind the press—that the discipline of making books has forged his sense of self and has been a kind of salvation for him. He hopes that in the future we uphold “the importance of the text—always the text—because that’s what we work for.”

Milroy showed some examples of Rueter’s hand lettering, asking, “Do you think it’s important for people interested in the graphic arts to render letters by hand?”

“Absolutely,” answered Rueter. “It’s important to appreciate the subtlety of letterforms,” as well as the relationships between them. He mentioned that he’d tried to design his own typeface, but it was clunky and just didn’t work. “Letterforms are not necessarily type,” he elaborated. They have their own rules and disciplines when they become type.”

Rollin Milroy mentioned that he and Rueter both shared a strong interest in music, as well as a desire to express that interest through printing and books. “Why do you see these two media overlapping?” Rueter admitted that he has great difficulty with music and that he can’t read it. But he says he can’t print without music. “Letterpress printing and private printing have a kind of parallel relationship with early music,” he said. Whereas a piano is refined, he explained, earlier instruments such as harpsichords and lutes have a kind of tension; you get sour notes if they are not well tuned, much like a letterpress.

How, asked Milroy, does someone wanting to create their own press today get started? “Talk to anyone who’s actually printing,” said Rueter. “Read the classics.” He recommended several titles, including

  • D.B. Updike’s Printing Types
  • Just My Type by Simon Garfield
  • The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree
  • Letterpress Now by Jessica White

“Be devoted to printing, want to learn,” said Rueter. “There is no money to be made, but you can have a lot of fun.” He added that one of the joys of letterpress these days is the flexibility to experiment offered by polymer plates.

Milroy asked Rueter which of his own books were his favourite. Rueter mentioned the following:

  • The Articulation of Time, a book he printed twenty years ago, “the first time I really became aware of my own mortality,” he said. The book features a lot of quotations and poetry that had meaning to him at the time.
  • Diary of an Amaryllis, which features colour reproductions of drawings by Rueter’s wife, who illustrated the life cycle of an amaryllis plant.
  • Majesty, Order and Beauty, the diary of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Rueter described Sanderson (1840–1922) as “one of the most complex people. He started life as a barrister but then became the best bookbinder of the nineteenth century. He wrote journals and was an important figure in the early fine-press movement.”

“Private printers do work in very strange ways,” Rueter said. He offered a quote from Henry James, saying “He’s talking about writing, but I think it says a lot about private printing and its frustrations: ‘We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we can… The rest is madness of art.”

The evening ended with a tribute from last year’s Robert R. Reid recipient, Stan Bevington, who said of Rueter’s work, “Every letter has been picked up by hand. And his choice of paper is exquisite… As a designer at the University of Toronto Press, the largest university press in Canada, Will Rueter made a great contribution to setting high standards for commercial printing.” At Aliquando, Bevington added, Rueter is involved in every aspect: selecting texts, editing, designing, writing, illustrating, setting type, and printing. He has come a long way from his first book, A Bach Fugue, which Rueter derided as having “derivative design and poor inking” to the impressive opus of Majesty, Order and Beauty, which was his hundredth publication.

Each of the audience members got to go home with a special keepsake—a gorgeously printed and incisive quote from Latin grammarian Terentianus: “Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli”—or “The fate of books depends on the capacity of the reader.”

Upcoming editing and publishing events

A lot is happening over this next week! I hope to be posting about all of these editing- and publishing-related events—though probably not all at once. Look for my summaries over the next few weeks.

1. Ethics for editors

Having been a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s code of ethics task force about a year and a half ago, I’m very interested to hear what Mary Schendlinger will have to say about ethical dimensions of editing at her EAC-BC seminar on Saturday. At our January EAC-BC meeting, David Harrison and some members of his audience had discussed whether a code of ethics was the only piece of the puzzle we were missing before we could consider editing a bona fide profession. Schendlinger will tackle such issues as how creative a piece of creative non-fiction can be and how best to navigate a situation in which an author has used racist or sexist language.

Registration for this seminar is closed, but if you can’t attend and have some ethics-related questions about editing, get in touch with me, and I’d be happy to take them to the session and bring back whatever answers I can get.

2. Plain language certification

Katherine McManus, director of the SFU Writing and Communications Program, will speak at our March EAC-BC meeting about SFU’s role in the project by IC Clear, the International Consortium for Clear Communication, to launch certification in clear communication and plain language. McManus will also give us a preview of the upcoming PLAIN 2013 conference in October, where IC Clear hopes to pilot its first course. Join us on Wednesday, March 20, at 7pm, at the YWCA on Hornby.

3. Robert R. Reid Award and Medal to Will Rueter

The Alcuin Society will present its Robert R. Reid Award and Medal for lifetime achievement in the book arts to William Rueter of Aliquando Press on Thursday, March 21. At the free event, which starts at 7:30pm at SFU Harbour Centre,  Rollin Milroy of Heavenly Monkey will interview Rueter and show illustrations of Rueter’s work.

An Alcuin Award for Fred Herzog: Photographs

Congratulations to D&M’s art director, Peter Cocking, who won second prize in the pictorial category at the Alcuin Awards for his design of Fred Herzog: Photographs, featuring text by Claudia Gochmann, Douglas Coupland, Sarah Milroy, and Jeff Wall. D&M’s design team has a tradition of doing well at the Alcuins, this year winning seven awards in four categories.

Find a full list of winners here.

Coach House Press as a digital pioneer

Last evening Laraine Coates and I went to see John Maxwell give a talk to the Alcuin Society about Coach House Press as a digital pioneer.

Coach House is known as a literary house and a design and printing house. But, John says, a research project he’s undertaken over the past several years reveals that Coach House has a fascinating history of digital innovations in publishing, which shows that innovation doesn’t necessarily require massive amounts of capital, trained technical professionals, or corporate secrecy. Coach House’s innovation was more down to earth—a product of a love of learning and willingness to tinker.

Coach House’s beginnings are legendary: at the height of the Great Canadian Flag Debate of 1964, Stan Bevington sold screen-printed Canadian flags in Toronto and eventually made enough money to buy his first printing press, which he set up in a coach house. Coach House Press started printing posters, then moved into books. Initially the books were hand set; then Coach House acquired a Linotype machine. In the late 1960s, as Coach House began to print the books of emerging young writers and poets, it found itself becoming a cultural hub.

In the early 1970s, phototypesetting became an accessible technology, and Coach House pursued it rather than seeing it as antithetical to the tradition of hand setting. In 1974 Stan Bevington bought a Mergenthaler VIP (variable input phototypesetter) machine, which took paper tape as its input. The tape encoded not only the text but also the design and formatting. It didn’t take long before the team at Coach House began modifying the tape to create new typefaces for the VIP; they essentially “hacked” the tape to drive new typography. Coach House was adept at tinkering with new technology to wring the maximum functionality out of it.

Coach House also recognized the potential of using a computer to create the tape. In 1974 Bevington bought a Datapoint 2200 computer for that purpose; the Datapoint 2200 was the earliest microcomputer—the forefather of all of our personal computers. At a conference, the Coach House team saw a computer hooked up directly to a phototypesetter and decided to try it for themselves. Ed Hale built a circuit board that took output from the Datapoint 2200 and fed it to the VIP—no more need for paper tape. By doing this themselves, Coach House made the technology their own.

At this point, the software became key in the process. David Slocombe at Coach House tinkered with the software and got it to the point where it was usable by the editors themselves. At the same time, Coach House actively collaborated with Ron Baecker’s computer science lab at the University of Toronto—one of the first places in the world to have UNIX installed. Bevington consulted the lab about onscreen typography and in exchange had access to UNIX. In 1983, Coach House proposed a peer-to-peer network with two other Ontario-based publishers, the Porcupine’s Quill and Penumbra Press, and established an uncanny parallel to what universities were setting up in California and what would evolve into the Internet.

Coach House became known for its computer typesetting. In 1984 some of its staff members branched off to form SoftQuad, a developer of software to edit, view, and publish structured (generalized markup language—or GML) content. It was ahead of its time—at first SoftQuad struggled to find a market, but in 1986 it found its feet when the U.S. Department of Defense made GML—now SGML—a mandatory requirement. Of course, SGML is the direct precursor to the ubiquitous HTML and XML.

Coach House acquired Macintosh computers when they were first released in 1984, initially using them as terminals to the UNIX systems. They then discovered that the PostScript paradigm was the way of the future and quickly adopted QuarkXPress on the Macintosh and even developed a way to translate SGML markup into formatting in Quark. Interestingly, now with the rise of ebooks, publishers care about markup once again.

The 1990s were rough for Coach House; in 1996, the publishing arm of the company failed, but Bevington later relaunched it as Coach House Books, which put its entire frontlist on the web for free. The press then made sales of the beautifully printed books as fetishized objects.

If you visit Coach House Books, John tells us, you’ll discover that all of the technological history is there on site; it’s a living, breathing museum. Coach House has always demonstrated a willingness to adopt new technologies and has had a tradition of research, insightful decision making, and a love of tinkering. Unlike many other players in the publishing industry, Coach House isn’t bothered by technical innovation—a fact that still holds today; for instance, when Facebook was first rising, Coach House became the first Canadian publisher to reach a thousand followers, and it has proven itself to be a pioneer of direct sales and e-commerce. The press’s home-grown innovation hasn’t made Bevington rich, but, in hindsight, it is remarkable to consider that Coach House was always five to ten years ahead of the curve.

John’s talk was followed by the presentation of the Alcuin Society’s Robert R. Reid Award and Medal to Stan Bevington, in recognition of lifetime achievement in the book arts in Canada.

We each came away with a lovely souvenir of the evening: a tabloid-sized print of Canadian typefaces used at Coach House, including Amethyst and Stern by Jim Rimmer, Goodchild and Figgins Sans by Nick Shinn, and Gibson and Slate by Rod McDonald.

My synopsis here doesn’t really do justice to the astounding volume of research that John Maxwell has done for this project. I would encourage anyone interesting in learning more about Coach House’s technological history to visit John’s website on the topic.