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I manage a small publishing entity specializing in architectural theory and history, in German and English, which oversees new editions of a well known 20th-Century Modernist architect's literary output. A new annotated and illustrated edition of one of his major titles has been in development with the support of his heirs for the past two years. A set of design and typography decisions were carefully worked out at the start, roughly patterned off a Taschen budget series and then heavily customized. Now years in, and an immense amount of scholarly research behind us, we're asking new questions about the chosen design's fit with the project.

The book is 21cm x 26cm, vertically orientated, and to be in hardback (a robust replacement for thousands of copies that entered libraries in the original OUP edition long ago). Body text type is Calluna Sans, 9.9 pt, tracking widened by 1 unit, with 47 lines per page, and a text column width of 13.4cm.

The book has nearly doubled in length from the annotations, illustrations, and supplemental material.

We were searching for inspiration when basing off the Taschen model, but not to copy a design. Indeed it is much modified. We use extensive sidenotes instead of conventional footnotes (the Taschen model had neither), and Calluna Sans, a humanistic sans serif similar to Scala Sans in theirs but not the same (Calluna is also a touch more humanistic which suits the book). There's a similar grid to the page but with a second overlapping grid and less strict adherence to the grid. Subtle footers are used where in theirs none appear. Chapter opening spreads are quite distinctive and we plan to use a 70% grey for sidenote annotations and footers.

Here are our sticking points/points of concern:

Though illustrated and now given space on the page to breathe, this is still a notoriously complicated text to read—the goal has been to facilitate the difficult reading through design as much as possible.

Calluna Sans seemed ideal but then we noted it was a bit heavier in weight than Scala Sans, and its light version was far too thin to substitute. To mitigate this, we went from 10pt down to 9.9 and expanded tracking by 1—it was subtle but did make the text bloack appear a tad lighter on the page. This might have been the core of another problem, however, as the line length of the original model was already at the max for comfortable reading. Decreasing point size a hair and adding tracking makes for a touch longer-seeming line, pushing word counts per line sometimes above established recommendations of no more than 12-15 words. There are a few lines per page that hit 16-17 words.

Margins top, side, and inner are a somewhat tight 1 cm in theirs and ours, tight mostly for the inner margin, i.e. the binding gutter. It's a concern that we may see print falling into the crease, but Taschen pulled off 1 cm margins, top, side, and inside gutter fine.

Perhaps it is too late to second guess ourselves. Countless hours have been invested down this path, working with many hundreds of images and annotations.

I'm based in Taipei this year to complete this work, where the printing facility is, and if the offset printer deems it impossible to do (I will work closely with them on QC) we'll have to adjust the design for that reason. Their preprint dept. did a cursory review of the design and says it's ok. We're not Taschen, however and their design, with those tight margins, may have been deceptive in terms of feasibility. Books in that series also typically had a low page count, circa 100 pp. or less. Ours is over 350. What those tight margins will mean, particularly for the gutter with sewn signatures in a book of this length, and whether we'll see material falling into the crease as a result, I'm unsure, but we're concerned about all these issues and starting over from scratch is almost inconceivable.

But it's become clear that 1) line length is a little long for optimal reading comfort. Simply narrowing it, with its 47 lines on the page, would produce very tall and narrow columns overall. Enlarging the type back to 10pt helps the line length issue, but takes us to issue 2) we don't like the slightly heavier look that 10pt this gives the text block. And the inner margin is issue 3) if the test print shows too much text and page elements falling into the crease, then we have to adjust, but must avoid a major redesign. Just widen the book a few millimeters to add more gutter space? Many photos cross extend across both pages of the spread.

Apologies for the long and sweeping post. This has been an enormous investment for two years. I've latinized a few pages of the copyrighted material below so others may comment on the design. Feedback welcomed. Thank you.

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  • Hey Typothalamus. Please editor your post to follow our critique guidelines to prevent this question from being closed. With that being said, based on your post it sounds like you might want to hire an outside designer to be a consultant Mar 4 at 15:24
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    I agree with @ZachSaucier. You should hire a graphic designer. The question is well written and I'm itching to dive in. But it would require access to your working files, a lot more explanation and hours of work from my side. This is something I would normally get paid to do. We can help with free education about general graphic design subjects, but we can't offer free work. I hope you understand.
    – Wolff
    Mar 4 at 17:26
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    I, personally, would never use a sans serif typeface for that much text, unless the nature of the text is something similar to an "owners manual" or some other material no one would read as narrative.
    – Scott
    Mar 5 at 7:52
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    @Scott, I think culture differs. Here in Europe it's not uncommon to see long texts about architecture, art and similar in sans serif. Actually I would say it might be the most common as some people regard serif as old-fashioned.
    – Wolff
    Mar 5 at 19:17
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    @Wolff, very true, however, Scott, bear in mind that it's also broken up by many photos and drawings. The notion of serifs being for lengthy texts and literature was common, but its salience in terms of readability, as a general rule, was overstated or an oversimplification. Really depends on the typeface and how its handled. Mar 5 at 22:31

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As someone who has consumed more architectural analysis and other such treatise over the years... I'd strongly suggest further search for your typeface of preference; albeit true I can completely understand both the preference for san-serif and the push for mid-weight versus too heavy given the topic and assumable density of illustrations, and the inferential Bauhaus design reference.

I think you're correct to want to avoid the overly-slender and tall columns, and for me as I read your question, the other element I see as a most-pressing concern is the issue of gutter-creep given your page count and binding choice.

Good luck.

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  • Thanks @GerardFella. In our typeface selection phase, we contacted Calluna's designer, Jos Buivenga, who helpfully redesigned an en-dash, removing bumpers and extending it slightly, but a request for a new weight between Reg. and Light seems unfathomable. Is nanostroking type, i.e. "grading” an option? On recent reanalysis, the Taschen model in Scala Sans (same page size, line count, column width) averages 13.7 words a line; ours is 14.3. This comports with another test that found narrowing the column .5cm relaxed readability significantly (towering, aside). What lead to your strong reaction? Mar 9 at 18:53
  • Because I think I agree with your own analyses which have led you to being constraint-trapped: you identify that to get your optimal line-length you want to bring the typeface up to 10 pt, and this gets you everything you need at the meta-level and the layout level, but then typographically you find the typeface you have selected to be a tad heavy - but the included "light" is too light for your use. This either does call for re-contacting the font designer (perhaps sending the link for this question to them) and requesting a bespoke "book" font - lighter than regular with longer ascenders? Mar 9 at 23:17

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