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This is What Post-digital Print Should Look Like

What can books do that even the most sophisticated UX reading experiences can’t?

Print hasn’t just survived its own death, but it’s arrived on the other side with a brilliant new understanding of the form and what it can do—and that, says designer Neil Donnelly, is what makes it such a brilliant time to be designing books today.

“People have figured out what digital is good for and what print is good for,” he says. “In a way, books have to justify their own existence these days, and so they need to have an object quality that digital just doesn’t have—can’t have. In contrast to digital, the other thing I find to be pretty satisfying about a book is that it has to be done at a certain point, especially in this era of things constantly being flexible, or changeable, or evolving.”

The Carnegie Mellon- and Yale-educated designer devotes about half of his practice to books. He creates jackets for clients and enjoys doing so, but he prefers the total design of a book, where he can hone the relationship between cover and interior concept, and between topic and type.

“It’s important that the design acts as a kind of text in and of itself—that then meaning behind the design can really enhance the meaning of the content,” he says. “At their best, the two are working in a way in which one is inextricable from the other, where you couldn’t imagine reading a text in any other form than in the object that carries it.”

From his Brooklyn studio, Donnelly discusses five books that he and his staff of one, designer Ben Fehrman-Lee, designed from top to bottom, in their perpetual quest to bring a story and its form ever closer to together.

1
Josef Albers in Mexico, edited by Lauren Hinkson

This book was a companion to a Guggenheim exhibition about Albers’ travels in Mexico from the 1930s–60s, and the sum total of the abstract inspiration he found in the country’s archaeological sites. To make it feel connected to the era of Josef and Anni Albers’ travels, but still exude relevance for a show currently on view, Donnelly found a solution in type, notably the sans serif Kabel and the serif Century Expanded. He had discovered the faces on maps and brochures among the Albers’ travel ephemera.

“There was something about both of them in combination that felt kind of rooted in the early- to mid-20th century, but I felt I could do something that felt contemporary with them as well.”

He did just that, using an ‘L’ in place of the ‘J,’ and ‘R’ in the title on the book’s cover—an interpretation of Albers’ lifelong interest in perception and in seeing the same thing from multiple perspectives. He accented the cover with a hot pink foil on the book’s purple cloth binding, and transitioned to the interior of the book with blue endpapers, an act of choreography that gave way to a minimalistic interior.

“Books sometimes feel like film, in that there’s this very specific narrative arc to the structure of them, and there’s a rhythm and a pace,” he says.

“Josef Albers in Mexico,” edited by Lauren Hinkson, designed by Neil Donnelly

2
Architecture is All Over, edited by Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter

The title Architecture is All Over is a bit of a double entendre—architecture is ubiquitous, yet some say it’s finished as an artform—two extremes that are explored in the book’s essays. Donnelly wanted to push the notion even further, and bring it into the visual realm. Ben Fehrman-Lee, who works in Donnelly’s studio, customized two typefaces by flipping the counters within them, creating text that is never entirely backward or forward. Donnelly then went to the extreme: In the interior, he took the titles of the essays and the figures in the book, and mirrored them out in spot gloss on the reverse pages from where they originally ran. He also applied the concept to the book’s jacket, fusing the back-cover imagery with the front (right down to the UPC).

All the while, Donnelly managed to preserve legibility, overcome the production challenge of having to make two sets of text edits for every one, and execute on a truly audacious concept exploring the book’s thematic duality—showing readers that, yes, architecture is indeed all over.

“Architecture is All Over,” edited by Esther Choi and Marrikka Trotter, designed by Neil Donnelly

3
The Arab City: Architecture and Representation, edited by Amale Andraos and Nora Akawi Designed with Sean Yendrys

When working on the total design of a book, Donnelly prefers to not even think about the cover until the interior has been created, viewing it as a more holistic process. But that’s not always an option, such as when a publisher needs a cover for a catalog or marketing, which was the case with the essay collection The Arab City.

He eventually found his concept in Arab architecture itself, and latched onto its geometry, bringing rotating shapes and their sense of movement to the design. To pay homage to the craft of architecture, he invoked the discipline’s sense of layering, and explored Bembo and Arial at different scales.

“Those typefaces seemed to work for the cover because Bembo Infant has a lot of fine details and high contrast, and Arial Narrow is quite blunt and rough, and so there was something about the mix of those two that felt right.”

They carried the fonts over to the interior, which Donnelly designed with Sean Yendrys in his studio.

“We were able to achieve something that felt kind of academic and bookish, but also lively and informal at times, which was a balance that we were looking to strike through the design overall,” Donnelly says.

4
Snarkitecture

Often a monograph calls for a completely original cover. And sometimes the solution is right in front of you, waiting patiently, as it was when Donnelly set out to design the first book from New York City studio Snarkitecture.

Last year, after partnering with boutique purveyor Calico Wallpaper, Snarkitecture got to work tearing into stacks of paper by hand, creating an amazingly tactile construction that resembled a topographic map. Calico then printed it on vinyl, producing a 2D wallpaper that looks anything but. To Donnelly, it seemed an ideal image for the book.

“Their work and their approach is so much about taking a conceptual idea, but then really exploring the material qualities of that idea and creating these objects that are transformed in one simple way to subvert expectations,” he says. “It’s really an image that uses the materials of bookmaking in order to make the cover of the book itself.”

“Snarkitecture,” designed by Neil Donnelly

5
WORKac: We’ll Get There When We Cross That Bridge, by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood

WORKac had no interest in making a traditional architecture monograph. Rather, they wanted to make a duograph—and that’s exactly what Donnelly helped them do.

The book contains 10 chapters that follow a recurring format: The first part of each chapter is an in-depth look at a particular project, presented on coated paper in a clean layout with an orderly grid—a fairly standard approach for the genre. What follows is anything but. Putting the “duo” in duograph, the second part of every chapter allows the two architects space to analyze the themes, historical references, and ideas that inform each project. These sections are presented on uncoated stock that’s a quarter-inch wider than the core project pages, so as you’re viewing them, you’re able to see the dialogue section jutting out, reminding you of the two separate elements that form the work.

Meanwhile, rigid order is abandoned as the conversation literally bobs and weaves around images, dancing across the pages—an idea that eventually made it to the cover, along with the three spot colors that are used to represent specific eras of WORKac’s output.

Donnelly cites close collaboration with the architects as a key to the project’s final form.

“We ended up with something that feels like a really holistic distillation of their interests and their practice, and I think it’s something that probably neither of us would have made on our own.”

Total design, indeed—and a brilliant reminder of how effective, illuminating, and relevant print can be when pushed to its max.

“WORKac: We’ll Get There When We Cross That Bridge,” by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, designed by Neil Donnelly

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