Dr. B writes, "Happiness writes white. It does not show up on the page" - this quotation from Henri de Montherlant opens a book that arrived today from an order earlier this month from Amazon: Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall.People of my generation, even if they have not heard of Derek Birdsall, will probably have come across his work, as he designed covers for Penguin Books from 1960 to 1972. It was splendid to leaf through his notes on designing books, with examples of his works over the past five decades or so. One of the most interesting sections, however, is his illustrated account of designing "Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England", the new liturgy book introduced at a service at Westminster Abbey in November 2000. Birdsall was commissioned only in October 1999, so he was working on a tight schedule, and he relates a fascinating account of the decisions he made on typeface, margins and layout.
As a clear distinction was required between the words spoken by the priest, the congregation, and the instructions, the ideal typeface would have equally clear distinction between the roman, the bold and the italic. Early research showed Gill Sans to be by far the clearest ...He also explains how "Common Worship" came to be the size it is - it had to be long enough for the Nicene Creed to fit on one page (as below), but the most important thing, a priest said during informal "market" research by Birdsall's collaborator John Morgan in a local church, "was to be able to hold the book in one hand and a baby in the other".
(Morgan has posted a PDF about the design process of "Common Worship" here, which shows the care that went into the process - the proofs were sent out to 14 proof-readers - and there was wide consultation for which one response was, "God must be in the detail, not the devil. This is surely true of typography, as much as theology or anything else.")
Almost at the last minute, Birdsall was inspired to form a cross from the book's title, and he also insisted on the use of the word "All" (which the selection panel was ready to drop) before the words in bold for the congregation: "Setting 'All' out in the margin and in red further clarifies the structure, is comforting to those people not familiar with Church services, and adds sparkle to the page."
Birdsall's notes on design also contain reflections on the craft of the designer, for which the last words (on the back cover) are from Logan Pearsall Smith: "The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves."