One for the books: information design in the real world

We want to talk about book spine design.

Why? You may consider this an ultimately ignorable element of the book creation process, but at After the flood we’re focused on the details. Behind every design choice there should be a thoughtful process, and when it comes to books some have this process nailed better than others.

In Anglophone and most Western European countries, type on the spine of books runs from top to bottom. But in some European countries (such as France), in Eastern Europe, in Russia, and in a handful of other locations, it’s more common for text to run from bottom to top. We take a page from the latter school of thinking.


Heading in the right direction

There are two main arguments in favour of bottom-up type. Let’s consider them.

First: imagine a book lying face up on a table. In this instance, the title on the cover of the book clearly reveals what it is you’re looking at – there’s no problem. If the book is face down, however, you’re going to need to use the spine to identify it.

If the spine text runs top to bottom, you’ve run into trouble: the title across the book’s binding will read upside-down. If the book’s creator has opted for bottom-to-top type, however, the spine will remain right way up and readable.

Therefore, with bottom-to-top text on a spine, you can immediately recognise a book face up or face down. (As long as the spine is facing you, of course.) There’s no confusion involved.

There are benefits when the book sits on the shelf too. Given that most Western readers naturally scan from left to right, scanning a bookshelf in the same manner feels all the more natural when the text on a spine reads bottom to top: you can read the titles as if you were reading a list. If the type on the spine runs from the top, then it’s all back to front: you’re essentially reading a list starting at its bottom.

Yes, there is an argument to be made that when browsing a bookshelf from the top-left, it also logically follows for the text to also begin at the top. But in that instance, with the text facing away from the reader, this logical thinking comes at the expense of fluidity of reading. With the bottom-to-top approach, the title text reads instantly in the correct direction – there’s a fluency that comes with scanning a bookshelf that way.

The subtle touch of information design

Why exactly are we talking to you about book spine design? Because this is wayfinding, pure and simple, and wayfinding is – in many ways – information design.

Information design can be seen almost everywhere in today’s modern world, whether it’s on the signposting of the London Underground or the direction of a book’s title on its spine. It’s witnessed in the seemingly inconsequential yet fundamental design decisions that inform the way we perceive something and, therefore, inform the way that it works.

The book spine example is just one example of many that illustrates the point. Information design isn’t just about revealing data via infographics or colourful charts – it’s inherently about understanding: the clear and concise transmission of knowledge or complex information via visual language.

You must consider the underlying principles – are you making your work as intuitive as possible? Are you maximising that which is important, and minimising that which is not? Are you ensuring that your audience instinctively understands your message without the need for deeper thought? If you’re not considering these questions, you’ve got a problem. It goes just the same for cover design as it does for analysing and illustrating data.