The Front Door

The title page & its verso

Typographers who specialise in the design of books – their insides, the pages – some­times say that the title page is the book’s front door. Many designers of the out­sides – the covers – would be more likely to nominate the jacket. The earliest printed books in Europe rarely had either. They were usually sold unbound and the text started on the first recto page. It was soon apparent that this made an in­dispens­able part of the book vulnerable to damage and the beginning of the text was moved to the first verso, and the first recto was given over to the title.

In the fifteenth century, when paper was an expensive commodity, it was important to get the most out of every leaf. Paper makers acted as sorts of bankers to the print trade: before the arrival of paper money in Europe, paper itself was the credit they extended. As materials became cheaper, the title page gained a verso of its own. What was included on this first leaf, by regulation or custom, soon settled to a form which is essentially the same as one finds in books published now: the title of the work, the name of the author, pub­lisher, printer, and the place and date it was produced.

Alongside largely typographic pages like the ones above, decorative and illustrated pages combining type with engravings and etchings appeared. Printing pages in two colours had emerged almost at once: some copies of Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible were given a second impression for red initials. But excepting illustration by hand, polychromatic pages were rare before the nine­teenth century when chromo­litho­graphy and other processes were refined.

Three illustrated title pages

Even when bound books became usual, printed dust jackets and covers were more than a century away. Some title pages started to do a new job of advertising the work: intemperate raids on the typecase and sensational spoilers avant la lettre rather than simple announce­ments of provenance.

In the nineteenth century star authors no longer needed to market their work so aggressively. Jane Austen’s name never appeared on her books during her lifetime. The title page of Sense and Sensibility, her first novel, is credited to ‘A Lady’ and thereafter she maintained her modesty and let her previous successes do the bragging. A big name (or pseudonym) needed no further embellishment.

In the twentieth century pages were freed from an almost-universal sym­metri­cal format, and photography and sans serif type, already common in ad­vert­is­ing, started to appear more frequently in books as well. Centre-axis typography wasn’t replaced, but it became optional to do something else. Chief among the innovators of the new look was Jan Tschichold whose book Die neue Typo­graphie (1928) became immediately influential and has continued to be so on successive generations of typographers. Even in books with a largely-tradi­tion­al design, asymmetry has become a feature of title pages, a place where design­ers are some­times given a free­dom that publishers don’t allow them elsewhere. By 1947, when Tschichold was employed by Allen Lane to oversee the redesign of Penguin Books’ paperback series, he had more-or-less abandoned the aesthetic he had been instrument­al in promoting and turned to a more classical mode. This alienated some, but not all of his peers and professional successors. Paul Rand, in his essay ‘A Mentor’ wrote:

Whether one talks about the New Typography and the old Tschichold or the old typography and the new Tschichold, one finds a common denominator which seems to embrace these apparently contradictory concepts, and which distinguishes all of Tschichold’s work. That is a sense of quality.

Sometimes the success of a page is owed to the circumstance of its designer’s relation­ship to the book’s subject. Chris Ware’s layouts for Fantagraphics’ reprints of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips cast the graphic eye of a cartoonist on the work of a pro­fessional forebear. The title page of Rand’s Design Form and Chaos comes with a sort of meta-illustration, being stamped with a publisher’s logo of the author’s own design. Julian Rothenstein, a tire­less collector, preserver and publisher of images which have been considered disposable, starts a catalogue of surviving examples of the Mexican printmaker J.G. Posada’s work with a momento mori.

The graphic simplicity of some of the examples here belies the attention they might have been given. The spread below, the frontispiece and title page of Hugh Williamson’s Methods of Book Design shows that even before digital composition made the tiniest increments possible, typographers and compositors were arranging type to the precision of a typographic molecule, a single point: about ⅓ of a millimetre.

‘Methods of Book Design’ frontispiece and title page.

Or less. Tschichold advised an atom, describing the setting of titles as ‘the “art of the point”, indeed of the half-point.’

As new formal requirements have come along, other elements have started to appear on the title leaf. Rather than clutter the elegant entrance, some information has been pushed overleaf from the recto. These days the date of publication is usually on the verso, and printers’ details almost always. Novelties have turned up at different times, and for different audiences. For booksellers the ISBN and publisher’s contact details make ordering copies a bit simpler. Catalogue in Publication data, which can be useful for librarians, is now quite common. Authors’ incomes and reputations are protected by the copyright and moral rights statements, and publishers’ by the terms of sale (counterwise, the page provides a useful list of people and organisations to take legal action against if one believes oneself to have been plagiarised or traduced). The printer’s key, which indicates which print-run a copy belongs to, is there as a conversation between the printer and the publisher, but collectors of first editions pay attention to it. Details of original publication for new editions and reissued titles is often useful to readers. Those who are curious about the design of a book are occasionally alerted to the typeface it’s set in and even the name of the book’s designer. Hugh Williamson cautioned that ‘this gathering of administrative trivia is not the milieu for a dedication’, but one sometimes sees that there too. There is an implicit suggestion in Williamson’s remark that the imprint page (as the title verso is also known) is a bit of a dumping ground: the doormat behind the front door. But even if it doesn’t present a great op­por­tun­ity for originality, it can be telling. Ron Costley who had been in charge of de­sign at Faber & Faber said, when inter­view­ed by Richard Hendel:

When I am asked, ‘What do you think of this book design?’ the first page I turn to is the title verso. It gives me a clue about the control a designer has had over a book and the care that has been exercised.

A note at the beginning of Ways of Seeing, co-published by the BBC and Penguin to accompany the 1972 TV series, says ‘A book made by John Berger, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis’, but the text was Berger’s and the book’s design was Hollis’s (he also designed A Woman’s Place, shown above). The appearance of the book has been practically un­changed in the editions released since it was first issued. It has the status of an exemplar of modern typography in Britain and there would be much more to be lost than gained by having it redesigned. Hollis has said that the book isn’t a piece of work he has particularly strong feelings about, and that he always considered it ‘just another job.’ Nevertheless, its reputation among others has seen it recommended as often for students of graphic design as it has for those of art history: a wide appeal which accounts for many of its cumulative sales of 1.5 million copies in Britain alone.

A part of the book which has changed is the imprint page. In the first edition the layout is of a piece with the rest of Hollis’s design, all text set, like the rest of the book, in Adrian Frutiger’s typeface Univers, with some lines emphasised by deep indentation. In subsequent editions the integrated design has been neglected. The text expanded in the 1990 version with additional addresses of Penguin’s international operations, and Univers was replaced by Times, laid out in Penguin’s boilerplate of the period. The printer’s key has appeared too (the second of the pages shown below came from the book’s 36th print run). In the most recent edition, issued in a smaller format in 2008 as part of the Penguin Design Series, the type has reverted to Univers, and with the addition of even more international offices, a moral rights statement and Forest Stewardship Council credentials, the text now takes up almost the full depth of the page.

One detail of the first edition hasn’t made it into subsequent ones. A major part of Berger’s thesis in Ways of Seeing concerns how representation in art, and ownership and control of artworks, have been used to shore up existing social, gender and political hierarchies. With this in mind, it is unsurprising to see that Berger chose to eschew ownership and control with the explicit statement ‘The text of this book is not copyright.’ It is a curiosity that in the newer editions, copyright has been retrospectively assigned to Penguin Books.

My father, Peter Campbell, was art editor at BBC Publications when Ways of Seeing was being produced. He was a book designer too, and although generally his own typography was more traditional (among the books he edited and designed for the BBC was the one accompanying Kenneth Clark’s series Civilisation: very much the sort of art history Berger thought in need of revision), he admired Berger’s text and Hollis’s design, and certainly didn’t think it was his place to try to impose a style on another designer’s work. Hans Schmoller, his opposite number (and Tschichold’s successor) at Penguin, was less sanguine. On receiving a copy of the finished book he hurled it from his office in rage. Perhaps if he’d responded less explosively he might have taken the time to look at the imprint page, and have seen that when the first edition sold out, as it soon did, he would have been quite free to get someone to start the job all over again. It is very unlikely that this would have resulted in a more successful book by any measure.

Notes. Properly speaking, a page doesn’t have a front and a back, rather a leaf is made up of two pages, a recto and a verso. Typically alert to latin-alphabet chauvinism, Robert Bringhurst has pointed out that ‘recto’ and ‘verso’ aren’t synonyms for ‘right’ and ‘left’, but indicate ‘leading’ and ‘turned’ – or ‘reversed’. In countless books published in right-to-left reading writing systems, and often ones in scripts which are read vertically, the left-hand page is the recto, and the one on the right the verso. Sources. Art of the Printed Book (Pierpont Morgan Library, 1973); The Coming of the Book by Lucien Febvre & Henri-Jean Martin (Verso, 2010); Design Form and Chaos by Paul Rand (Yale, 1993); The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (Hartley & Marks, 2012); The Form of the Book by Jan Tschichold (Lund Humphries, 1991); Methods of Book Design by Hugh Williamson (Yale, 1983); On Book Design by Richard Hendel (Yale, 1998); Richard Hollis Designs for the Whitechapel by Christopher Wilson (Hyphen, 2017); ‘Ways of Seeing at 50’ by Olivia Laing (the Guardian, 17 January 2022). Images. The more recent pages illustrated above, which are from editions which may be subject to copyright are: Printing Types: Their History, Forms & Use by Daniel Berkeley Updike (Oxford, 1937); Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (Harvard University Press, 2017); Die neue Typographie by Jan Tschichold (Verlag des Bildungsverbandes der Deutschen Buchdrucker, 1928); A Woman’s Place by Diana Souhami (Penguin, 1986); Design Writing Research by Ellen Lupton & J. Abbott Miller (Kiosk, 1996); Krazy & Ignatz: 1925-1926 by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Books, 2002); Design Form and Chaos by Paul Rand (Yale University Press, 1993); Posada: Messenger of Mortality (Redstone Press, 1989); Methods of Book Design by Hugh Williamson (Yale University Press, 1983); Ways of Seeing by John Berger (BBC / Penguin, 1972, 1990, 2008). Information about the use of copyright material on this website can be found in the Copyright Statement.