A design for life — how do you design a book to be a classic?
Here at FreeAgent, we build software that makes it easier for freelancers to manage the business side of things so they can focus on delivering work for their clients. But our software can only do so much — we often see that freelancers struggle with questions like how much to charge for their services, how to get paid on time and how to deal with tax.
So we decided to write a book (The Field Guide to Freelancer Finances) specifically for designers and developers. The book would contain practical tips and advice for managing their business finances, reference guides and real life stories from other freelancers.
We wanted to design a book that every freelancing designer and developer would find useful. Something that you would take with you, and refer back to over time. Something you would rely on. Something you would covet. Something you’d suggest to friends. In short, a classic.
So what makes a classic?
Trying to design a classic is a pretty big goal, and yes, it did feel like a daunting prospect. To tackle a big challenge like that we broke it down — what really makes something a “classic”? What are some of the defining characteristics that “classics” all share?
A classic is authentic
The first “classic” that came to mind were Penguin books — the archetypal paperback novel. Launched in the mid 1930s they were designed to be affordable and convenient, and to bring classic literature to the masses. Their authenticity lies in the stripped-back, unified design which focuses on the stories contained within, not the cover itself.
The reader is immediately invited to read them to find out what’s contained within. There are no emotive cover illustrations, the design of the covers are simple. They’re uncluttered and uniform, and over time their utilitarian design has come to be appreciated as beautiful.
Our book needed to be well designed too, but not fussy. We didn’t want to follow current design trends. We wanted to create a working reference book for busy people, not a glossy coffee table edition.
A classic is something of quality
Classics don’t fall apart, they’re with us for years. We don’t read them just once, we keep them up there on the bookcase and read them again and again.
Physical books are a wholly tactile experience. The weight in your hands makes it feel more tangible, more valuable. It’s something that’s been crafted over time, not just pulled together quickly. We wanted the reader should feel like they had something of quality in their hands.
The pages we chose for the book are a recycled uncoated paper stock — it’s a beautiful off-white paper that contains lots of lovely little flecks of colour throughout. It’s also got an amazing smell that’s ever so slightly musty, ever so slightly reminiscent of a second-hand bookstore.
We selected a simple, grey card for the cover, which again reinforced the utilitarian or work-a-day nature of the book.
For the spine we decided to use a simple fabric banding — a method used throughout the mid-twentieth century for textbooks and other heavily used books.
It’s also got an amazing smell that’s ever so slightly musty, ever so slightly reminiscent of a second-hand bookstore.
The weaved fabric banding we used is a simple method which provides another layer of protection for the book against heavy use. As with the cover, this is something that will become gloriously weathered over time as the colour of the fabric fades and edges fray.
A classic is practical
Classics may not fall apart, but they definitely age.
We set out to create a useful reference book, something you could take with you wherever you were going — something you could just sling in your bag and not be too precious about.
The materials we chose had to reflect this and allow for the ageing process. They also had to hint at the nature of the book and reflect the journey that you’re on.
It was very important to us that book would weather over time, and gather a patina which reflected that journey. In the same way that a Londoner holds their raggedy, falling-apart A-Z close to their heart, we wanted our book to be something you covet even more, the more beat up and dog-eared it got.
It should be something that you covet even more, the more dog-eared it got.
The book was also to include sections for notes at the end of each chapter, so you had to be able to open it up flat to write in it, without struggling against a springy spine.
A classic is timeless
A large part of inspiration for the book came from textbooks and other field guides from the 1940s & 50s we picked up in second-hand bookstores around town. They had a stripped-back, utilitarian simplicity to them. Their design was reflective of both the material shortages of period and the also the limitations of technology when they were produced.
We made a definite decision to ensure the design wasn’t too modern or trendy or “digital” as this felt like the antithesis of what defines a “classic”. In order to translate this timelessness into the design of our book content we looked at the typography and the illustrations we used.
Our main typeface we use at FreeAgent is Source Sans Pro which we also use in the Field Guide. However we wanted to inject a bit more personality into the heading level elements so for those we use Spinoza — a robust typeface with a classic but characterful feel.
Simple, hand-drawn illustrations are a core part of the FreeAgent brand, so they were a natural thing to carry across considering the type of illustrations we found in the old books we’d picked up.
We found that they were well suited to use in the book with only a few minor changes. They do a great job of injecting a bit of the FreeAgent humour and irreverence into the Field Guide, tying it nicely back to the wider FreeAgent brand.
A classic is a companion
We knew we wanted our book to be something you referred back to over time. We very much see freelancing as a journey or an adventure, and we want to be there with you, supporting you every step of the way. It’s the essence of what we were trying to do with this book.
The book had to arrive on your doormat in pristine condition, but we also didn’t want people to be too precious about it. It was intended to be a companion — it was to live on your desk and in your bag. You were to take it with you to your workspace, to the coffee shop and on the train.
But being a companion is also a by-product of the four other characteristics that we felt define a classic.
It was intended to be a companion — it was to live on your desk and in your bag.
A book becomes a companion through being authentic, and of quality that lasts — both in terms of materials and of content. It is something that is practical and it is something that is timeless.
A book that is all these things becomes a companion, and over time a “classic” too.
So did we do it?
The Field Guide to Freelancer Finances was published in January 2016, with a print run of 5,000 copies, and two of those copies are held in the British Library. You can read a review here.
We’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved, particularly as none of us had ever been involved in the creation and production of a book. To a large extent that was what was really exciting about this project, the fear of the unknown and getting out your comfort zone and really pushing yourself with a big ambitious goal.
Is it a classic though? You can decide for yourself — we have a few copies left that we’re making available as review copies. If you’d like to read the Field Guide and write a review, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get in touch.
You can also download an electronic copy of the Field Guide to Freelancer Finance.
Scott Forbes is the Communications Design Team Lead at FreeAgent, who make accounting software for freelancers and small businesses.
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