Design Super-sized

Book design is seen as the fundamental symbiosis of design and communication — a way to get the written words across to the masses, a tool that provides the soul purpose of sharing a message through legibility, readability, form and content. In the world of postmodernism, these known rules of book design are thrown out the window in order to design a unique experience. Postmodernist book design, like that of French Fries (fig. 1), designed by Warren Lehrer, shows how designers can deviate from convention and create design that still resonates with the viewer. Far from the traditional book experience, Lehrer communicates the meaning and, more importantly, the emotion of the text through experimentation with typography, layout and color — even while the content becomes illegible.

Figure 1. Bernstein, Dennis, and Warren Lehrer. French Fries: A New Play. 1984. Print. With images and text merging into one, the written message is put secondary to the emotion being communicated.

French Fries tell the story, which is also a play, of customers and employees who find an elderly woman dead in the restaurant which they frequent or are employed. These characters share how they believe the old woman died along with testimonials from their day. With a cast of seven characters, Lehrer assigns each person a typographic style—making it easy to discern who is speaking within the chaos of the pages. The use of multiple typefaces is expertly balanced as Univers, Bembo, Helvetica, Kabel, Century Schoolbook, Clarendon, Bodoni, Cooper Black and Futura (Poyner) all work, somehow, seamlessly showcasing the book/play’s emotion. These messages become layered against one another—showing how chaotic and disorganized the experience is on each individual. Lehrer, although masked through images and iconography, manipulates how the reader views the story. Instead of a linear experience, as most play manuscripts and books are created and therefore read, the reader’s eyes jump around the page looking for the next line of dialogue from a particular character. Lines, patterns, and icons draw attention from the text, which becomes a more ornamental decoration on some pages (fig. 2). “Books such as French Fries [1984] challenge readers to explore the act of reading; to break with the usual linear pattern, vary the pace, look back on earlier passages, or skip ahead” (Poyner). By challenging the reader to interact differently with the book through unique layouts, Lehrer becomes more than just a typographer or book designer.

Figure 2. Bernstein, Dennis, and Warren Lehrer. French Fries: A New Play. 1984. Print. Words become discernible on the spread to the right, as voices scramble over one another.

The design of French Fries changes the way it is experienced, relying on more than just the written word to convey the message. In this aspect, Lehrer has now taken an active role in authorship. Design authorship has “thrust design from a supporting cast member to central performer on the world’s social, economic, and cultural stages” (McCarthy, Steven J., and M. J. Venezky). This statement is evident as French Fries can be found exhibited internationally in museums. Postmodernism, as a whole, reflects the impact in which designers can have on the final outcome. Design can be pushed beyond the typical client/designer relationship to create pieces that are impactful and meaningful—by exploring the relationship of legibility and readability.

In a study on what made books readable, the opinions of teachers and librarians stated that “content [was] most important: factors of style next, format was third, and organization was last” (Dale, Edgar, and Jeanne S. Chall). However, when readers were polled with the same question, “expression [was] most important [and] content second” (Dale, Edgar, and Jeanne S. Chall). French Fries leans toward the latter as Lehrer bends the relationship between legibility and readability in favor of expressing the emotion of the text and its meaning. This dichotomy challenges the traditional elements of book design, once again allowing the reader to interpret the book on their own. Since French Fries is experienced in a nonlinear fashion, content becomes secondary while the graphic typography, images and colors used transmit the emotional meaning of the story.

Lehrer and, in extension, postmodernism book design, change the way design can impact the viewer—in favor of allowing the reader to digest the meaning of the text in a non-traditional manor. This design methodology can, and should, still be used in the contemporary design practice. The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) shows that the more interaction and input a viewer has with an object, their attitude towards that object will be greater and stronger (Yocco, Victor). With the ELM theory in mind, design can become a participatory environment, which in turn increases interest and motivation to utilize the designed piece. By allowing the reader to have a direct relationship with the narrative of the book, they in part, become authors themselves — changing the way the book is experienced per person, or even each time it is viewed.


Bernstein, Dennis, and Warren Lehrer. French Fries: A New Play. Purchase, NY: Ear/Say, 1984. Print.

Dale, Edgar, and Jeanne S. Chall. “The Concept of Readability.” Elementary English 26.1 (1949): 19–26. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

McCarthy, Steven J., and M. J. Venezky. The Designer as Author, Producer, Activist, Entrepreneur, Curator & Collaborator: New Models for Communicating. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Poynor, Rick. “Authorship.” No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003. 131. Print.

Yocco, Victor. “Persuasion: Applying the Elaboration Likelihood Model to Design.” A List Apart. A List Apart, 01 July 2014. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.