The Best Dutch Book Designs 2017 book review
Thomas Bohm, 7 August 2020 (updated 12 May 2021)
Page size: width 20cm × height 32cm.
Binding type: sewn softcover (Otabind).
Book design and writing: Studio Rob van Hoesel, photographs by Eva Meijer (Studio Rob van Hoesel) with a book manifesto by Ruud de Wild, judges’ report written by Yolanda Huntelaar.
Every year or so, I like to see what is going on in book design in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In 2019, I bought The Best Dutch Book Designs 2017 (Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken, 2017) annual and was not disappointed. Every year the Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken (The Best Dutch Book Designs Foundation) chooses a book designer to design their competition annual. For the 2017 annual, Studio Rob van Hoesel were chosen. Irrespective of the language in which books were published, to be eligible for selection in the competition, a book must fulfil at least two of the three following requirements:
- Published by a publisher established in the Netherlands.
- Designed by a person of Dutch nationality or resident in the Netherlands.
- Printed by a printing business, and/or lithographed by a lithography business, and/or bound by a binding business, established in the Netherlands.
The subjects of the books awarded and showcased, range from engineering, to animals, to art, urban design, to general novels and picture books. The books have been done for both large commercial publishers and self-published. The price of the books range from €16.50–€89, print run’s range from 100–25,000 copies.
Design overview of the annual
The book cover is bright and modern, and the book cover paper colour is bright fluorescent lime green (which is the actual colour of the paper, bright fluorescent lime green has not been printed on top of the paper). This creates a cool, modern book cover, which stands out and is distinct.
The book format is around A4 portrait in size and feels like an oversized menu in a restaurant, which also allows images of the featured books, to be viewed at a large enough size to see all the relevant details in the photographs. In The Best Dutch Book Designs 2014 (Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken, 2014) annual, all the pages of each book showcased and were displayed at a thumbnail size (width 33mm × height 20mm), which was too small to get a good up-close impression.
The paper used for the annual book is very smooth, soft and fresh, and adds much to the overall feel of the book, it really creates a sensory quality and becomes something noticeable and pleasant, rather than typically going unnoticed, or in the case of very rough dark brown paper (found in many paperback books) leading to a dated feel. This book is a long way away from typical paperback books in the UK, which typically have very rough and dark brown paper, which is nasty to touch, often complemented by a very stiff holt melt glue perfect binding. (Hot melt glue dries very hard with hardily any flex in it, cold melt glue dries with much more flex, which subsequently cracks and does not allow the pages to lie flat enough) (Kinross, 2007). The quality of the paper and the sensory feel communicates through your fingertips and palms of your hand.
The photographs of the books showcased within the annual, usually follow the layout sequence of:
- 1st page: the book title in a large typeface size with a close-up photograph of the front cover at an angle showing the spine.
- 2nd page: usually 150 words about the content of the book set in a larger typeface in Dutch on the left, and a smaller typeface in English on the right. Also on this page, is a photograph of the book (side-on) and a close-up photograph of the binding, which is a really informative feature and gives you an idea and feeling of the binding used.
- 3rd page: usually 2 photographs of spreads from inside the book.
- 4th page: 150 words in the same Dutch and English text configuration as the 2nd page, from the jury about standout qualities of the book and what particularly stood out for them.
- 5th and 6th page: usually photographs of spreads from inside the book.
- 7th page: a list in 2 columns with all the details of the book such as: title, ISBN number, designer, printer, binder, paper used, to print run length. This information is a rich source for people looking for quality supplier information.
The book has a cut-away feature of tabs on the outer right side of the book (see Figure 1), it is again, another interesting feature of the book, adding another unusual but successful access structure, and tricky to do and mass produce (I would have thought). There is a wide variety of books and on different subjects, from highly illustrated-led books, to informative and infographic-led books, artist and architecture books, to books on animals and plants.
Short overview of the books awarded
I am not going to focus on any particular books, as they all have their own qualities, however, some general observations are as follows.
There is an illustrated information graphics-led book called De Zweetvoetenman (The Sweaty-Feet Man) by Annet Huizing and Margot Westermann (Huizing and Westermann, 2017) about true stories regarding the law. The whole graphic communication narrative, illustrations and layout is intriguing and engaging, and the page spreads are animated and alive. The information has been handled in a very free and interactive manner, and features typical paragraph text blocks, full-page flow diagrams, to picture book like double-page spread layouts. The spine of the book has also been rounded, for a better feeling when holding, and makes the hardbound book, with a thin cover board, lie more open and flatter. Overall a very dynamic and varied book.
Layers of Reality by Anna Püschel (Püschel, 2017) has been done with great presence, conviction and typographic clarity. The book explores a medical condition in a semi-academic study into the subject. The simple grid system works well for the information and content, which uses the space available effectively and systematically. The inside book design has been handled in a bold, clear and legible manner.
There is a book called Maria I Need Your Lovin’ by Martijn van de Griendt (van de Griendt, 2017) about a young woman, issues of growing up, and drugs. The book deals with a tricky subject and has some unusual details, such as gold inking of the right outside book block, which is a magical feature and shows the designer has got to grips with the subject and content. The overall communication is in-your-face, and has been designed and laid out well, utilising full-page up-close photographs, smaller polaroid photographs, interview extracts and photographic compositions.
There is a book called Salamanders in Art and Science by Max Sparreboom and Bas Teunis (Sparreboom and Teunis, 2017). This book makes use of clean design and has an airy feel. The photographs and information have been handled well, with great positioning and composition, with large amounts of white space, which makes great use of the page size and space available. This systematic overview of all salamanders in Europe, Asia and Northern Africa is saturated with precision and quality. This book has been very well bound and is contained within a hardcover case box.
Lastly, a book called Voorbij de dijken: Hoe Nederlnd met water werkt (Beyond the Dikes: How the Dutch Work with Water) by Marinke Steenhuis and Paul Meurs (Steenhuis and Meurs, 2017). This book has been done with real conviction utilising a diverse range of information types: maps, infographics, section devices and diagrams. The book has been well communicated and designed and is rich of information. An example of this, is how the dike details mini showcase with a small green map to the right, has been designed and handled (see Figure 11: top right of the left page on the double-page spread, page 74). It would have been routinely contained as default within a body text paragraph block, in which the various types of details, would not have been handled and dealt with in as much detail as needed, or as is better. The different types of information could have got lost in a standard default body text paragraph block, however, this information has been chunked and dealt with well, starting with an inline grey bold weight heading, followed by the information in black regular weight text, along with indentation of any lines of the entry text past the 1st line (if it runs over to a 2 or more lines), as to make it easier to see the start of the various details within the dike details mini showcase. This is information design at work, it makes the information easier to process, digest and understand, reducing potential confusion, although remains unconsciously invisible (Sless, 2018) and goes usually undervalued by commissionaires of design. The book also features a vertical navigation device on the outer sides of the pages. The book makes use of colour very well in 2 areas: the 1st to signal sections and different parts of information. The 2nd, in the book’s overall identity: light greens, subtle blues and greys, these are the colours of dikes in the Netherlands. It might sound simple, but the use of content fitting colours reflects the subject and content, and adds to the descriptive language and power, that communication can achieve. Colour is often used to make something stand out, to make a statement, or is used in relation to current fashions, the way colour has been used for this book, leads to more descriptive communication.
Critical aspects of the annual
This book is after all, a review and critique of books and book design, so let me expand on some critical issues of the book, and possible improvements.
From buying The Best Dutch Book Design annuals in 2010 (Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken, 2010), 2014 (Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken, 2014), and 2017 (Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken, 2017), I have noticed a general style to what typographers typically do with typography. The style in recent years seems to be sans serif typefaces like Univers or some style of Helvetica, with headings typically underlined. The question I would like to ask is: are other typographic configurations not okay and acceptable?
The text for the Dutch information has been typeset in a typeface twice the size of the English text, and the issue for me is, that it makes the Dutch text feel more important than the English text. Maybe the 2 different languages could have been communicated as more equal.
I would have liked a thicker paper used for the cover, as a thicker paper would have added even more durability and strength to the cover. Cover paper gets a lot more rough treatment than the more rigid thicker inside of the book. The book cover paper is 250g/m², I would go up to 300g/m², 350g/m² or even 400g/m² if available, this would stop the cover paper from scuffing and curling up on the edges. To further protect the cover paper, maybe a matt coated paper, or paper which had been laminated could have been used.
In regard to all the photographic images, there seems to be a lack of rich depth to them, maybe some JPG compression artefact happened at some part of the process.
It is not always clear that the details for the book (set in 2 columns) come after the photographs of the actual book. The book design needs a stronger layout marker for the start of a new book showcase. As it has been designed, the books and information seem to run into each other, it was hard to tell where a new book showcase starts or ends.
There is a wide variety of types of books and on many different subjects, but I would have liked to see showcased, the often neglected area of academic books.
Book design competitions and book design annuals from other countries
I usually buy an annual once a year from book design competitions around the world. In the Netherlands they called it The Best Dutch Book Designs, in Germany they call it The Best German Book Designs, in Switzerland they call it The Most Beautiful Swiss Books, in Australia they call it the Australian Book Design Awards. In Austria they call it The Most Beautiful Books of Austria, in the United Kingdom they call it The British Book Design and Production Awards, and in the Ukraine they call it the Ukrainian Young Book Design Awards. Unfortunately, while other countries provide excellent annual books of their competitions, the same cannot be said for the United Kingdom. Before 2018 they offered a low-resolution PDF, of the books showcased and awarded, but as of 2019, offer nothing, not even a webpage.
Observations and conclusions on the annual and books showcased
The printed book is clearly alive and kicking, and this book is clear evidence of this. There is so much life, design and thought gone into the design of the annual and books showcased in it. It is really positive and great to see in these technological advancing and diverse times. There are clearly very skilled people, businesses and suppliers in the Netherlands with a very open-minded and un-ridged production options, which cannot typically be said for the United Kingdom or United States, where they do not have a wide variety of, especially binding options (Kinross, 2007), that is for sure. The annual itself and the books featured in it, are a long way away from export the PDF, then send to the printer. It is very obvious that a great amount of thought, know-how, time, and skill, has been applied to all the books. The thought and time needed for the delicate and applied balance of components and processes, is substantial. What is the result of this?: it makes the difference between using design to simply get an end product (a means to an end), to using design for what it really can achieve (wider sensorial qualities, a more interesting journey for the reader, communication design which tackles and reflects the subject and context of the content, enhanced dialogue between content and reader). Design has been used to engage and interact with the senses (eye, hand, smell, physical, tactile) which utilises the full range of communication possibilities, and benefits.
The Netherlands excel in binding options. There seems to have been a lot of use of the Otabind binding method, or similar binding method (either Otabind, Otastar, or Patabind) throughout all the showcased books, which is a good binding method, allowing the pages to lie flat. Essentially Otabind, Otastar, or Patabind is binding like a typical hardcover, but instead of using hard thick board for the cover, it uses paper. Additionally, the cover paper over the spine is not glued to the spine (like a typical paperback), but it folds out away from the book block when the book is opened, like a sewn hardcover binding, allowing the book to lie flat. Of the 33 books showcased in the annual, 9 of the books used either Otabind, Otastar, or Patabind. It needs to be stated, that finding a binder in the United Kingdom or the United States that does either of these 3 binding methods, is near impossible. I am not sure why… how hard is it to buy a machine?
On the 7th page of every showcased book in the annual, is a list in 2 columns with details of the people and suppliers who made the book. This information is a rich source for people looking for supplier information and it is worth buying the annual for this information alone. It has information on many different types of suppliers, from the usual large-scale printers, to individual bookbinders doing unusual binding methods and related services, to uncommercial one-off paper suppliers, to text translators and typeface information.
It is notable that books in the areas of art, design, and photography, seem to get more attention and exposure in the book design competition in the Netherlands.
It seems books designed and produced in the Netherlands, are more free and alive, if you compare what goes on in the United Kingdom or United States (Norman, 2008), book design in these countries, seem to be more defined by the book’s genre and traditional market ideologies. Also, books designed and produced in the Netherlands, seem to be more the result of the designer’s intentions, rather than what the publisher and printer have available, specifies, or mandates. Design quality it left to the designer, and not what is, or is not, available along the production process. In the Netherlands they excel in design, concepts, typeface design, binding, printing, use of colour, it is like it is in their DNA. They have a long history of design quality, and The Best Dutch Book Designs 2017 is evidence of that.
This 2017 annual is very interesting, amazingly inspirational and a full-of-life product. It is a long way away from many unloved mass produced books, which have been subject to the benefits and economies of people involved in the default supply chain profit journey.
They really know how to make a good book in the Netherlands! Dank je (thank you in Dutch). The book can be ordered from any up-to-date bookshop worldwide. If you live in the United Kingdom, you can find your local bookshop via the Hive bookshop finder, or if they are a member of the Booksellers Association via the Booksellers Association bookshop finder. If you live in the USA, you can find your local bookshop using the Bookshop.org store locator. More information can be found on The Best Dutch Book Designs website.
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About the author
Thomas Bohm studied graphic communication design at college (BTEC, Leicester College, UK) and university (BA, Norwich University of the Arts, UK). Runs User Design, Illustration and Typesetting, a graphic communication design, illustration, text editing and production service. He helps book publishers, organisations and businesses, design and communicate better with their users, focusing on graphic communication design that works well for all involved. Designs books, websites, publications, and more. Occasionally does self-initiated research, writing and publishing. Has published papers in Baseline, Slanted, Boxes and Arrows, Typography.Guru, Information Design Journal and Usability Geek, and won international design awards. Fellow of the Communication Research Institute.
Figure 1, 2 and 3. Photography © Eva Meijer (Studio Rob van Hoesel).
Figure 4 and 5. Photography © The Eriskay Connection.
Figure 6 and 7. Photography © Eva Meijer (Studio Rob van Hoesel).
Figure 8 and 9. Photography © Eva Meijer (Studio Rob van Hoesel).
Figure 10, 11 and 12. Photography © nai010 publishers.
van de Griendt, M. (2017). Maria I Need Your Lovin’. Amsterdam: Martijn van de Griendt.
Huizing, A. and Westermann, M. (2017). De Zweetvoetenman (The Sweaty-Feet Man). Rotterdam: Lemniscaat Uitgeverij.
Kinross, R. (2007). Books That Lie Open. https://www.hyphenpress.co.uk/journal/article/bookbinding_survey.
Norman, D. (2008). Why Are Your Books So Badly Designed? https://jnd.org/why_are_your_books_so_badly_designed/.
Püschel, A. (2017). Layers of Reality. Breda: The Eriskay Connection.
Sless, D. (2018). Designing Documents for People To Use. She Ji, 4(2), 125–142. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405872618300194.
Sparreboom, M. and Teunis, B. (2017). Salamanders in Art and Science. Sinderen: Bas Teunis Zoological Illustrations.
Steenhuis, M. and Meurs, P. (2017). Voorbij de dijken: Hoe Nederlnd met water werkt (Beyond the Dikes: How the Dutch Work with Water). Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.
Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken. (2010). The Best Dutch Book Design 2010. Amsterdam: Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken.
Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken. (2014). The Best Dutch Book Design 2014. Amsterdam: Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken.
Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken. (2017). The Best Dutch Book Design 2017. Amsterdam: Stichting De Best Verzorgde Boeken.