But sometimes I get a little insecure about this. I like cool design as much as the next person. I get all fluttery when I look at Proximity or Ninth Letter or anything that featherproof books touches. And now Mule.This caught my eye, or my brain, because I have kind of a bug up my ass (is this an expression?? I keep wanting to say this) about design.
Because highly designed is “in.” It’s part of what makes the “celebrity culture” of indie presses run. How many times have you bought a book based on the cover design on a website? [...]
They flip the consumer switch in me, which doesn’t want fancy jewelry to show off, but rather understated little jewel-books. Is that bad? It is true that I first said about them, “I love Green Lantern Press; their books are so gorgeous” rather than “I love Green Lantern Press; the authors they publish are so good.”
Is this a problem? Are presses and magazines that focus on highly designed layouts giving people the carrot in order to try and convince them to like the stick, too?
First of all, it's become a total cliche in reviews of small press books to comment on the books "as artifacts," to say "These are just beautiful objects to hold." If you're going to comment on the design, say something more interesting than that, OK?
Secondly, too much focus on design is just annoying -- not from the perspective of the press, the journal, the designers. They should absolutely devote resources to design. From the perspective of the reader. The point of design is not just to look good; it's at least as much about usability. A really beautiful spoon is not necessarily a well-designed spoon unless it's merely an art object; if you're actually supposed to eat soup with it, good design implies that it's pleasurable to use, that it gets the job done in an elegant way. And I feel like some journals, both print and online, put so much effort into looking hot, into trying to impress readers with the design itself rather than the content, that it's actually difficult to focus on or even physically read the stories. (Or, if it's an online magazine, it's difficult to navigate the pages.) A sign of good design is that the object is so functional you don't think about the object too much; it just does what it does and does it well. You can focus on the process at hand, in this case reading.
It's also weird how in Small Press Land, there's an insane amount of focus on who put a book out. If you say you have a book or just read a book, someone always asks immediately who put it out. What press is it on? This reminds me of junior high, when every compliment on an article of clothing or piece of jewelry was followed up with "Where did you get it?" or "What brand is that?" I remember being really embarrassed in seventh grade when someone noticed that my knock-off Birks were fake. Too much spooging over design feels like a kind of snobbery (duh, fancy design usually costs significantly more) and superficiality. When you're talking about a new album you love, only the ultimate music snob asks what label it's on.
It's not that I don't care how books and journals look. It's just that I think the look and feel should be in service of the writing, not a totally separate concern.