Finding a Place for Bookarts in Graphic Design

By Jeffrey Morin, The Journal of the Mid America Print Council, Spring/Summer, 2000

Bookarts, artists’ books, or the private press, what do we call ourselves? Perhaps we should not worry about the name because history will relegate its place and has already cataloged its beginning through the contributions of William Morris, Walter Crane, and numerous others at the wane of the 19th century. Contemporary bookarts has at its root the Private Press Movement, which is often taught within the history of graphic design but rarely elsewhere. Several innovations in the contemporary book come from this movement though credit is not always given. One major issue that we can credit to the Private Press Movement is in the consideration for materials or admission of structure. Another area of improvement precipitated by this movement is in the respect for typography.

The production of creative books is difficult to codify in the context of a university curriculum. Is the book a product of printmaking, sculpture, or graphic design, and does the distinction matter? On a purely aesthetic level, the branch of the creative tree that yields the fruit does not affect its impact. But institutions such as universities thrive on the ability to compartmentalize, thereby making advising tidy and the completion of degree requirements easier.

Bookarts provides the location for a common ground by affording non-designers the option to teach within a design curriculum and to also allow graphic designers to work with non-design students who are reticent to take a more theoretical or applied design class. This creative interaction between colleagues and students from different vocations can create a more harmonious environment between graphic design and other studio areas. This is vital in combating the relatively recent and misguided perception that graphic design is not one of the studio areas. It is also a way to have non-designers develop a sense of investment in design programs, which seem to be the main area of interest from student enrollment patterns, leading to a sense of disenfranchisement amongst certain other studio areas.

A practical model for teaching bookarts within a graphic design curriculum

Several approaches are used to introduce the book format in design. The breadth includes the book�s structure, format, and content. The structure encompasses aspects of binding and housing while the format deals with the layout or rhythm of content established by the designer. Typography is a separate issue with a vast vocabulary of relevant issues and concerns. Before folding a bookarts segment into a design curriculum, it is perhaps wise to meet with colleagues and assess what is truly being taught at present. The assessment becomes a focal point for examining which vehicles are being used and with what frequency. A vehicle is the format or result of a project such as broadside, brochure, poster, or package. Many programs find that they are poster-heavy and typography-light when completing the assessment. This is understandable because posters have a painterly appeal, are generally more simple to solve, and are economical to produce. Unfortunately, few students will generate a career from making posters, which have a minor and decorative role in our society. Poster-heavy portfolios are also limiting because art directors are more often looking for evidence of typography and conceptual complexity, which is easily evidenced in a multi-paneled project such as a book.

A basic class on two-dimensional design offers the first natural location for introducing the book as a problem�s solution because the book deals with the element of time in a way quite unique from a static format. Incorporating time as an element expands one�s consideration of two-dimensional elements such as space and spacing, rhythm, and surprise. The issue of substrate selection is also more relevant when introducing the book to students who have been trained to produce object that are not touched as part of the viewing process.

Design Project

This two-dimensional design project deals with progression, is executed with painted boards, and completed as a photocopied accordion book.

The next comfortable place for the book to resurface is in the typography or letterform class where the student can begin translating formal concerns into content issues. The book also becomes a multi-faceted teaching tool if the student researches a typographer and then uses that research to create a work based on the findings. The student may have had a fundamental class where shapes were moved around the page. The objective now is to move text and letterforms around the page in an increasingly challenging way.


Though this eight-page book represents a conservative approach, students are encouraged to experiment with both paper selection and format to express the intentions of the typographer in question.

Package design offers one of the most challenging and innovative arenas from which to apply bookarts. Students often are slow in starting when given no direction or limitation. They can find the switch from two to three dimensions intimidating due to lack of experience. One way to inspire the package design student is to assign one piece of reference or research material on which the semester�s productivity must be based. If the package design class is concept-based, the student can apply solutions in a marvelously impractical way. This is important because, far too often design programs focus on pragmatic solutions that do not challenge the creative element of design. In the same way that concept cars help the automotive industry to evolve, concept packaging can contribute to the design industry.

An innovative way to integrate research and create continuity in a student�s packaging portfolio is to assign each student with an artwork on which to base ideas. The student can utilize the theme of the assigned work, the content, or the story of its execution. Yes, the instructor will look out onto a sea of confused and frightened faces on the first day of this approach but students will warm to the challenge when they realize that the assigned artwork is merely a path to conceptual license.

Child's accordion journal series

From studying and being inspired by a Van Gogh interior, this student produced a child’s accordion journal series shaped like chairs in primary colors with a Plexiglas table-like container. Though the final product does not mimic a Van Gogh, it has a unique, conceptual link to the assigned research material.

Logo for the dream journal based on De Chirico's running girl

The reference to De Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street may be stronger in this project but the student also represents what educator seek, the application of skills learned throughout one’s education. The student has created a logo for the dream journal based on De Chirico’s running girl, a skill taken from a graphic translation class. She has embossed the cover with skills acquired in intaglio and created a rich end paper from her repeated logo, which is screen-printed (another skill from a printmaking class). Her final solution also reflects an understanding of three-dimensional relationships first fostered in a basic sculpture class.

In a large program with unlimited resources, bookarts can be taught as a separate discipline. Unfortunately, very few educators work in such an environment. For the vast majority, bookarts can be an energizing element of an established major or concentration area. Though many would expect the relationship to be established with the printmaking component, it is as logical to fold bookarts into the design curriculum. This added a layer of conceptual richness and creates a forum from which to collaboratively teach, creating a healthy and collegial environment. Ah, books.

Jeffrey Morin is a professor of graphic design at the University of Wisconsin � Stevens Point. He also operates sailorBOYpress, a letterpress studio focusing on collaborative books. His work can be found in numerous public collections including the Getty Museum, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.