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Monday, October 05, 2009

Crane Your Neck to the Right. No, Your Other Right

A question: does one of these look more "right" to you?


Your answer most likely depends on where you buy your books and the language they're written in. There are very few rules in design, but there are conventions, and it's the norm for those of us in the States to crane our necks to the right in order to read the text on a book's spine. Readers of French, among others, have to tilt their heads to the left.

There are some interesting theories about the advantages confered by each design convention; this Metafilter thread lays out the arguments:

When text on a spine reads from top to bottom, as it does on US, UK and Canadian (and some German?) books, the text is readable when the book lays on a table.

But then there's the "Harry Potter / encyclopedia argument" for bottom-to-top text: "Say you have a set of volumes...with the North American convention, on the shelf you have 1-5 from left to right, and the cover is always pointing right. Take them off the shelf and place them face up on a table, and you have to reverse the order if you want volume 1 on the top. Flip the spine around and the cover will point left on the shelf, but you can't see the cover, so who cares? Take that stack off the shelf and place it face up on a table.. Voila, volume 1 is on the top!"

Anyone else heard or have other theories?

PS: This post was inspired by a lunchtime walk during which bottom-to-top signage was jumping out at me. The sign for the Wit Hotel seems especially odd to my eye:



PPS: the second book cover -- bottom to top -- is the published cover.

23 comments:

Nick said...

The second one is right for me.

But then again I'm French and even though I've been reading nearly exclusively in English for the past 8 years it seems youth habits die hard.

Julian said...

I’m German , and the second one is right for me as well, even though I’ve lived in the UK for a couple of years.

It may seem right to me because I learned it that way when I grew up. Or it may seem right because we read left-to-right, top-to-bottom and the second one maps top-to-bottom to left-to-right. This seems more intuitive to me for short blurbs of text where you can take in a whole line at once, as you can then move from left to right as usual.

But then again, my mind might have just made that up because I’m used to it this way.

Caroline said...

The book gives off an old timey newspaper vibe to me, and makes me think about two- or full-page spreads in magazines or newspapers. When you open the centerfold or a fold-out map in National Geographic, it's oriented the same way the second cover is. That looks more natural to me, and I am American.

Óscar Palmer said...

Hi, I'm from Spain, where publishers usually follow the French model. I've got to say that I've always disliked it. When the title is placed the American way, as in the first case, I don't need to crane my neck, I can read the words up to bottom just fine. I'm only forced to crane my neck with the second cover, as reading from the bottom to the top is harder. Also, it's true that if you pile your French or Spanish books with the cover looking up, the title ends upside down, which is rather annoying. More annoying, in any case, than having to reverse the order of your Harry Potter copies. At least you'll know which is which without getting a stiff neck!

Emily Brackett said...

I prefer the top because that is what I'm used to. I did not know that French books (and others) followed the other convention.

I screwed up the spine on one of my first book design jobs. No one at the publishing company noticed it until it was too late. So, I feel particularly aware of this issue.

Catherine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catherine said...

I collect books from the 1940s and 50s, and I while arranging them on a shelf recently, I noticed that not all of them had spine type running top to bottom. I wonder if this convention is a more recent development in American publishing...

Night Garden Design said...

The second one looks more natural to me, as well. Maybe because covers of books should generally have room for the image to continue . . . But then, I'm one of those who would also prefer if the spines read from bottom to top for shelfing purposes.

Jonathan McNicol said...

Actually, on a design for the cover like this, I think the convention works slightly differently on rotated text.

The way this works is, the text should flow away from the spine. It would be very strange to read those five lines of text and find your eye at the book's spine. How would you ever get in to the actual book to actually read it. The book doesn't open at the spine.

Ian Shimkoviak said...

Love the design and colors etc, but I am not a fan of books that make you turn your head or figure out how to read something. There is a time and place for that, and for some reason a civil war book does not strike me as one of those times.

Joseph said...

Jonathan: good point.

Tropolist said...

In both cases, my eye drifts left first. On the top one, the words CIVIL WAR jump out at me immediately, and then I backtrack and start from the right. On the published cover, my eye snaps to the author's name, and I read naturally down the title from there. I don't know if this is a language, cultural or personal matter, but I'd be interested to know where most people look first.

orlando said...

on the scale of a building my gut wants the text to read top to bottom. But I guess it makes sense that you'd want to direct the reading eye upwards towards the sky.
On a book I like the way that this was published (head tilt left) because my brain wants to tilt the text and it naturally wants to tilt things clockwise.

Martin said...

I'm both French and German (past 8 years in the USA, last 3 in publishing) and the second one works for me. I read it right away. The first one confuses me.

I think it has to do with the fact that at least I can read it from left to right. Whereas the first one not only is on the side, but I have to read from the top right to down left!

That's totally wrong in my western eye!

And as Jonathan says, you don't want to end in the spine, you want to lead to the front flap / interior.

Eve said...

The second one, for the same reason that Jonathan gave. Also, on a couple of occasions I've been asked to design books where the interior was turnpage. Or, where the tables were turnpage. They always are positioned to read from bottom to top.

denparser said...

it is attractive to the people who are news readers. it's a good frontpage intro.

Guy Pewsey said...

I like Jonathan's point also, the idea that reading the cover brings you nicely into the book itself is quite nice!

Jordi Llobet said...

I'm Spanish too. Not everyone follows the French convention here, so we have to tilt our heads both ways in a book store... That's the worst thing that could happen to us! I design for two publishing companies and each of them does it differently...

Sally Pal said...

It feels far more comfortable for me to tilt my head to the left. So I choose #2. I'm in Canada. However years ago, after designing a series of 30 videos, it finally struck me that the spines were upside down when the video was on the table face up. And it just seems logical that it should be. So we've been switching it going forward, on new titles and reprints.

Hmmm, I'm looking up at a bookshelf right now. I see that's the most popular convention, at least in N. America.

cathyklein said...

I, too, agree with Jonathan. For me it's a design composition element. Graphically, you want your readers' eyes to flow to opened part of the book, not stop at the spine/back cover.

Cat said...

I'm Canadian (I'm assuming we usually do what the Americans do on this front?) but the second one is definitely my choice, I think partially because of what Jonathan says, and, related, the fact that we read left-to-right. It's not a matter of up-to-down for me on this one.

sjs said...

Design credit for the Civil War book: Barbara deWilde

Anonymous said...

tilting heads has to do more with left or right handedness.