Book Design Lessons from the Book of Kells

September 27, 2017 Deborah Wilbrink
When I viewed this 9th-century book at Trinity College, Dublin, its book design principles jumped out as fresh and relevant...

After attending the Federation of Genealogical Society meeting in Pittsburgh recently, I have a new awareness of family history. Does Irish heritage account for my red nose, my sensitivity to alcohol, my enjoyment of literature, the acquaintance deep in my bones with hunger, beautiful horses, mournful tales, and bluegrass rhythms? Inspired by the genealogists, amateur and professional, who keep crossing my path, I have begun to take more of an interest in our family tree lines of O’Neill, Butler and Lowe.

So here we are in Dublin, Ireland, on our way to my husband Evert’s home town in the Netherlands. Instead of poking around in the National Archives, I headed for the Book of Kells, on exhibit at the library of Trinity College. I expected to see an early book, valued for its age (circa 800 AD). Instead, I found a magnificent work of art that will inspire my work in book design!

The Book of Kells is significant not only for age but for its calligraphy and illumination, with at least four scribes’ styles identified. Sometimes the artist and scribe were one and the same on a page, other times not. This was prior to the invention of the printing press, so the gospels were copied by hand from the Vulgate Latin. Part of the exhibit showed the pigments used and video of the book binding technique and the illustration itself on vellum, stripped leather.

There are many illustrative techniques within that are applicable to book design today. One page is a “concrete poem” a form of poetry in a shape, this time that of a diamond. Shaping the text itself to form a picture is a technique. Akin to this is word wrap, a familiar function in the use of word processing.

These first letters of an important verse or chapter are never repeated in design; each is an original.

Ihad never seen a drop cap the size of an entire paragraph. Not only that size, but a drop cap the size of a page caught my attention in the pages of the Book of Kells. You’ve seen drop cap before, usually at the beginning of a chapter when it may be used as a device to draw attention to an important beginning, or more humbly, a first word.  The capital letter “drops” below its normal assigned place, usually taking up 2 – 4 lines at most. But these pages featured a letter as an integral part of the art.

A letter or a word or a phrase might be an elaborate concoction of Celtic interlace and color. These first letters of an important verse or chapter are never repeated in design; each is an original. Another wonderful feature is symbolism as part of lettering. We are used to the fish and the lamb, but many other animals are used as symbols. Juno’s peacock is used as a symbol of Christ’s purity, because “it was thought that the meat did not putrefy.”  Tiny stories are worked into the margins or between lines, in the form of pictures. Two mice tug at a communion wafer. When I work on a memoir or family history, in the back of my mind images are rising to the surface. Sometimes these are found in the historic family photographs, and sometimes in the words. Sometimes these symbolic images arise because of connections made to other readings or Jungian archetypal imagery. Viewing this ancient book will keep me more alert to the potential use of these images.

On a few book designs created for authors, Perfect Memoirs has encountered a need for an extra page—but what to place on it to balance an opposing page of text? The best solution has been a photograph that illustrates the text. If no photo is available, a repeating design element such as ivy or flowers or something more specific to the tale has been used. The Book of Kells has its own solution: a full page illustration, called a “carpet” page, presumably because the illustration looks like a Persian carpet. Each of these pages is a complex, colorful illustrations in itself, again rich in color and symbolism.

Of course, an elaborately illustrated book is not for every author. Many folks are quite humble and want to focus on the story in the words. These books have few illustrations, yet the text styles still must serve to set a tone and convey a personality. I recall a course in Adobe InDesign which focused entirely on text. If I had seen Kells before taking the course, spending so much time on lettering would have made more sense! Still, as Gerald of Wales notes in the ending quote, the type should not dominate the message, but be subtle enough to reinforce it. A good book designer works to enhance the message first. Be sure your book designer “gets” it. Did the Book of Kells creators go too far in ornamentation? It was stolen in 1007 and when recovered, the Book was missing its cover and the first pages. The cover was worked in gold and jewels.

To view the Book of Kells is to add another dimension to the questions behind book design. Ultimately the question is time. How big is the budget, i.e. how much time should a graphic artist spend on the layout? It quite possibly took lifetimes to produce this book of 340 vellum leaves, or folios. Four different styles of work have been identified, and it is thought that sometimes the scribe and the illustrator were one and the same, and sometimes not. Black, purple, yellow and red inks paint the drawings and letters. These were not paid employees, but patient, talented monks devoted to serving God. Surely they believed they were shining a light through art upon His Word, the Gospels. This illumination was an offering of the depths of the soul’s power, stamina, and creativity. We honor the soul of each person with our work; we honor our own soul with our work; and that we must walk the fine line between work, play, and value as we balance the business end of personal history, so that we can go on saving life’s stories. I long to offer a rich depth of dedication and talent, in order to perfect the life story of an individual or a family history book to the best of my ability. Honoring that person, however, also means honoring the budget!

How wonderful to find inspiration and refreshment in a very old book that is still vital and strong. I can’t wait to put this inspiration to use in my next book design!  Over the next year, I also will be examining the passenger lists on the boats from Irish to America ports in the latter 1800s for O’Neills, and earlier ones for the Butlers and Lowes. I hope I’ll find something new to send me again to Ireland.

Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.

~Gerald of Wales,Topographia Hibernica, 1187

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“The Best Book is Your Own Story.”
Deborah Wilbrink

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