Tilt, Nicholas Shrady

Simon & Schuster, 2003, 161 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-7432-2926-6

Designers will be the first to tell you you that design isn’t about funky colours, outlandish forms or eye-splitting typography. Design is, more than anything else, the art of solving problems. A well-designed chair is, simply put, more useful, more comfortable, more perfectly a chair than a badly-designed one. Granted, design can also be beautiful (ugliness is just another type of problem, after all) and not all problems are solvable at the same time (a chair designed to “solve” high manufacturing costs may not present the same solutions as a chair designed to “solve” lack-of-comfort), but those are minor issues when measured against the goal of good design.

In publishing, the biggest problem is simple: How do you sell a book? How to you convince your average book-buyer to take hard-won money and exchange it for a mixture of paper, ink and glue? Success is measured both individually (has at least one individual been convinced to buy a book that, with an inferior design, would otherwise have been left on the shelves?) and collectively (has the publisher made more money on the book than would have been the case with a lesser design?)

While I can’t say anything about the overall success of Nicholas Shrady’s Tilt (I did, after all, find it at a discount bookstore), I’m the living example of individual design success: Had the book been ordinary, I would have left it on the shelf without a second thought. The subject isn’t that compelling to me. But throw it a little bit of inspired design and, whoops, there I find myself at the cash register.

You see, Tilt is no ordinary book-as-a-physical-object. Rather than being as square as most of the other books you’ll see in your life, this short history of the Tower of Pisa is… skewed. It’s a parallelogram. The edges of the books don’t meet at 90 degrees. Open the book flat, and it looks like a fat chevron. Put the book upright on the table and it tilts… just like the Tower of Pisa (albeit at a sharper angle).

It’s a gimmick, of course, but also an inspired piece of design. Everyone knows the tower of Pisa because it’s skewed, because it’s unusual, because it looks as if it’s not supposed to exist like that. Well, Tilt is exactly like that.

As a “biography” of Pisa and it’s infamous campanile, Tilt is slight but serviceable. At a scant 161 pages, it’s not very profound, and even pads its subject matter with (not uninteresting) digressions on Galileo and Italian history. It’s readable, features a few fascinating facts, includes a fair number of illustrations and pictures (though not quite enough to my own liking) and does its share to debunk many rumours about the Tower’s history (not built for skewing, not an experimentation site for Galileo). Even readers with a casual interest in the subject will get what they seek. If nothing else, it’s a lovely little (too little) piece of engineering non-fiction.

But let me go back to the subject of the book’s design, given that it has its share of problems. For one thing, the interior design of the book hasn’t been optimized to take advantage of the tilt: The recurring page numbering and book titles are uncomfortably close to the edge, and copious amount of blank space is left in the “extra” areas. Maybe that’s part of the point (if the campanile wasn’t built to be skewed, why should it be the case with the book?), but it leads me to suspect that the skewed design was finalized after the interior layout of the book. The dust jacket itself is skewed.

The second issue is that in Tilt‘s case, the design doesn’t just overshadows the content of the book; it stomps on it and leaves it as a mere afterthought. Just look at this review; I’ve spend one mere paragraph on the book’s content, and the rest of the words discussing the actual physical object. An ordinary version of Tilt may not have been bought, but it would have been reviewed with a greater attention to the actual quality of the text.

Yes, sometime design can be too successful. And I’m not just saying that because I bought the book knowing fully well that I will never figure how to position it on my bookshelves.

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