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It contains more than 120 hand-cut pieces over 11 spreads, comprises a surprisingly robust lesson in typography design, and is the subject of a video boasting more than 182,000 views despite a noticeable lack of cats, skin or celebrities. It is The Movable Book of Letterforms designed by Kevin Steele and it just might rekindle your love for typography and “interactive design,” something that predates augmented reality by nearly 1,000 years.
Boasting an interior digitally printed on Mohawk Superfine 80 lb. Cover, the book spends 22 pages walking you through the basics of letterform, from type families to the anatomy of the humble letter itself. By pulling a lever here and turning a wheel there, you discover how these various bits and pieces have come together to preserve the grunts and sputterings of human language for centuries.
“Long before pop-ups were designed for entertainment, they were being used to help convey information—to adults,” Steele explains. “My attempt with this work was to do the same; to use moving book parts to help express visual concepts, in this case fundamental principles of letterforms and typography.”
The Letterforms book was an early graduate school project. “I initially created one book as a prototype,” he recalls. “This was the first pop-up book I made, and it was certainly a learning experience.”
Over the course of five weeks, he put the first copy together, a process that included “concepting, designing, paper engineering, printing, hand cutting and assembling,” he says. “Most of the mechanisms in the book are fairly simple, but they have a lot of delicate parts. The more complex mechanisms required a good deal of accuracy during assembly in order to function properly.
“Physically, the spinning disk and the pull tabs were the most difficult mechanisms to get right. There are a few things going on ‘behind the scenes’ in order to allow the paper to slide smoothly on a track that is hidden between the spreads. As with all paper engineering, these parts required a lot of trial and error to function properly.”
Of all the features in the book, his favorite remains a procession of “W’s” alternating in red and black in a spread that explores serifs and bracket shapes. “The reader can lift up a flap to reveal a stair-stepped cascade of ‘W’s,’ each with a different type of serif,” says Kevin. “You are able to visually compare the difference in shape and weight of all these styles, side-by-side. It is a simple but visually interesting way to compare and contrast.”
As you can imagine, there’s more thought that goes into binding a pop-up book than perhaps any other. Traditionally this means a “drum leaf” binding, he explains, and the “Letterforms” book is no exception. “In this process, each spread of the book is created separately on an individual folio. Then the folios are gathered and adhered to one another, back-to-back. Finally, the finished book block is wrapped in a thick-spined case, which both protects the delicate pages and allows the spreads to fully open to 180 degrees.” The cover is a velour book cloth debossed with a polymer plate.
To think that Kevin designed and crafted The Movable Book of Letterforms once is impressive; that he has built three separate copies is astonishing.
“After some evaluation and reworking, I improved the engineering for the two subsequent copies that followed,” he says. “This allowed some of the mechanisms to operate smoother and reduced the number of pieces required to assemble. Having a few copies allowed me to circulate them between exhibitions while keeping a master, for reference.”
As you can imagine, every time a photo or video of the book is shared on social media, designers Like, Share and react to it profusely. In short, if any designer had reason to boast about any project, it is this one.
Yet Kevin, perhaps mindful of the centuries of amazing movable books that have come before his own, says simply, “I get nice notes from designers, students, and teachers telling me that the book is a good tool for teaching these basic typographic concepts. As a designer, it is always satisfying to know that your objectives and intentions were met successfully.”
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Related Resource: Brush Lettering Workshop
This workshop is for those who want to learn the basics of brush/hand lettering. Start off the course with learning the basic supplies needed for brush lettering and how to use them, then delve into strokes and the beginning of hand lettering letter forms. As you work your way through this workshop, you will develop your own personal style of brush pen lettering. Learn more and register.