Penman for Sunday, March 5, 2023
I DON’T normally review books—even books sent to me with a request to be reviewed, which I apologetically ask authors not to do, unless they’re willing to wait a year or two. That’s because I prefer to enjoy books rather than to critique them, which sounds too much like the kind of work I happily retired from. But every now and then, along comes a book I simply can’t ignore, because it’s just too important or maybe just too beautiful to be put aside.
One such book—both important and beautiful—was dropped off at my doorstep last week, and as soon as I opened it, I knew I had to share my knowledge of its existence with fellow enthusiasts of art and design. The book was Felix Mago Miguel: The Art of Book Design, written by Felix’s wife Amelia F. Zubiri-Miguel, edited by Ambassador Jose Ma. Cariño, and published by the Foreign Service Institute.
One of the most talented and prolific Filipino book designers of our time, Felix has designed more than 130 books over the past 20 years, and I’ve been fortunate to have authored and edited a good number of those, including several coffee-table books and the biographies of Edgardo J. Angara and Leonides S. Virata. This hefty 264-page book is a biography, treatise, and catalogue all in one, a fine embodiment and example of its own subject, sumptuously produced not just to showcase Felix’s work but also to discuss his theory and experience of book design.
Ours has always been a country of gifted authors with endless stories to tell, but only recently has enough attention been paid to the proper design, production, and marketing of our books. The growth of Philippine publishing and the opening of foreign markets to Philippine material has spurred some of that interest as a matter of economic necessity, but the general appreciation of book design remains low.
As an author myself, I’ve always been fussy about how my books look; I didn’t work that hard just to come out with an ugly book with my name on it. But sadly not all authors or publishers share that worry. As Felix himself laments, we Pinoys have a famous fear of spaces—horror vacui—and tend to cram our pages with as much text as we can, as if wide margins (and better readability) were a waste of precious paper.
Coffee-table books, which are Felix’s particular area of expertise, present both special challenges and opportunities. Being typically meant for promotional rather than commercial purposes, CTBs have large budgets that will allow for better production. But a poorly thought-out or executed design can render those millions useless. I’ve groaned at obviously expensive book projects ruined by gaudy or overly busy covers, barely readable type, narrow margins, and bad paper. (One of my biggest pet peeves is printing text over a photograph for that artsy effect, rendering it illegible.)
Felix’s background as a painter (and as a graduate of the Philippine High School for the Arts and the UP College of Fine Arts) allows him to see a book project not just as a technical challenge but also an intellectual exercise—a process of understanding what the book really wants to say, and translating that into a visual language.
“A book project is always like a thesis, a problem to be solved, an experience to be fleshed out,” he says. “Everything for me begins with figuring out what the book is trying to say and how best to say it. I do my best to learn the narrative, reading to understand it, absorbing its contents. If there are visuals already, I go through them, looking for the narrative that I just read among the photos and illustrations. Doing these things enables me to better feel the book and the direction it will go. My goal is to find the personality of the book, to figure out who is talking and to decide on what kind of experience is best—to design the book in such a way that, as Rita Jacobs says, it may be the only way that it can be presented.”
He designs as much for the mind as for the eye. As Amelia puts it, “Though people may say that a designer’s job is all simply a matter of art, my years of seeing Felix working have told me that it is not. At the end of the day, he always ends up more knowledgeable, better informed, and wiser with insights not just from the manuscripts but from the totality of the discussions and the time he had spent with his clients, which is probably the best bonus and priceless privilege that comes with the job, because at the end of every project, a really beautiful book needs to be more than just pretty to look at.”
Felix adds: “As designers, we become builders of experience. We may not have the privilege of letting our audience touch the skin or the sinews of what they are looking at, but if we did well in our work, what one designed becomes an exhilarating, unforgettable experience. Not only do we introduce the authors and their voices, but through a well-designed book, readers may experience the same things vicariously. What is separated by time and space is connected through emotions. And a book that touches your soul is indeed an experience to be cherished.
“After learning the technical aspects of design—the use of typography, colors, spaces, photos and illustrations, pages, covers, and printing—I realized, I have a new medium. And just like in painting, the medium is not the end of the painting; it is just part of it, because more importantly, there is a story to be told and that story is the priority of the design. My role is to ensure that this invisible visual force will allow the story to be told.”
And tell the story Felix does, in an inimitably pleasing and tasteful style that more than does justice to his material. I look forward to our next project together, whatever that may be—a writer can only write better knowing how superbly his work will look in a capable designer’s hands.