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I will say this about Frank Newfeld’s memoir: it is gorgeous. The cover was designed by Newfeld himself in types he also designed, while Porcupine’s Quill founder Tim Inkster takes credit for the interior. The paper quality is comfortable, the binding is solid and careful and even the endpapers are well-chosen. This was what originally drew me to the book: its look.
Frank Newfeld is an illustrator, book designer, art director and all-around expert in the look, design and feel of a book. He was art director and subsequently a vice-president at McLelland & Steward under Jack McLelland as well as a co-founder of the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada (now the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada). Me, I best knew him as the illustrator of Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie & Garbage Delight, as well as being the guy who judged The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada.
Newfeld has a lot to offer the reader in wisdom, anecdote and experience. That it hasn’t been rendered by a master storyteller doesn’t detract a lot from those elements. His delivery is simple and doesn’t pretend to be more of a stylist than he is, but nevertheless some parts of the book do suffer. The first half of the book is taken up with the first 25 years of his life, most of it spent in the military in Israel. It reads a bit like an acceptance speech, where the aim is to recognize and thank all the influences in a life without giving the rest of the audience any hint of who these people were.
Newfeld is, however, at his very best when he is describing a project or a process rather than a person or an event. This, I imagine, is the result of his being an excellent teacher who ultimately wound up as head of the illustration program at Sheridan College. The art of design, typography and illustration comes brilliantly to life under his instruction, and his commentary on each discipline is insightful, measured and utterly authoritative. I was especially impressed with his very rational assessment of the use of modern technology in the book trade. I thoroughly expected him to express a curmudgeonly, out-of-date dislike for emerging technologies and found him instead quite open to innovation and experimentation.
This is ultimately what makes the book worth reading – the expertise and care that shine through when he talks about book design and book illustration. He is a genuine connoisseur of material book culture. Even when you wonder if he’s being fair to some of the people and attitudes that he criticizes, you see exactly why, formally, he fights these fights. The man understands books in their entirety and is absolutely right when he says publishers are becoming far too focused on the author (and on the design side, the dust-jacket) to the exclusion of the other elements and people involved. This is a debate we don’t see enough of in book circles today. Newfeld is more than qualified to be the one to lead the charge. Drawing on Type is a valuable text – and looks absolutely wonderful on my bookshelf.