Giving 'Great Expectations' a Redesign ... 70 Times

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A far-flung team reimagines the first page of Dickens's epic novel—and ends up with some strange results.

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Neil Donnelly's tabloid newspaper-styled page references the fact that Great Expectations was first published in serial form, (Richard Hubert Smith)

My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

–the first sentence of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.

When London-based graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright asked 70 international graphic designers to reimagine the first page of chapter one of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, their expectations were, well, great. So was the resulting work.

Roberts and Wright are founders of GraphicDesign&, an independent publishing house dedicated to showing how the art and craft of graphic design connects with the wider world. "We've been interested, for some time, in exploring how type and layout affect the way we read and the assumptions a reader makes when they first see a page," Roberts says. "Many people read novels, but the influence of the typesetting and layout is arguably invisible to most. This is in part because the conventions of classical book typography, albeit often in rather diluted or bastardized form, have remained unchanged for so long."

Roberts and Wright are unapologetic print advocates. So they conceived of a comparative exercise using the opening text from a novel to demonstrate the breadth of what's possible through typography and design.

With that goal in mind, the decision of which book to tackle proved to be trickier than they thought it would be. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, arguably the first novel in history, was considered. But when the GraphicDesign& founders read the first page of Great Expectations, they realized "that it references lettering directly, as orphan Pip searches for clues about his family from the letterforms inscribed on their tombstone," Roberts says. Serendipitously, this year also marks the bicentenary of Dickens's birth. So was born Page 1: Great Expectations, a collection of 70 new first pages.

Astrid Stavro reversed every other line of text. "Although a bit tricky to read, we enjoyed this conceit and the subtlety of her overall design," Roberts says.

From the outset, the duo engaged professor Robert Patten, a scholar in residence at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, and Lynette S. Autrey, a professor in humanities at Rice University, to judge the interpretive results. Then they set about finding 70 willing designers.

The majority of the book's contributors are typographers, but the roster also included image-makers, information designers, and graphic designers. They encompass a range of ages and nationalities: Americans, Israelis, Chinese and more.

"When we approached our contributors, we were open from the start that the project was an experiment of sorts." Roberts says. "This was one of the things that appealed to many of them, as it provided an opportunity to explore a solution to the brief rather than provide a definitive resolution, and to work without the back-and-forth compromises associated with client-based design. The contributors—typographers such as Erik Spiekermann, Paul Luna, and Robin Kinross, for example—are all so well-versed in the history and practice of book typography that their contributions also immediately add substance and a different kind of validity to the project."

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The range of interpretations revealed the designers' own reading habits. Some contributors approached the project as if their page was typographic introduction to the entire novel and handled the setting with admirable precision. More, however, treated the copy as display and enjoyed the chance to break conventional book-design taboos. "We pondered on what this might signify," Roberts says. "Design is often said to be all about constraints, and designers generally embrace them in preference to the freedom (and terror) of a totally blank page. Our brief was intentionally open, and so it wasn't surprising that our contributors welcomed the opportunity to challenge boundaries. Inevitably, various contributors approached us asking to use more or less text than we'd supplied, or show more than one option. ... Despite having a bit of the control freak about us, we conceded on many of these ideas so long as they were 'justified' in their published rationales."

One of the more surprising compositions, from Fraser Muggeridge, a tutor in graphic communication at the University of Reading in England, was a patchwork of images in the form of a rebus, accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek "manifesto" that opens:

Images, images and more images.
People love images.
The image is king.
Text is over.
Rest in peace.

Another, Marcus Leis Allion's page, was influenced by a facsimile of the original manuscript: a handwritten scrawl full of crossings out, insertions and indications of transposed and reworked ideas. Leis Allion's was a typographically interpretive setting of Dickens's first messy manuscript page that reflects the organic nature of the original.

Playing with the "orphan" idea, Wallpaper editor-in-chief Tony Chambers's typographic depiction of Pip is clever and subtle. Roberts says that he was the only contributor to make this plot connection.

Ian Noble added a surprising political twist. "I have used 'Mrs Eaves,' which was drawn by Zuzana Licko in 1996 for Emigre fonts," he says in his explanation the book. "It is named after Sarah Eaves, who married John Baskerville and continued their work after his death, but who is rarely mentioned in typographic histories (itself like a Dickensian plot)."

Neil Donnelly's tabloid newspaper-styled page is a delightfully clever conceptual reference to the fact that Great Expectations was first published in serial form.

Typographer Jonathan Barnbrook designed his page as a somewhat indecipherable info-graphic that Roberts says is "arresting and dynamic and invites analysis." Four other designers approached the project in a similar way and their investigations into syntax, grammar and the repetitive nature of some of the language used was intriguing. In fact, Morag Myerscough read her version out load at the book launch, in a kind of Charles-Dickens-meets-concrete-poetry performance.

Resurrecting arcane typographic thinking, Astrid Stavro referenced boustrophedon—a form of bidirectional text seen in ancient manuscripts and inscriptions where every other line is flipped or reversed—to convey the ebb and flow of Pip's life. "Although a bit tricky to read, we enjoyed this conceit and the subtlety of her overall design," Roberts says.

Overall the book accomplishes what Roberts and Wright set out to do: bring book design into the spotlight. What's more, says Roberts, it demonstrates that "typography and layout, and designer intervention, have a significant bearing on interpretation in a way that engages designers and non-designers alike."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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