GRAPHIC DESIGNERS who work for university presses too often go unnoticed in a profession that tends to be more interested in high profile, glamorous opportunities like magazine and corporate design. However, sometimes a designer of scholarly books does such extraordinary work that it is no longer possible to ignore him.

A case in point is Richard Eckersley, senior designer at the University of Nebraska Press, whom Robert Bringhurst (author of The Elements of Typographic Style) has lauded as “a brilliant designer of books,” while designer Richard Hendel writes (in On Book Design) that Eckersley’s prize-winning layouts are models of “how books ought to be designed.” 

Most of Eckersley’s book designs are characterized by typographic subtlety and restraint, the lineage of which can be easily traced to Jan Tschichold, Eric Gill, Paul Renner, and other Modern-era masters of what Geoffrey Dowding called (in the title of a famous book) the Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type. His best covers and page layouts are at once unobtrusive and exacting—they have, as Beatrice Warde would say, the functional "transparency" of a crystal wine goblet.

"Book design," writes Bringhurst, "is a subtle art, in which the greatest achievements are apt to draw little attention to themselves, while the things that do draw attention to themselves may be unrepeatable tours de force." It is symptomatic of our time, however, that the work for which Eckersley is primarily known is anything but transparent. It is his provocative layout for Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, an unorthodox scholarly study of Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and the philosophy of deconstruction that was published by Nebraska in 1989. The first book he designed by computer, it is louder and hence more startling than any of his other projects, and unquestionably a masterpiece. 

In postmodern criticism and philosophy, deconstruction takes apart familiar forms, writes historian Jeremy Musson (in Key Ideas in Human Thought), "as one might disassemble a jigsaw puzzle, not looking for correspondences which would help to fit pieces together to make a single unit, but concentrating on individual elements and on the gaps, dislocations and disjunctions between them." Although it appeared more than fifteen years ago, Eckersley’s design for The Telephone Book is still radically innovative, even shocking, because of its highly unusual use of deconstructivist strategies to convey (and, in some ways, to confound) a labyrinthine point of view. 

If only in a superficial sense, the book’s layout threatens to upstage the text, by calling attention to itself and to tricks-of-the-trade that designers employ to enable—or, at times, to undermine—the act of reading. In page after page, there are outrageous, deliberate gaps, dislocations and disjunctions. On one page, for example, is a backwards mirror image of the page that faces it. On others, the snakelike trails of space that come from careless word spacing (called “rivers”) are intentionally used as a means to disrupt conventional word clusters. On still others, the words in a passage on deafness are blurred to the point of being indecipherable; one line runs into another because of the exaggerated use of negative linespacing; and a text is interrupted by sudden pronounced jumps in the size and style of a typeface or the position of its baseline.

Type compositor Charles Ellertson, who has worked with Eckersley for many years, refers to the methods used in The Telephone Book as "hammer blows" when compared with his lighter, implicit approach. Yet this book, too, “in a quirky sense, pays attention to classical form,” Ellertson adds. "It is an important book," agrees Scottish book designer George Mackie, "appearing as it did in 1989, as an article of faith almost, showing resolutions of type undreamed of in the past, showing the greater muscle the designer now had, for better or for worse." At the same time, cautions Mackie, Eckersley’s work “must be seen across his scores of less idiosyncratic books where his touch invisibly makes the passage of thought from author to reader the more precise, the more congenial.”

While The Telephone Book is unique, it would be wrong to see it as inconsistent with Eckersley’s other work. Many of the same methods can be found in his layouts for Derrida’s Glas (1986) and its companion volume Glassary (1986); and, to some extent, they are revisited in his designs for Warren F. Motte’s Questioning Edmond Jabes (1990), Derrida’s Cinders (1991), Blaise Cendrars’ Modernities and Other Writings (1992), Eyal Amiran and John Unsworth’s Essays in Postmodern Culture (1994), and L.C. Breunig’s The Cubist Poets in Paris (1995). One need only look at the title pages of these or any of his other books to see how he toys with the tensions among form, function, and invention; or at the copyright pages, which are often so disruptive and unusual that, as Bringhurst recommends, "a collection of his copyright pages could in itself serve as the syllabus for a good design course."

Eckersley was born in England in 1941, and spent his earliest years in a London that was being bombed during World War II. To keep him and his older brother out of harm’s way, his parents sometimes sent them to northern England to the comparative safety of their grandparents’ home, where Eckersley may have embarked on a path that led to his life-long commitment to books.

Among his most vivid memories is the fastidiousness of his paternal grandfather. The latter, a Methodist minister and diabetic, doled out life’s small pleasures as exactly as he weighed his food intake. Fortunately, he delighted in words and books, so reading was one of the few activities he permitted young Richard on the Sabbath. Eckersley recalls that, not until he washed his hands, would the books he asked to see be placed ceremoniously in front of him. “I was taught to open the covers gently,” he recalls, “and to turn the pages by their top corners.” It was in his grandfather’s house, on those Sundays, that Eckersley began to develop a passion for words, typography, and book design. He appears to have inherited his grandfather’s strict and unwavering eye for detail, a trait that would later prove critical to Eckersley’s achievements as a typographer.

Another important influence was his father, Tom Eckersley, a well-known poster designer. Often cited in design history texts (along with Hans Schleger, F.H.K. Henrion, and Abram Games) as one of the “Famous Foursome” of WWII-era poster design, he was eulogized when he died in 1997 as "the quiet giant of British graphic design."

Eckersley’s two brothers, Anthony and Paul, immediately followed their father’s career path and became graphic designers. Richard, however, took a more circuitous route. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he earned a degree not in design but in English and Italian literature. It was through his editorship of a literary magazine and related student activities that he became involved in magazine and poster design. "I discovered that I liked design very much," he remembers, so much so that, when he graduated from Trinity, he signed up for classes in art and design at the London College of Printing. There, however, he was not the only Eckersley: His father was head of the graphic design program, and both his brothers, at various times, received their degrees from the school.

After college, Eckersley was hired by Percy Lund Humphries, a famous London publishing house that had earlier employed such design legends as Jan Tschichold and Edward McKnight Kauffer. (Eckersley recalls how he found, in a storeroom, odds and ends from the drawing board of Kauffer, who had worked there in the thirties.) After a few years, he began to teach at the London College of Printing while also doing freelance work. 

It was during this period that he lived and worked in the U.S. for the first time, when in 1972 he traded jobs for four months with American book designer Richard Hendel, an arrangement whereby Hendel taught in London while Eckersley designed books at the University of Massachusetts Press. Throughout their exchange, recalls Hendel (who is now senior designer at the University of North Carolina Press), Eckersley "brought fresh ideas to the design of scholarly books." His finest works, he adds, “are devoid of typographic trickery, with every detail considered."

In the late 1970s, Eckersley was senior graphic designer at the Kilkenny Design Workshops in Ireland, a daring government-funded attempt to improve design standards in industry. He left in 1980, when the Irish economy nose-dived and the government had to withdraw its support from the enterprise. He returned to the U.S. to teach at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, but it was only a one-year appointment and he soon was unemployed. His design portfolio at the time, he remembers, "was an omnium gatherum; an Irish bouillabaisse heavy on saffron, light on garlic." It was then that he applied for the job of staff designer—the first such position—at the University of Nebraska Press, where he still works.

Eckersley, his Swedish-born wife, Dika, and their three children moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1981, where Dika is also a book designer at the same press. In the past quarter of a century, he has designed dozens of volumes for Nebraska and other academic presses. Throughout that period, he has also been active in the American Association of University Presses and other organizations; has taught as a visiting lecturer at prominent schools in both the U.K. and the U.S.; and has had his work selected for the design profession’s most prestigious competitions. Among his various book awards is a silver medal from the Leipzig Book Fair, and the Carl Herzog Book Design Award. Perhaps the most gratifying of his honors was his designation several years ago as a Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts, an award that his father had also received in 1963, making them the only father-and-son duo to achieve that distinction. 

That same year, in 1999, when Warren Chappel’s A Short History of the Printed Word was revised and enlarged by Robert Bringhurst, it included two of Eckersley’s books as distinctive examples of current design. In addition, his work has been featured in Typography Now by Rick Poyner, Design Writing Research by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, On Book Design by Richard Hendel, and in Emigre, Eye, and other periodicals.

Eckersley’s life style is a lot like his layouts: structured and restrained, but enlivened by interesting detours. When I last visited him, he was deeply involved in the painstaking work of laying out a new book by Avital Ronell, titled Stupidity, promoted as a scholarly work on “ignorance, dumbfoundedness, and the limits of reason.” Committed first and foremost to the challenge of designing, Eckersley seems wholly oblivious to the prospect of awards or fame: "The prize of recognition for a book designer," he wrote in a recent essay, "is to be allowed to design more books."

•     •     •

Roy R. Behrens is a professor of art at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches graphic design, illustration and design history, art directs the North American Review, and edits Ballast Quarterly Review. His most recent books include FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002), and COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (2005). At the moment, he is working on a biography of the American artist and psychologist, Adelbert Ames II, titled The Man Who Made Distorted Rooms. A tribute to
Richard Eckersley (1941-2006)
British-born American book designer

“Richard Eckersley, who has died aged 65, was an award-winning book designer whose work on scholarly books set an industry standard. His classical approach to typography and design was enhanced by his understated wit.” 

                                                    —Teal Triggs, The Guardian.
•  •  •

an essay by Roy R. Behrens
Book designer Richard Eckersley died at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, on 17 April 2006. The following essay was published originally (with somewhat different wording) in PRINT magazine. Vol LV No 6 (2002), pp. 78ff. Copyright © 2002, 2005 by Roy R. Behrens. All rights reserved.
Obituary in the Guardian

Remembrance by Willis Regier

William Patry

New York Times Obituary

Committed first and foremost to the challenge of designing, Eckersley seems wholly oblivious to the prospect of awards or fame: "The prize of recognition for a book designer," he wrote in a recent essay, "is to be allowed to design more books."

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