The Daily Heller: I Am a What?
I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe is not a book about the existential being of a book. But it is a book that guides the reader on a journey. This book is filled with the stuff that books are made of … words, numbers, pictures, ideas, information, et cetera. Why is this book unique? It is a collection of harvested data points that derive, in part, from the book itself. For example, each of the book’s measurements, from the thickness of its pages to the noise it makes when slammed, is analyzed. Each of these characteristics (and much more) become a data point in the narrative of the world we live in—it answers questions that you may have always pondered but never asked. I asked the authors, Stefanie Posavac, a data viz designer, and Miriam Quick, a data journalist and researcher, to spill the data on this informationally rich and typographically playful “portal to the universe.”
I feel excitement just reading the title. What inspired you to make I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe?
Posavec and Quick: We were sitting in a café in South London back in 2018 with the intention of coming up with new ideas for collaboration. It was at a point in our careers where we had what we called “data fatigue,” where we were growing weary of repeatedly using the same chart types over and over again in our work.
Posavec: We were also interested in experimenting with using your own physical interactions with the book to represent data, like holding the book up to the sky to discover how many stars are behind its pages. Before I moved into data I was a book/book cover designer, so I was interested in the challenge of using a book in a way it was never really meant to be used.
Quick: The whole book, even the endnotes and acknowledgements, is written in the first person, in the book’s own voice. It developed its own character as we worked on it, a theatrical personality that’s just a little cheeky and arrogant at times (though it does soften its stance as the story unfolds). So it made sense that our book would take the opportunity to use its cover to make a flamboyant display of itself. It’s a pretty bombastic title, but then that suits the book’s personality: It even relegated our names to the back cover!
The book is told from the vantage point of the book. How do you determine what one book will say about itself and others?
Quick: As we wrote it, we developed a very clear sense of the kinds of things the book would and wouldn’t say, and how it would speak to you. We drew up a list of banned words—our book would never use the words chunk, smidgen or critter (too folksy), or bug to describe insects (not wondrous enough). When we were deciding what kind of facts and data to include, we asked ourselves whether this was something that would spark awe and wonder in a reader (and in us)!
From the cover and the Dedication I get the impression that this is a book for children. But it is a much more mature concept than I expected. Who did you aim this at?
Posavec: The book is aimed at both children and adults, especially readers who would be put off by “data” or “science” in the title. So the word data doesn’t appear anywhere in the book. (Except in our bios, where it couldn’t be avoided!) We’ve since discovered the publishing industry finds all-ages books hard to categorize, so now we generally say it’s a book for children—but really it’s for everyone.
Quick: Our goal was to make scientific ideas accessible and approachable for readers of all ages without dumbing them down. We wanted there to be enough challenging content in the book to satisfy adults as well as children, so we explore ideas that aren’t necessarily common knowledge. For example, there’s a spread in the book about the bizarre consequences of relativity. The book tells you that, if you stood it upright on a table, time would pass a tiny fraction of a second slower at the bottom of the page than the top because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity. This is mind-blowing, however old you are.
I co-authored a book, Type Tells Tales, about books that use typography as content, or rather type and typography are the protagonists of the book. In this, who do you see as your protagonist?
Posavec: Our book is ultimately the protagonist; however, it wants to use everything it has at its disposal—its inks, binding, pages, typeface and more—to show you the wonders of the universe. So you, the reader, are also a character in this process.
Miriam and I always felt that the typeface is as much part of our book’s “voice” as the tone of voice and the words that we’ve written for it today. This is also why we only used one typeface (FF Quixo, designed by Frank Grießhammer) throughout the book, so it doesn’t seem like it has multiple personalities!
Yours is a decidedly designed book. Every spread is, shall we call, a typographical illustration. What was your process—the words first, the visuals first, or a combination of the two?
Posavec and Quick: Our creative process was very merged and collaborative and a bit back-to-front.
We started with a blank “dummy” book created to final specifications right at the very beginning of the book creation process, when normally this comes much later on. We then spent a lot of time testing the dummy and thinking about how we could use it in original ways to communicate particular quantities—by slamming it shut to make a loud sound, wearing it as a hat to feel its weight, dropping it on the ground to time its fall, letting pages fall to displace a certain volume of air, and so on.
So we guess you could say it was very much a “concept first” process. Sometimes this concept was an interesting scientific idea, and sometimes it was just a curious or witty way of communicating data through the book—what we called the book’s visual or physical “variables.”
Next, we narrowed down our list of ideas and Miriam went away and researched the most promising ones, laying out data in a spreadsheet. We focused on the ideas that would make the most interesting stories and involved quantities on the same scale as the book (for example, weights of things around 450 grams, or one pound—the approximate weight of the book). Miriam then wrote multiple drafts of text for each spread, and Stefanie fed back on them until we had a version of each spread’s text we were both happy with that Stefanie would then begin to experiment with on the page.
We had to make lots of small adjustments to the wording to ensure that line length, rhythm, tone and the number of words on each page were all perfectly balanced and worked with the planned design concepts. Some sentences and designs went through about 40 different versions before we found the right one!
Who did what?
Posavec and Quick: Miriam did the research and the bulk of the writing. Stefanie did the design. We both came up with ideas.
The conclusion is quite an ending. You pull back a curtain, so to speak, and the readers then read about every spread, much of it about climate, nature and the stuff of life and living. Is this book intended to be a cautionary message about the here and now? Or is it a view meant to be a time capsule for the future?
Posavec: With the endnotes, which we call the Small Print, we wanted to meticulously detail all the research that went into the book. So the bulk of the book is very design-led and quite light on text, but the back end gives you all the working that went into it, like uncovering the code on a webpage. We liked the idea that from something rigorous you can distill something elegant and approachable.
Quick: As for the audience of the book: It’s very much written for the here and now. We have a page that simply says, “Everything is changing. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes quickly.” And that is an idea we were trying to capture in the book—that everything is in flux, even as you try to measure it, particularly when it comes to the climate and ecological situation. There’s a focus on those things in the book, although we didn’t want to preach: It’s more about using data to expand your awareness of the world around you. We wanted to spark wonder at everyday things, reveal invisible stuff happening (like subatomic particles floating through the book as you read it) and create something fresh that readers can use to explore the spaces around them with a sense of discovery.