illustrations versus words

Mary Corbet made an interesting observation the other day. She pointed out that many older instructional embroidery books have many more words and few diagrams/photos, whereas newer embroidery instructional embroidery books have many diagrams/photos and fewer words.

This is quite true. I think about one of my favourite old stitch dictionaries (published in 1934), Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches, and it has many words, and few diagrams.

Contemporary stitch dictionaries, such as mine and the A-Z books by Country Bumpkin, tend to have many diagrams and fewer words. When I write my books, I have both words and diagrams, as I know that some people are visual learners, who learn better through seeing things, and some are verbal learners, who learn better through words. But while I still have words, the ratio of words to images is much lower than in old embroidery books.

So why is there such a difference between older books and contemporary stitch dictionaries?

As a book designer, who is involved in the production of books, I wonder if it was simply a matter of cost. Before the introduction of digital book design and production processes, it was an expensive process to put pictures into books, whether illustrations or photographs.

I know that many people say that they find it much easier to learn by being shown something, instead of having it described to them. A visual book is therefore closer to a class, and being actually shown something. I suspect this makes it much easier for many people to learn.

When I first started out in book design, all illustrations needed to be scanned on a drum scanner. Photos could be drum scanned for those presented as prints, or for a better result, slides (positives) would be scanned. Scanning negatives tends to make strange things happen with colour, so using positives was a more successful way of doing it.

If anything about the image needed to be edited, it was a job that generally required a highly skilled retoucher to make any changes.

The scanned images would then be inserted into the layout.

Before scanning, pictures were part of an even more intensive process. But I’m too young to know much about that! :-)

So putting images into books was a labour intensive, and therefore expensive process.

These days, when I put a book together, I use my digital camera for photos, plug it in and upload the images onto my computer. I can then place them into my layout. It is a quick and easy process.

I create my illustrations on my computer using Adobe Illustrator. As I have been doing this for years, for me it is now a reasonably quick process, though some of the diagrams for “Ukrainian Drawn Thread Embroidery” took me all day – and that’s no exaggeration!

Having digital illustrations means that they can easily be edited and for step-by-steps, previous diagrams can be used and built upon for the next step.

Comparatively, using images these days is a quick and easy process, and therefore much cheaper.

So, I wonder if it was very much a question of economics that older books have more words and fewer images, and newer books have fewer words and more images. Many people like images, and with the improvement of technology, we are fortunate that they are much more cost effective to include in instructional embroidery books.

2 comments to illustrations versus words

  • Ah, the bad ol’ days when we laid photos into the spaces provided in a typeset layout (film positive) and then tacked them down and put each page into a KODAK imagemaker machine and photographed the whole layout, whited out edges, tape marks (they were always zig-zag and showed up horribly on the film), bugs, pencil marks, made negatives and then developed the film burning it onto four metal plates (four colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black) for the press, make a matchprint to see that everything was just right before printing.
    I think you’re right – it must have been a matter of cost.
    Boy, I sure don’t miss those days spent in the darkroom…

  • Yes, when you think of engraving on a drum, or preparing screens, it seems more than likely that much of the reason is sheer economics. I remember being told by an academic writer I know “Never agree to produce camera-ready copy!”, and I suspect that was based on experience with diagrams!

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