Designing the Indecipherable:
The Absolutely Unique Challenges of Publishing the Voynich Manuscript

This post was originally published on the Yale University Press Art and Architecture blog as part of theirFrom the Designer’s Deskseries. 

In 2015, Yale University Press approached Wordesign Services to edit, design, and produce a facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript, a very old, mysterious, beautifully illustrated text. The book would include the first full-size reproduction of the entire manuscript, along with a collection of essays that explore the manuscript from different perspectives.

Voynich MS design pagesOccasionally I find it difficult to understand the complex subject matter of a book that Wordesign has been commissioned to produce, so I took heart in learning that, for this particular project, I was not alone. The Voynich Manuscript contains more than 200 parchment pages filled with densely packed, beautiful calligraphy intertwined with brightly colored botanic illustrations; tiny, meandering human figures; and convoluted, symmetrical designs. A wealth of information is contained in this roughly six-by-nine-inch book, but apparently no one has ever figured out what it says. Neither its language (affectionately referred to as “Voynichese”) nor its enigmatic illustrations have ever been deciphered.

Scientific analysis of its physical properties date the manuscript’s creation to the late-15th century. Its point of origination is believed to be somewhere (probably a monastery) in northeastern Germany, the Netherlands, or southern England. Its history includes centuries of intrigue, subterfuge, political upheavals, and deception, which brought it to its namesake, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, a rare book dealer at the start of the 20th century. Unable—or unwilling—to sell the strange manuscript in his lifetime, it became part of his estate, later to be sold to another dealer, who ultimately gave it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969.

The audience for this facsimile edition includes a world of professional and amateur historians as well as unsolved-
mystery lovers. The cryptography community is a particularly lively subset of the latter camp. I imagine legions of obsessed code-breakers crushed beneath centuries of rancor over discredited interpretations and convoluted conspiracy theories.

I have spent more than a year with these pages, each one a beautiful puzzle I have little desire to decode. I’ve come to imagine the botanical images as pieces in a very strange board game. Some of the symmetrical or patterned pages might be appropriate for contemplation, but their pictorial vocabulary is simply too animated to facilitate meditation.

Reading and Design
There is always a tension between editorial priorities and those of graphic design, perhaps nowhere more apparent than in illustrated-book design. Reading requires focus and concentration. Focus refers to leading the eye to the center of a paragraph, or a sentence, or a word, from which it moves outward or scans across. Graphic design (whether in print or digital form) requires the designer to see a larger perspective, an overview of the page, spread, or window that encompasses all the elements within that frame as well as the area without, which in turn defines the object’s dimensions and place in the physical world. Designing this collection of essays about and facsimile reproduction of the Voynich Manuscript provided a unique and “literal” example of this tension.

Many of my design clients are editors, authors, curators, or scholars. As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying that tension between focusing on a project’s content and surveying its form in order to provide a seamless and pleasurable reading experience. For the Voynich Manuscript project, I worked with a group led by Raymond Clemens, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and Joseph Calamia, our editor at Yale University Press.

My work requires me to review a manuscript to understand the subject and determine which points are important to highlight. Once I’ve begun a layout, however, text becomes one navigation point among many, including art placement, chapter openers, and folios. Typically I reserve cover-to-cover reading of an illustrated book I’m designing until the bound book is delivered.

I have always admired the editor’s ability to read with the kind of comprehension and recall required to spot contradictions, inconsistencies, or repetitions from the beginning to the end of a manuscript. On the other hand, I possess a similar ability in terms of typography, color, and composition. This skill, however, requires that I stop reading words in order to “read” all aspects of the book’s design and layout.

Voynich MS408 quire diagram
The Voynich Manuscript consists of 20 quires held together in a bookbinding technique typically in use in 15th-century Europe. The quantity and size of the foldouts (quires 9–11, 14, 15, 17, and 19) are unusual for the time. Several leaves, indicated by dashed lines, were removed or lost at some time.

Design and construction challenges
We first saw the entire manuscript on the Beinecke Library’s website, which contained digital images of every manuscript page. We also received a diagram showing how the parchment pages were grouped into quires, groups of four or more pages folded, gathered, sewn, and bound into the original wooden binding nearly 600 years ago. René Zandbergen’s excellent website, The Voynich Manuscript, helped us understand this obscure-looking diagram (see illustration, top right).

We really began to understand how the manuscript was structured when we visited New Haven for a showing of the actual object. We watched as a conservator leafed through and described the manuscript’s pages in the Beinecke Library’s climate-controlled, dust-particle free conservation laboratory.

The manuscript is unusual in that it features two sections of very complex four-, six-, eight- and even twelve-page foldouts. I was convinced that my client would require me to recreate a fifteenth-century manuscript that was completely different from all available twenty-first-century printing and binding techniques. Even after we agreed on how to present the facsimile pages in our book, its foldout section, defying all automated binding capabilities, required extensive hand-work to insert the foldouts into the standard text sections prior to binding. In its way, a part of each copy of this book is handmade.

Perceptual obstacles
When I started to consider this project, it occurred to me that I may have been uniquely qualified to bring it to successful completion:

  • I have always had a terrible sense of direction stemming from a life-long confusion between left and right.
  • The Voynich Manuscript lacks even the most basic navigational system one expects in a book; neither text nor illustrations serve reliably to connect the end of one page with the beginning of the next.
  • This appeared to offer me an advantage in that I could use my own alternative navigational skills adapted over time to cope with my nonexistent internal compass. At the very least, the degree of patience developed over the years as I’ve found my way around would serve me well.

The need to print design boards for client presentations has mostly disappeared now that sending pdfs of design pages and spreads to clients has become so expedient. (Design boards are full-size, color-laser proofs showing the book’s jacket and the text’s design.) However, the Voynich project clearly required a great many intricate, time-consuming comps (working models). I started with quarter-size models, then increased to 50 percent, and finally full size.

Voynich Comps & Papers

At first, most of my attempts were incorrect due to the complexity of matching the proper recto (right-hand page of an open book) to its verso (left-hand page, or the reverse side of the recto) and creating the right combination of folds. My mistakes seldom revealed themselves until after I had completed the entire foldout section.

Voynich Comps & Papers

I quickly realized that I needed to duplicate the physical act of turning, folding, and unfolding pages in order to find my bearings and check my progress. I was unable to accurately perceive that same succession of steps in my mind’s eye. Often, when no paper model was available, I needed to turn imaginary pages in the air as I followed the progression on my screen.

Sequencing anxiety
The enthusiastic audiences for this new facsimile publication are very familiar with the entire Voynich Manuscript, so any mistake in sequencing its pages would prove seriously embarrassing. Our editors at Yale University Press were understandably anxious about accuracy.

When photographing each page of the manuscript, the Beinecke Library had worked with two numbering systems. The first assigned a reference number to each page of the manuscript; the second was a sequential record of each page as it was photographed. I chose to work with the latter system. It started (and ended) with the book’s front (and back) covers and endpapers, its spine, and the top, bottom, and fore-edges of the closed book. The first actual “text” page began with image #5.

Additionally, at some point over the centuries, someone decided to inscribe the top right corner of all right-hand pages with sequential folios—even- and odd-numbered—except for some multipage-foldout sections, where the intended right-hand page unfolds on the left (see figure below). These systems—and their confluence—presented something of a navigational hindrance.

Voynich MS numbering system.

The design and production phases required obsessive sequential checking and rechecking. One final challenge arose from devising effective ways to convey this very quirky material to the prepress and production department of our printer in Hong Kong, which had to consider all these issues and more to create an accurate imposition for the book. I am greatly indebted to Abby Featherstone, my New York-based printer’s rep at Asia Pacific Offset, who oversaw this daunting task.

Hand sorting and collating at Asia Pacific Offset Printers.

The publication of this facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript will no doubt allow a much wider audience opportunities to study and contribute new insights about what is known and what has yet to be revealed about this enigma.

An illustrated book that is thoughtfully designed and well produced deserves to be appreciated as a beautiful object. I hope that my work will inspire readers, who are otherwise deprived of understanding the content, to recognize and value the manuscript for its beauty and strangeness.

Book Packager or Services Provider—Why Either/Or?


Once upon a time, I assumed that owning and managing our own business would become easier. Looking back, I wonder where that naive notion came from. The size of a business does not exempt it from an important dictate that any other business or, really, aspect of life must acknowledge: the more you learn, the more there is to be learned.

Many of the issues we faced early on—taming bookkeeping software, figuring out how to budget job by job as well as year by year, developing boilerplate contract language that is both clear and fair, for example—have given way to new challenges. We even face learning curves that didn't exist in 1994, but one remains as pressing or more so than ever—marketing.

This brings me to today's topic, but rather than trying to offer ideas or suggestions, I'm going to devote this blog to asking readers for your ideas about a particular marketing problem we have faced for most of Vern Associates' history: How do we help a potential client understand what we really offer and how that can help them with their publication needs?

For a case in point, let's look at just one branch of our work: museum books. When we began business, most medium-sized and all large museums supported their own in-house publications departments. Even though these departments regularly assigned editing and design and production duties to freelance service providers, few worked with packagers, who could have put all the pieces together.

The economic roller coaster that hit the rails a few years later, however, caused numerous midsized museums to disband their publications divisions, even though they continued to publish their own books. They still farmed out most or all of the work required to bring their books into being, but now they added the management of the publication process to the workload of their already heavy-laden curators. We expected this to be a boon. After all, we could take on the whole shebang. Vern Associates is a one-stop means to continue publishing without having to manage the work doled out to a disparate band of individual service providers.

From the very start of our business, we have considered the collaborative, all-in-one-office nature of what we offer to be a strong, value-added proposition. Our editorial "wing" works closely in-house with the design/layout/production team. At every stage, each knows the book intimately and is aware of exactly where it stands in its gestation. In addition, our editorial personnel are thoroughly versed in book design, just as the design and production folks are aware of and sensitive to editorial concerns.

But somehow that proposition has worried, even alienated, potential clients, and a good number of whom seem unwilling to recognize that we by no means consider this integrated manner of book production to be mandated. Our trusted staff members frequently augment packaging work with jobs that call for their own individual expertise. For example, I recently edited a book for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but Peter didn't see it until a bound copy arrived in the office. Meanwhile, the new book for Winterthur was almost entirely his doing. It came to him with edited manuscript and art program in place. Winterthur even supplied the proofreading and commissioned and edited the index.

So, what are we missing? Why don't museums' in-house staff recognize that we offer individually the skills and expertise that play so well together to make up a package? A long-time museum publications staff member recently mentioned that he refuses to meet with packagers—even those like VAI, who willingly shed the inclusive cloak of an all-in-one service provider. He has always outsourced design and even production, just as his editorial colleagues do, but he doesn't trust the individuals working for a packager not to "do too much."

When Vern Associates is the client, we expect to call the shots. We are paying another business to provide something we need, and it must be exactly what we require. So why would we expect the situation to be any different when feet and shoes get swapped?

We would love to hear your opinions and suggestions that can help unravel this seeming conundrum.

Topics: book designeditorial servicesillustrated-book producerbook production

Posted by Brian Hotchkiss on Tue, May 31, 2011

Domino Number 5: Illustrated Book Design and Client Confidence


Design and active listening

A while ago I posted several blogs dealing with the best ways I’ve found to keep all design-meeting attendees focused so that they listen carefully in order to confirm continually that you—the designer—have understood their comments and requests, both before the meeting and during it. Some pointers include:

  • repeat back what the client describes, and ask if my interpretation is correct;
  • compile a design memo (summation of our discussion, statement of client’s goal, and steps I plan to take to reach that goal);
  • show the client a series of rough sketches throughout the process rather than present a finished sample-page design all at once;
  • review the design memo with the client prior to presenting the sample design; and
  • ask frequently whether the proposed design resolves the issues, answers questions asked, and meets the stated goal.

All of these are crucial—particularly when working with a client team—to keep everyone focused on and in agreement with the preeminent issue: Is the design process moving in the right direction? If you keep this on track, design revisions become a simple retooling of individual parts in order to strengthen the overall design concept.

A frequently encountered and always tricky stumbling block crops up when a client has a fixed preliminary picture—literally or metaphorically—of what the design must convey. Usually this is expressed through excited descriptions in industry-specific terms, often accompanied by the flopping about of examples that “almost get it,” but need to have elements A, B, and Z added, while D, F, and X must be omitted. Even the most innovative interpretation of a client’s early-stage vision can backfire if it is a bad fit—i.e., if it distracts from what the material and publication need to communicate.

The case I’ve chosen to illustrate how this sort of thing can send the dominos skittering is a museum book I designed several years ago. My clients’ goal was to end up with “an exhibition catalog that projects the look and feel of a fashion magazine.” They bubbled enthusiastically about how this idea would work, and as copies of Vogue and WWD and Elle flopped about, their strong commitment to this notion made it clear that I had to turn something vague into a solid concept.

Being asked to apply a “magazine design aesthetic” to an illustrated book generally raises a bevy of red flags in my head. By design, a periodical [noun; a magazine or newspaper published at regular intervals] needs to present many distinct, unrelated, short-form articles, while an illustrated book requires an overarching design that holds readers’ attention from beginning to end and assists them in connecting related essays and references throughout the story.

The clients were excited by the liveliness of fashion magazine layouts as we leafed through recent issues of their favorites, but from what they said, I got the mistaken impression that they understood that the piece we were producing was a museum catalog that included scholarly essays, so an un-magazinelike restraint also was needed.

I worked out several sketches and proceeded to pare down the “fashion magazine aesthetic” to what I considered an appropriately sedate level, employing a brighter color palette and stronger display typography than many such catalogs normally would. I presented the design samples with some trepidation, which was well-founded as it turned out.

The presentation did not go well. The concept they had requested was ill-suited to this particular catalog not to mention unsuitable for projecting the museum’s carefully honed brand. My clients were unpleasantly surprised, perhaps even a bit offended. The circle of opinion givers was widened by the marketing and development offices, and that just fanned the flames firing up the core group’s anxiety. Confidence in my abilities—even taste—plummeted.

Another meeting was hastily arranged, and the looks of dismay on my client’s faces (not to mention sotto voce comments) suggested that I was to be replaced by another designer.

I very quickly opened this second meeting by stating that, while the project was a museum catalog for an intriguing, unusual exhibition, the material demanded to be presented in an equally engaging manner, but one that would still be recognizable immediately as an exhibition catalog. There was no room for a catalog-magazine hybrid. Suggesting we scrap the previous concept altogether and start again, I asked for 10 days to do this.

A week later I presented a brand new sample design that received a unanimously favorable response as well a collective sigh of relief. All the dominos stood back up before too many could tumble.

Photograph: David Benbennick

Topics: illustrated booksillustrated book designgraphic designfine art book publishingorganizational culturemuseum catalogsmuseum publicationsexhibition catalogsmuseums

Posted by Peter Blaiwas on Wed, Sep 25, 2013

Editing the Multiauthor Book

edited copy art

I have just completed work on a 14-chapter nonfiction book to which some 23 authors contributed (some are coauthored). While this certainly is not my first multiauthor MS. Nor is it the most complicated one with which I have dealt. In fact, many of the authors in this particular project bring skill to their writing. But it impresses me as something of a paradigm for this type of editorial work. Why, I kept wondering, do books by numerous different writers require so much more time and care than most single-author works?

The obvious answer is consistency, of course. That one word alone explains perhaps as much as two thirds of the difficulty. On the macro scale, the editor must take in and comprehend the points made by each author well enough that s/he can recognize when one contributor contradicts another. Say, for instance, a table included in chapter 2 points to the conclusion that a particular dollar value may be attributed to forest preservation. Then, in chapter 10, the writer explains how monetarism won't suffice in quantifying benefits--in other words, a conclusion completely at odds with his colleague's. First you must make certain not to fall prey to an apples/oranges argument; then, find a way to describe the problem to both writers so they can arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution. This is not to suggest that individual authors aren't apt to come up with their very own conundrums, just that editorial recognition of them is usually much simpler.On a micro level, not only is it crucial that every author spell toward without the s (or with it, if you prefer), each must also refer accurately and identically to people and corporate entities. For example, one essay in the recently completed book referred to British Columbia's "Great Bear Rainforest." A couple of chapters later, however, another author discussed the "Great Bear's Rain Forest"; and yet a third included a couple mentions of the "Great Bear rain forest." (The first result of a Google search brought me to the Province of British Columbia's website, which cited the "Great Bear Rainforest.") Throughout the book, I adjusted this name about seven times. Now factor in the twist that half of the essays in this book concern South American subjects with English-preferred acronyms for Spanish corporate names, and you begin to see how time consuming such verification becomes. You also will understand how I ended up with an 18-page style sheet.

But what about the remaining one-third? I came to realize that this other portion is primarily spent coping with the opposite of consistency--the delicate balancing act of maintaining tone(s). In this regard, editing a single-author book is usually fairly straightforward: I become aware of, then comfortable with, the writer's voice and approach, then assure that they remain intact throughout the work. With multiple authors, each of whom has her or his distinctive voice, the editor must always weigh to what extent one essay may reflect and/or differ from the others. It is important that the reader is not put off by abrupt changes in voice from chapter to chapter, but the editor must simultaneously permit each piece to maintain its own distinctive character. (This definitely isn't true of a fiction collection, where tonal differences are likely to be part of the point of the publication.)

Now I am about to delve into a nonfiction book written by two--and, in a couple of instances, three--authors working together. Writing by committee. I wish I could recall the first multiauthor book I edited. What must I have done?

Posted by Brian Hotchkiss on Mon, Oct 19, 2009

Domino Wrap-up: Book Packager Reflects on Fears of Falling

flickr_jasonlangheine_162041457_4bff374e3b_z-resized-600.jpg.pngA book producer’s work requires juggling many complex challenges. We know that, and you’ll hear no arguments from our clients, but too many potential clients decide—or are instructed—to take on the same assignment on top of their own full-time jobs. When they finally come to us for help, it is often too late to salvage the situation in time to meet their original deadline in a cost-efficient way.

So back in mid-August, we embarked upon a seven-part series of blogs loosely referred to as “The Toppling Dominoes.” We thought the best way to convey these various challenges was to describe each step in the book-production process by means of real-life examples of how the potential stumbling blocks we’ve faced along the way actually had impacts on projects and how we handled them. (Something like the grueling “My Problem and How I Solved It” series Good Housekeeping magazine issued in the 1960s—a harbinger of so-called reality TV decades later.)

We have been producing publications for close to twenty years, and still each new project brings its own set of unforeseen—sometimes original—glitches, large and small. Because Vern Associates approaches each book as a brand new entity with its own unique story that determines many specific elements of the processes and skills required, we recognize up front that the challenges inherent to any given project will only reveal themselves over the course of the publishing process.

“Toppling Dominoes” illustrates how the success of the finished product relies on how well each element in the publishing process is acquitted, and just like the movement of a long line of falling dominoes, problems that start out slowly gain momentum exponentially as they threaten to infect each successive stage right up to the culmination of the work.

Looking back, it should have come as no surprise that,in one way or another, each of the sticky situations we addressed in this series arose due to lapses in communication. In addition, it became clear that by dealing directly with the misunderstandings, we managed to resolve each glitch in time and on (or extremely close to) budget. The following recap tracks the dominos from the earliest threat of tipping until the those that presented themselves at the last possible moment.

Concept development and pre-manuscript setup: Manuscript development requires more time than any other single step in the process of creating an anniversary history, and it can take weeks or even months to discover that a writer’s narrative has gone seriously off the track. Making up that time is difficult, if not impossible, so the search for the right author requires detailed scrutiny extending well beyond examining CVs, reading clips, and talking to candidates’ previous editors. To do it effectively, time for such research must be built into the schedule up front, and ideally the search culminates with one or more face-to-face meetings between author candidates and client.

Line editing: If you make the right choice in the foregoing phase, it may be possible to skip this stage entirely. When the writer is on track, providing the kind of manuscript you require in an appropriate tone, on schedule, and in sufficient depth, playing police and checking up on the work is seldom necessary. But if the writer does not have the expertise needed, or has skimped on research time, or has taken the wrong tack overall, it’s crucial to correct such misdirection up front. A good line editor can rescue an errant manuscript from having to be scrapped entirely.

Copy editing: It’s a sad comment on contemporary publishing that many books go straight to type,” which means that somebody runs Spell-Check on the digital file the author provides, then the publisher jumps right to type output, skipping copy editing entirely (and, in some cases, proofreading as well). But what if your mandate is to provide accurate, well-expressed copy that doesn’t distract with its numerous typos and (often hilarious) misstatements? In our view, copy editing is always necessary, but even when done conscientiously, a book can incur ridicule due to mishandling that delicate balance between copyeditor and author, particularly when the latter is deeply in love with his or her own prose.

Book design: The potential for miscommunication during the progression from initial, information-gathering client meetings and the critically important first design presentation is enormous. If the client is not sure about what they want—or worse, if he has a set picture in mind, but cannot aptly convey it in words—very bad things can happen, disrupting the entire forward motion of the project. Get it wrong the first time, and client confidence can erode very quickly.

Prepress: Early on in every project, the series of printing-related procedures that occur prior to going on-press demands careful delineation. If these details are too amorphous and broadly defined, the book’s progress can be tripped up, causing slowdowns that can be ill-afforded in the best situations and work stoppages that scuttle schedules in the worst. Until the project’s specific requirements are fully understood, the risk persists of poorly seated dominos tumbling over and tripping any of several important switches, sometimes in concert.

Printing, binding, and delivery: procedures center on knowing how to deal well with the selected vendors—printer, binder, shipper, customs broker, distributor, etc.—and clear, direct, and timely communication from the project’s outset, so that everybody is aware of and prepared for every particular requirement and especially any atypical circumstances that could receive “business as usual” treatment if sufficient prior notice has not been provided.

Photo: Jason Langheine

Topics: editorial services, illustrated book design, book production, communications, communicating, content, writers, manuscript preparation