Automatic Layout and Typesetting. Will machines replace Designers in Publishing?

Automatic Layout and Typesetting
Will machines replace Designers in Publishing?

By Octavio West

In this document, I intend to demonstrate that the human factor will always offer an edge over automatized procedures in publishing. There is an increasing number of web based publishing companies that offer automatic design applications and templates for people wishing to publish: these intend to replicate the works that are usually carried out by designers and thus, saving a significant part of the cost and time it takes to produce a book (mostly) or other written document, at the expense of limiting the author to a number of options. My questions are: Is this depriving a book or text of the opportunity to have an identity of its own? Given Artificial Intelligence in our days is perfectly capable to be encoded with all the knowledge we have about this matter, something is still missing. Is it human touch? (Whatever it means), or Perhaps a creative and informed angle that professionals of the field can offer?

Whether you are publishing a book, magazine, newspaper, webpage or even a humble flyer, there are two activities that you will inevitably carry-on during every production process: Layout, which is the division of reading space in fields in order to accommodate images, text, headlines, animations and decorative elements and Typesetting, which is the arrangement and formatting of texts using various fonts, leading and the body of the text to format.

These actions date from the very first documents in clay made by the Sumerians, some 3,000 years ago, to the Egyptian papyrus, Roman parchment scrolls, to middle age manuscripts and finally to Gutemberg press books. And with thousand years of evolution, there is a huge number of proved techniques and styles to achieve the best result based on the goals of each project. In his book “Manual de Diseño Editorial” (Manual of Press Design)[2000), Jorge de Buen, compiles at least 10 different techniques for diagramming the space, from mathematical formulas, to geometric patterns that date from at least 500 years and upon which the whole modern and post-modern publishing industries have mounted their rules for page design.

There is also a good and simple reason to this, optimize the use of writing space. In ancient times, every substrate, that is, the medium upon which writings were inscribed, was specifically crafted and often, expensive to produce. Take a parchment for example, you have to raise (and kill) a sheep to get a single sheet of scroll, and it took many, hundreds years for scribes to require a better way to compile these by piling sheets of parchment instead of rolling them, thus creating a Codex. But the point is, in those times, written word was a luxury and substrates had to be well used.

With typesetting, the problem was pretty much the same: How to accommodate the optimal number of characters within a page in a way that they are legible and at the same time saving space? The first typos cast by Gutemberg were based on the Germanic letters used on the monasteries, those textur characters were intrincate, heavy and difficult to read (despite theories that one learns to read and it is not the font but the custom what determines such difficulty). So it was not long before Aldus Manutius and other type designers came with a variety of roman, serif, fonts that were easier to distinguish and read, in the process, creating an industry whose principles have lasted hundreds of years unchanged, even on our digital era.

Along with this, a number of other industries arose, those making papers, inks, covers, engravers, binders, seals, etc. Which though interesting, I will not cover here (Phew!)

The publishing industry of our times has inherited all these concepts, sometimes unknowing or forgetting the reasons behind them, but it has always looked for ways to increase or accelerate production and reduce costs, this is why the Times Newspaper already was printing using steam powered printers in 1814, which could print 1,100, 36 x 22 in sheets per hour. William Cooper rapidly devised a rotary press that rose this number to 4,000 sheets per hour and by the end of the XIX Century, they were printing at 25,000 sheets per hour.

On the composition side, the Linotype machine created by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1886 greatly reduced the costs of typesetting(before that, typos were arranged by an expert along the box), this machine arranged brass typo molds using a keyboard,that produced full lines of melted lead to be used in those printers. Further developments such as the Monotype composer,which used a photographic process and a new Linotype were developed, up to the envisioning of the first digital mark up arranger SRIPT by IBM in the 1960s, improved by people like Michael Frederick Plass of Standford University in 1981 using developed languages like TEX.

The first commercial available software was, as we know, Pagemaker. Released in 1985 by the company Aldus; it quickly instilled a new revolution in the industry. From then on, layout and typesetting still depended on other technologies (as it remains today) to reach the printed stage but now anyone could design their own projects with professional quality (as long as they learn to use the interface). Aldus was later bought by Adobe, another strong competitor who we owe the current Postcript measuring system among many other things. Pagemaker eventually had its name changed into the all too familiar InDesign.

I am not going to write about the obvious benefits of digital composition software (Phew, Phew!), but it is important to note that; despite all the benefits they offer, the base theory and tools remain the same. Digital Fonts and Faces may be more flexible but they are still bound by the same spatial principles of geometry, we may be able to Kern a font by one thousandth and even overlap them, something impossible with metal cast typos but not with Monotype machines. Everything we use to work today, including the boundaries of the screen you are reading, obeys the same principles our ancestors faced and solved over 3,000 years ago.

So this leads us to the point of automatizing the layout and typesetting. What is the main reason to do this? Save time and resources? Offer widespread capabilities for people to publish? We can go to websites such as or and find solutions to layout and typeset our works. Websites such as Wix, offer a wide range of templates to design our Webpages, even the Writer By Kingsoft I am using to write these lines or the more popular (and expensive) Word by Microsoft offer solutions to layout and typesetting. What is the catch then? Why designers still have a job as professionals in the publishing industries around the world?

It could be argued that such platforms are still not up to the task of equaling a (good) designer, you know, those that one of our most respected professors does not complain about. These can offer expertise, insight, etc. And this would be true in many cases, a good designer, such as Peter Cocking, can come up with a book cover in minutes and I know people so skilled with InDesign that can typeset a 250 page book in less than a day. Still, lets face it, this software does offer little more regarding layout and typesetting that its predecessors 20 years ago. Sure, they create automatic spreads (QuarkXpress could do this 18 years ago), convert to PDF (same case), separate colors (Pagemaker 5 in 1997), there is nothing new under the sun, just a pricey and probably more connected application. But this is all worthless if people have to spend months learning it. Thus, at this time, the skills of a designer or digital formatting professional are still valued.

For those who cannot afford or do not want to hire a professional, there is always the automatized option, and adding to it, I cite what Jesse Savage cleverly states “ That is not to say only professional designers can produce a balanced, enticing cover [design], but it occasionally helps. All it takes is a sense of professionalism,[and] a basic understanding of design rules.” So these platforms are definitely an option for people with a basic understanding of design rules. And for those who do not, they are good enough and lets be honest, they will not even notice. The excitement to have their book is rewarding enough.

This reminds me, I haven’t even stated what exactly a good layout and typesetting involves. To start it should allow the optimal legibility (perception of the contents) and readability (understanding of the contents) [De Buen, 2000], be pleasant to the eye by balancing images, font and margins, which “are there for a reason which is to give the page limits, grant white space, so necessary for the reading process and allow the page to be more attractive” [Turnbull, 1986]. The hierarchies of text must be clear (titles, subtitles, text, footnotes, etc.) And overall, the content should be easily and gracefully perceived by the reader. (Now go and try it yourself). In order to achieve this, there is a huge number of rules and canon developed over centuries surrounding it, from dozens of grid and margin systems, to rules for the number of characters in a line, to font size, leading, linked characters, symbols, hyphens, case height based on leading, etc.

But no matter, how many principles are to be considered, everything can be coded into an application and this is highly desirable in fact. Today for example, I had to run over 700 lines of text, marking sentences in bold, italics and the like. I definitely asked myself, why does InDesign does not have a function to do that automatically? Like finding all occurrences of Toronto Star and just italicize them, then go thru all the other words? It is possible of course, and used in practice for larger texts. This time it was just simpler to go the manual way. Automatized applications do not offer these capabilities yet, but if the author provides a formatted document (in Word for example), they sure can use it.

Its just a matter of time before Google, Facebook or the next digital Sheriff in town, develop an algorithm to predict your literary style, taste and offer you an automated solution, just in case you write a book or comic (in the latter case, they will even draw it for you). Still, I think things will go well for Designers. Take Lasik surgery for example, its been around since 1991 and was approved by the FDA in 2003, a surgeon specialist is still required to operate it. I do not think kiosks offering it anytime soon. In this case, the relevant matter the doctor adds is judgement and this could also apply for the professionals working on layouts and typesettings.

But the key word here is: human interaction, fortunately, we still require it, and Designers, besides offering a set of professional and technical skills, contribute with that human point of view and experience, thus every book can be different, or treated differently. It is not just about adjusting the paragraph, chase hyphens, widows and orphans: designing book interiors may seem repetitive but it is fascinating, it should reflect the contents through the font selection, spaces, page numbering, leading, etc.

Think about it, the same fate could apply to an editor, all tasks of editing can be coded into an application, and it will perform them with mechanical precision. In fact, development of these features is already in software like Word, and it is actually easier to set the rules for it than for diagramming a space.. Disagree? So do I; but this feeling, judging and human interaction is exactly what makes a Designer (or an Editor) valuable in these days. Would you give a machine the control over a manuscript? Even if it eases your work? (you may still get paid) If your answer was no, or not at all (because you would revise the editing anyway right?) good.

Just like the careful scribes of yore, or a skilled artisan crafts a magnificent hand painted pot, what adds value to a design, layout or typeset is exactly the care and work put to it by the professional. During this term, I had heard many times, from professional or inside people that “design” is just one more step into the administrative chain to get a book published, sometimes one very uncomfortable or delaying. But being a designer myself with some experience working in this field, I can assure the process is as fascinating and enticing, the first or the hundredth time.

Bibliography and References
De Buen, Jorge (2000), “Manual de Diseño Editorial”, Santillana.

Lewis, John, (1991), Typography: basic principles, Trillas.

Meggs, Phillip B, (1991), “History of Graphic Design”, Trillas

Turnbull, Arthur t. / Baird, Russell N (1986), “Graphic Communication”, Trillas.

Hurlburt, Allen, (1978), “The Grid: A modular system forthe design and production of newspapers,magazines and books”, Van Norstrand Reinhold.

Wills, F. H. (1971), “Fundamentals of Layout”, Dover Publications.

Plass,Michael F. (1981) Optimal Pagination Techniques for Automatic Typesetting Systems.

Savage, Jesse, (2017) “Judge A Book By Its Cover? Bad Designs Means More Judging, and For Good Reason”

Judge A Book By Its Cover? Bad Designs Means More Judging, and For Good Reason

MT and the Paige Typesetter

Automatic and immediate typesetting and composition of pages


History of refractive surgery (I should not list this but it was referred)


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