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[Detail] General view of harbor at San Juan, Porto Rico looking South.

Book Design: Graphic Ornamentation

Graphic design is the process of selecting and arranging visual elements to convey meaning. Although graphic design has been employed since ancient times, changes in technology, aesthetic preferences, and the imaginations of individual designers have changed the practice of visual communication.

One design element that has changed over time is the use of graphic ornamentation. For example, in some times, decorative initials like the two capital letters shown above have been popular ways of ornamenting the page. Study the two decorative initials closely and look at the pages on which they appear.

  • What similarities do you see between the two decorative initials? What differences do you see?
  • As you look at the pages on which these decorative initials appear, do you find the decorative initials complement the other elements of the page (font size and style, page layout, etc.)? Explain your answers.
  • Do you think the decorative initials help convey meaning? Do they make the page more readable? More attractive? How effective do you find the decorative initials to be as a design element?

Look through several twenty-first century books to find at least two that use decorative initials. How do these contemporary decorative initials compare to the examples from the late nineteenth century? What do you think accounts for the persistence of this graphic element over time?

Browse through documents in Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age and choose another example of graphic ornamentation. Analyze the example using the questions above. Look through the contemporary books to see if the type of ornamentation you identified is still in use today and, if so, how its styling and use are similar and different to the historic example.