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Graphic Design

Substrates & Finish, Article 1 of 3 :: Diverse Binding Methods


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Binding, the collective term given for the range of processes which hold and fasten a publication’s pages together, is essential for, well, holding and fastening your publications’ pages together. Whilst on the surface not as compelling a design component as, say, print finishes, a little closer inspection reveals a range of distinct processes which exist for different uses. These binding methods aid function; decisions on binding necessarily affect a printed piece’s robustness, longevity and form. Used creatively, they can even add an aesthetic finishing touch to a piece and help amplify messages and intentions. The closer inspection I mention above, and which binding merits, is what this article’s all about.

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SUBSTRATES & FINISH, ARTICLE 1 OF 3: Diverse Binding Methods

Case Binding

Also known as edition binding, case binding is often used in the binding of hardback books, owing to the sturdy, robust qualities inherent in its process. As with perfect binding, pages are gathered and folded into sections, or signatures. These are then sewn together, the spine glued and the book block pressed and trimmed. Covers are prepared with buckram or other hardy material and, once dried, the book block is ‘cased in’ to the covers. If we rewind a few steps to just before the book block is glued and pressed, designers can embellish their books by specifying coloured headbands and ribbon bookmarks to creative effect (see images below).


A commission for four A3-sized, quarter-bound case bindings from London-based bookbinder © Simon Goode.

Japanese or Stab Stitch Binding

Interchangeably known as Japanese, stab and traditional Chinese binding, pages are here sewn together with a single, continuous thread. There are many variations, far too many to cover here, but in recent years Western designers have helped bring some of them back into people’s consciousness. Gift and children’s books are often to be found stab stitch bound, and increasingly design-conscious clients like Onitsuka Tiger, who produced a superb stab stitch-bound 2004–05 trade brochure (an image of which your normally resourceful writer was, alas, unable to obtain) are turning to the process. Best used to bind publications on the thinner side and when wishing to add a tactile dimension to a publication’s design, the effect can look pleasingly delicate, yet is a robust enough binding method.


A stab stitch-bound notebook and journal, both of which demonstrate the, by turns, innocent and intricate qualities of the method. Images courtesy of © Ruth Bleakley and © Michelle Clement.


The z-bind, so-called because of the distinctive ‘Z’ shape a z-bound piece forms when viewed from above, is a visually arresting method of binding two publications (or two parts of a single publication) together into one. This can be achieved either with permanence in mind by stitching the two together end-to-end, or as a temporary device, through the use of an elastic band or perforation. Lots of interactivity or ‘relational aesthetics’ as French art curator Nicolas Bourriaud has termed it, can ensue through an encounter with a z-bound project; the publication flipped and turned, separated and re-put back together.


Beautiful z-bound MA Project ‘Warnings From The Past’ by © Leanne Mallinder. She explains: “‘Warnings From The Past’ is a small collection of five purely typographic speeches each coming with a corresponding poster of a quote from that speech.”


A bellyband looks much like a portion or strip of a book’s dust jacket, and performs in much the same way. Reasonably versatile, the bellyband can be used functionally to hold a collection of loose leaf pages together or decoratively and as an added layer of protection. When used decoratively as part of a well-designed publication, bellybands seem to lend an air of importance to things and manage to connote the idea of a certain graphical luxury.


Two examples of well-designed and -integrated bellybands. Both carry important publication information, the first printed from handset type and the second featuring a subtle black spot varnish. Images supplied by (L>R) © Trip Print Press and © Oliver Rone-Clarke.

Elastic Bands

The humble elastic band is another innovative method of binding both loose leaf sheets (usually with notches die cut into their tops and bottoms) and for making more permanent binds. When not used for holding loose leaf sheet together they are best used for devices like flip-books, less good for binding thicker publications, as the elasticity makes for poor page fall. The intrinsically ephemeral nature of the elastic band can help signify a feel of happy ingenuity and immediacy.


Charming and intricately bound ‘album to store feathers in’ for a bird-watching friend of © Ruth Bleakley. An exposed spine is visible, over which diagonal, coptic stitching sits housed. Elastic bands at the opposite end act as a clasp to keep it all together.

Exposed Spine

A largely recent phenomenon driven by designers and more visionary patrons that has had traditional book binders scratching their heads in befuddlement, exposed spines have become an increasingly common sight on design bookshelves in recent years. Perhaps the most openly decorative entry in this article, an exposed spine is not a method of binding per se, as all that has happened is a publication has been produced, usually perfect-bound and as per usual, and then its covers (and hence spine) left out of things, permitting a view of the exposed signatures and stitching which would typically be hidden away. The effect can be both cheerful and utilitarian, cheerful in that colourful signatures are often used in order to wring the most out of the finish (see project below), and utilitarian in the same way Renzo Piano’s Centre George’s Pompidou in Paris is, with its “exoskeleton” of escalators and scaffolding.


As featured in these articles elsewhere, Typehigh and Lieselot Moed’s ‘Bodemweek book’ is a graphic banquet of format design and printed finish. In addition to containing gatefolds and perforations, the publication is also bound sans cover, revealing the colourful spine within.

Loose Leaf with Slipcase

There are several ways of collecting loose-leaf pages and holding them together (see ‘Bellybands’ and ‘Elastic Bands’ above) but few feel as luxurious as a bespoke slipcase. These die cut, quickly assembled gems can be designed to fit the pages within as snugly as a book’s covers. From a functional perspective, nothing can beat loose leaf for pages falling and staying open, as the whole point of them is that they aren’t bound, although the process does imply a certain artisanal decadence; a motorcycle maintenance manual, loose leaf, would be an inappropriate choice due to risks of pages becoming lost, discarded or rearranged out of order.


Stunning self-promotional piece by Leicestershire-based graphic design studio Six. Six, ‘Made by Six 08/09’ is composed of loose leaf sheets that feature credentials, recent client work and selected studio projects, all housed in a subtly embossed slipcase/box. Image courtesy of © SeptemberIndustry.

In Sum…

An important, and at times fascinating, design component then, no? As with print finishes and substrates, for best results a method of binding should be decided upon at the start of a project and not at the end. Functional considerations should always be heeded, as the diverse array of binding methods available offer up an equally diverse breadth of differences in longevity and robustness. How easily a publication’s pages fall open should be a prime consideration for the thoughtful graphic designer. From a formal and aesthetic perspective, the myriad materials and sundry levels of intricacy available mean that several of the binding methods covered above may be used as signifiers for all kinds of messages, and, as I hope has been demonstrated, even act as the distinct finishing touch to a project.


…and it’s not just paper-based substrates that can be bound in visually compelling ways! Image courtesy of © Kate Black.

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