The end matters – thoughts on index design

It’s offensive o’clock in the morning, I’m sweatily clamped into my headphones, my desk a Spirograph of fresh coffee rings. I’ve been here for hours. And right now I’m very aware that I’m not doing two of my favourite things: creating and blinking.

I’ve been designing a big book for the last few weeks; the sort of big book that has lots of big chapters and big pictures and big contributors with big words. After lots of to-ing and fro-ing with editors and proofreaders and publishers, we’re at that very special final stage: the index.

All of the other little details have been shuffled into place and nudged and tweaked. Everything has been checked and double-checked; all of the content has been corralled into pages. It’s all locked down apart from this last section.

Typesetting this soup of text is the antithesis of designing a cover (or postcard or poster or anything that’s basically a single big rectangle). That involves a lot of sitting back, wandering to the other side of the room, narrowing the eyes, staring at compositions of shapes and colours. The cover is an expression of the book’s intent, all on one page.

When it comes to this dense swamp of minuscule text, it’s quite the opposite: the index is about atomising the book, breaking it down to its constituent parts. Whereas the effect of the cover is instant, the end matter (indices, appendices, references) must chug along silently in the background. Any flaws may not present themselves for months, years. But if they’re even a little bit off, they’ll be there, gnawing away at the innards of the book.

So getting these details correct is vital. I lean into the screen, nose pushed up against the design, unblinkingly scrutinising every tiny detail. Checking and checking and checking. Does this entry match up with that page? Is this word correctly italicised? Should those be a subset of those? Does this hierarchy of indents make sense? Have I forgotten how the alphabet works? What are numbers? The eyes and brain tend to dry out a little.

It’s a good working-through-the-night kind of job though, as it involves a lot of stillness and repetitive routine. The jazzier parts of the brain can be switched off for a while. There is very little room for stylistic interpretation or creative expression of the content; it’s simply about finding the exact shape that the words must fit. It’s the difference between making a collage and doing a jigsaw. Which makes it sound boring, but I kind of enjoy it – going through the motions of piecing bits together is oddly satisfying.

And these words are such wonderful pieces to play with: nomenological, architectonic, jurisprudence, baptistry, tabernacle, cosmogenic. Tasty, crunchy words. Countdowny words. I can’t say that I know what half of them mean, but at least I know where they appear.

Although it isn’t expressive in any way, this process feels significant; it gives the book meaning, usefulness, substance. A body of text with a delightful cover is all very nice, but it’s these layers of indexing, cross-referencing, associations – routes in and out and through the text – that make it a functioning object, a machine for thought. A machine that I’ve very almost, almost finished working on. That’s the main reason I enjoy this: it’s the last thing I do before all of this work becomes real. The end matters.

And then tomorrow I’ll be back to flouncing creatively with words and pictures and colours. First though, I need to finish this index and maybe get some sleep, or at least have a really big blink.