What are the margins for?

A publisher recently sent me a 1,000 page book. The paper was perfect in its balance between opacity and thinness, but the margins were too small.

The production designer made a choice–push the text all the way to the edges, allowing the book to shave 20 or 30 pages in length. Sensible.

Except now, every single page seems cramped. The book is tense and can’t relax, and feels faintly amateurish. Why would a missing half-inch strip of white paper matter?

All of our media has margins. Even as computer and phone companies have made bezels ever smaller, we still want there to be a margin, a space between the thing we’re engaging with and the rest of the world. Movies have coming attractions and credits. Record albums have a few seconds between songs. Paintings have a frame, or a wall separating them from the next…

The edges do more than delineate. They give the person encountering the work confidence that a professional made it, someone who has an eye for what seems right and can respect the edges. It takes discipline to only go near the margin when you’re doing it on purpose, to make a point, not all the time.

Jackson Pollock not only abandoned the frame, he violated our understanding of the margin as well. But because he did it with intent, not out of commercial necessity or ignorance, his point was made.

The self-discipline to see the margin and use it as a tool is a gift we offer the consumer of culture.


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