The Dictionary Project

ABDA member, designer and Oxford University Press design manager Sue Dani takes us behind the scenes on this mammoth project, which was the winner of the Best Designed Scholarly and Reference Book category at the 2017 Australian Book Design Awards.


More than 28 years after it was first published, it was time to design the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. I was thrilled to be asked to work on this iconic title and also a little daunted at the task ahead. The brief was open apart from three key requirements: the design must be functional as a reference title, it should reflect the ‘Oxford look and feel’, and it had to be striking and covetable. No pressure!

The Australian National Dictionary is essentially a reflection of our nation’s heritage, history and culture through historical to current language. After reading through the brief, talking with the teams and researching the history of this title, I felt strongly that this unique ‘Australianness’ needed to be communicated through the design. Something else that was on my mind was this title had the potential to bridge the gap between library purchases and appeal to the collector or gift-giver. It needed to work on multiple levels without alienating our existing market if we were to gain purchase with a wider audience.

With this in mind, the challenge was to reflect the historical aspect with a contemporary feel while conveying a strong sense of prestige. I took cues from the Australian landscape, flora and fauna which had pleasing synergies with the dictionary content, as a significant component records popular names of flora and fauna over time. Some of the concepts and variations I explored can be seen below with their spine treatments.

Abstract Australian landscape photography, local textile designers and typography were all developed as concepts (and there were many permutations of each!). However, there were two standouts – the vibrant textile concepts and the First Fleet artwork concepts that had the strongest emotive impact with the team.

Many hours of sifting through hundreds of images in the First Fleet archives at the National Museum of Australia had been rewarded. The classic images of the Waratah and stunning King Parrot by George Raper immediately resonated and the team felt the same way when seeing these concepts. The rich colour palettes of the illustrations beautifully complimented the more conservative Oxford ‘navy’ livery, unifying the two dictionary volumes giving impact and that sense of prestige. It felt right.

To appeal to the collector/gift-giver this design needed to have that ‘pick up’ appeal. I focused on bringing in a textural aspect to all the concepts I explored through both visual means and production methods, keeping our limited educational budget requirements in mind. Working closely with the production team we looked at many samples of embossing, foiling, and binding options as well as exploring treatments such as belly bands and case options. We decided on quarter binding with a combination of textile and matt finishes and foil for the title treatment. Meanwhile, market research discovered an overwhelming positive response to a case edition in the market so this was added to the offering, allowing us to take the tactile element further.

Overall, the process took about ten months and many, many meetings. A huge team from senior management, marketing, production to representatives from the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra were involved at each stage and this was challenging at times but having consensus on a cover direction relatively early in the process helped keep us on track and motivated.

The internal design by Joanna Davies progressed on a separate schedule with the structure of the text based on another historical type dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as the previous edition of the Australian National Dictionary. The process used XML with content being updated and supplied from the Australian National Dictionary Centre. The files used a multitude of paragraph styles with over 120 character styles painstakingly created to accommodate all the intricacies and details of the content and language.

The layout stages involved working very closely with our typesetting suppliers, the National Dictionary Centre and editorial to refine rounds of the template and XML to ensure all the content was represented correctly. There were also some manual intervention to adjust individual parts of the text as required.

Overall, the project progressed smoothly and although working with such a big team had its challenges I have no doubt it resulted in a much more considered design. A big thanks to all involved – it was a mammoth effort, 28 years in the making!