Printing and Design Tips: July 2021, Issue #240

An Approach to Book Design

Two separate clients came to me this month with book design projects. This is how I approached them. After all, if an endless sea of type on a manuscript page makes my head spin, you can imagine how undifferentiated text on a page will appear to a reader who sits down with a print book expecting a relaxing experience.

The First Book

The first client provided me with a synopsis for a rather intriguing book using various vegetables as a metaphor for the growth of a baby. Each vegetable symbolized a different period in the baby’s life.

I also received a manuscript with low-res photos I would later receive in digital form.

How I Started the Design Work

After discussing with my client the overall look and tone of the book (organic, fun, optimistic), I read the manuscript and synopsis and then did some thumbnail sketches (tiny sketches of various page spreads) to help myself understand the structure of the book. It Included a cover, front matter (various introductory pages including a dedication, introduction, and table of contents), the main page spreads of the book, and the back matter.

The eighteen double-page spreads that would comprise the guts of the book would include a photo of a vegetable on the left-hand page surrounded by an appropriately colored tint screen. On the right hand page there would be a graphic showing the date (in some attractive, graphic form), a headline, an introduction, and some follow-up text to amplify the introduction. A different person would write each of these. The double-page main spreads of the book would also include incidental drawings to complement the photo and give the book a more casual feel.

With this information in hand, I provided a time estimate based on the following stages of work:

1. thumbnail sketches

2. a rough computer mock-up of a two-page book spread

3. a mock up of the cover and other main front matter and back matter pages

4. a proof of the whole book (including photos and art)

5. corrections to the first proof (one set, two sets)

6. any Photoshop work on the photos needed to make them ready for inclusion in the InDesign art file

7. final press-ready files for the book printer (including all page geometry and images prepared to the printer’s specifications)

The Nuances

Next I focused on the first double-page spread, placing all relevant chunks of copy and then trying various ways to set them apart from one another in manageable, digestible portions based on their relationships and levels of importance. I used color to emphasize some things and downplay others. I also used rule lines and differences in type size. At this point I kept the fonts within one family, using bold, roman, and italic as well as all capitals treatment in certain cases to set one kind of text apart from another.

Again, the goal was to group similar items and set them apart from dissimilar items, and to provide a visual map to the reader, showing what to read first, second, third, etc.

For visual interest, I drew some vegetables and a vine (by hand, with a drawing pencil). This, along with the photo, would provide imagery that would complement the more cerebral text while adding color and visual interest to the two-page spread. A thin rule line around the photo (in color) and a large tint screen filling the whole page behind the photo would also set up an expected rhythm from page spread to page spread.

This is how I have proceeded so far. These have been my goals and thought processes for turning undifferentiated text into understandable verbal and visual markers, which will tell a story about the author’s experience with the growth of a child.

The Second Book

The second book will be quite a bit longer and more complex, including about 100 photos and maps. It will be an art book to be sold at a museum. It will focus on the intersection between an historical event and an individual family’s experience of that event.

I mention this book because my approach to its organization (in terms of its design) will be similar in many ways to that of the first book while different in others. For instance, while my goal will be to provide a visual map to help the reader move around within a page spread and to know which chunks of copy and images are more important and which are less important, I plan to approach this in a slightly different way from the first book.

After I design a single double-page spread for the book (choosing the typeface and type sizes to distinguish levels of importance, and after positioning the photos), I plan to design one full chapter including all text, photos, captions, charts, incidental art, and any other visual and textual items. This will give the author an idea of how the book will look and how it will flow from page to page.

In the first book, the text pages between the front matter and back matter would be based on one repeated design grid (photo on the left with an area screen, and text on the right with various levels of headlines and subheads plus incidental drawings).

In contrast, the history book (which would also be in a larger format, perhaps a full 8.5" x 11" rather than the 5.5" x 8.5" size of the first book) would be more like a textbook, with images supporting passages of copy. Because of this, in the book design process the complete unit of thought would be the full chapter (second book) rather than the repeated double-page spread (first book).

Once this is done for the first chapter, I can make a mock-up of the front and back matter, as well as the cover.

The Takeaway

What ties these two books together is the approach I’m suggesting:

1. Review any information the author can provide about both the content of the book and its tone. What adjectives describe the book: fun, organic, sophisticated, somber? In the case of my two clients’ books, the first client provided a synopsis and the entire text, and the second will provide photos and a complete chapter of text.

2. Use thumbnail sketches to map out the front matter, content, and back matter of the book. Look for ways to visually organize related information. This will be in terms of groups of related pages and also in terms of visual relationships within each double-page spread. This structure will include the main page-design grid (or structural framework for all graphic elements from columns of type to photos).

3. Then think about the local organization. What can you do to organize the individual page spreads? This will include the choice of fonts and point sizes, margins, colors, rule lines, photos, area screens, incidental drawings, etc. This structure will draw upon all the principles and elements of design, as these are positioned within a flexible grid system of margins and columns, in an orderly and recognizable way, to lead the reader through the book.

4. Once you have a complete mock-up (of a page spread, a chapter, or the entire book), let someone else in the field who is objective give you feedback. Then incorporate the suggestions as you see fit. Personally, I would then print a copy of at least one page spread. Look objectively at the type sizes. Make sure everything is readable. Consider the age of your readers and their ease of reading.

5. If you get stuck, look at other books by other designers. What fonts, colors, and visual motifs have they used to organize the content of their books?

6. Don’t forget to consider the text and cover paper as well as the binding methods. Make sure that every design choice you make supports the theme, content, and tone of the book.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]