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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Book Printing: Multi-Column Page Design

A colleague of mine designs books for the World Bank on a freelance basis. They are essentially text books, reports, and such, but they do require a good amount of design acumen to make the print books attractive and to make them look consistent within a series.

My colleague—we’ll call her Tracey—noted that she had been laying out two-column print books, and she wondered how to deal with uneven bottoms of columns of type. Should she spread out the leading, change leading between paragraphs or items in lists, adjust spacing above or below charts and graphs?She was stumped. This is what I told her.

Rules of Thumb for Multi-Column Page Layout

  1. Good book design does not call attention to itself. It facilitates reading. It makes reading comfortable and enjoyable. It’s like a frame around a work of art, rather than the painting itself.
  2. Inconsistency works against the regularity and structure that comprise good print book design. That said, inconsistent bottom margins draw attention to themselves and away from the content. In addition, inconsistencies in spacing between paragraphs or other “chunks” of copy, such as items in a numbered (or bulleted) list, also detract from good design and readability.
  3. However, contrast is also a hallmark of good print book design. Whenever you break a design rule, do it in a big way. Make it look intentional. In terms of book design in general, and column alignment in particular, if you’re going to have columns end irregularly, have them end at comfortable and logical points (perhaps the end of a paragraph), and make the ragged bottom margins truly irregular (within reason). Don’t have them almost align (don’t have one column end only one line above the baseline of the other column). A truly ragged, stair-stepped bottom margin can look informal and very attractive if the column breaks come at logical points.
  4. Consider designing the type grid for the print book on a “base 12” system. (Remember how the metric system uses “base 10” measurements.) If you set type 10/12 (10 point type on 12 points of leading) and then add three points of extra space above, below, and between paragraphs in a three-item list, the baseline of the second column will probably align with the baseline of the first. Why? Because the extra spacing adds up to 12 points, which is the leading for the body copy. (Adjust as necessary for your particular situation.)
  5. Insert a photo. Or add a chart or graph. You can get away with a variance in spacing when something happens once on a page spread. Varying space above and below various subheads on a page spread will call attention to the irregularity—even if the bottoms of all columns align. But ending a column of copy after a graphic may not look odd at all.
  6. Design page spreads (two pages at a time, side by side). Do not design individual pages. You will be more likely to see any spacing irregularities when you’re looking at a two-page spread, just as a reader does.
  7. Keep columns of type ragged right (left justified). These are easier to read than justified columns. Spacing between words is always consistent (spaces between words vary in justified type). And a ragged right column of type is less formal and will be more forgiving if you need to fudge spacing between paragraphs or end columns at various levels on a page.
  8. Study other people’s print book design. You can find sample two-column pages online using Google Images, and you can also check your own bookshelves for samples. See what you like (what works visually), learn from it, and then apply what you have learned to your own design work.
  9. Use “vertical alignment” in your page composition software. If you truly need to align two-column pages, most page-layout applications have what is called a vertical alignment function that will even out the space (leading and/or space between paragraphs) so baselines of columns will align. When I first started setting type in the 1980s, you had to do this mechanically on the dedicated typesetting machine. It is a blessing to now have an automated function that can do this for you.
  10. Avoid ending a column of type with a subhead followed by only one line of type. Also, avoid beginning a column with only a line or two of a paragraph (the one that began at the bottom of the preceding column).
  11. Your eyes are the final arbiter. If it looks good (show someone else as well), it works.

Applying these rules of thumb will help improve the legibility and aesthetics of your print book design work.

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