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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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Custom Printing: A Print Book Design Make-Over

One of the many things I do in addition to writing is to analyze and help to improve clients’ publication design work. I help them with overall design, typeface choice, eye movement around a double-page spread, color, overall concept, you name it. I just did one of these sessions with a client who had hit a wall and didn’t know how to fix the design for her print book.

I thought you might find this case study helpful in your design work, in terms of how to approach a design and improve it.

The First Draft of the Design

First of all, what I received from my client was a PDF of a page spread from a government report on water and dams in developing countries. The print book format was 8.5” x 11” (or actually slightly larger, since the agency is global, and they work with an A3 page). My client, the designer, had a four-color palette to work with, but beyond the photos, she had chosen 4-color builds of a blue and a beige for accent colors.

I noticed right away that the initial draft page spread looked washed out. There was nothing dramatic to look at. The image was of a man standing on a support in a reservoir adjusting a pump. The colors were all earth tones, but the photo appeared to have been taken in the hot afternoon, and there was an overall greyness, or haze, in the photo.

This photo, which was on the left-hand page of the spread, was horizontal. Above it there was a solid area of blue bleeding on the left and top and extending to the gutter on the right. Below the photo there was a repeat of the blue solid with the opening chapter headline reversed out of the color. At the top left of the photo there was a circular cut-out into which a large “8” had been placed (presumably this mock-up was the introductory page spread for Chapter 8). The “8” extended up into the blue solid, and my client had reversed the “8” out of the blue color.

On the right-hand page there were two columns of justified type with an overly light initial cap to start the first paragraph. Below the two columns there was a box of type surrounded by a rule line. This was actually something I liked about the sample page spread. My client had chosen a condensed sans serif typeface for the headline. She had also reversed the words “Box 8.2” out of a little blue solid bar she had suspended from the top of the rule line surrounding the box (as a “tag,” to identify all boxes). What I really liked was that the headline was flush right instead of flush left. It was unexpected and daring, but it was quite readable in the sans serif face. I also liked the tight leading of the two-line heading. Finally, my client had made a few words in the text blue and bold for emphasis (and to distinguish between the two countries referenced in the text).

I told my client to start with the ruled box. I said it “worked.” She should understand why it worked and apply the design concepts to the rest of the page spread.

The Problems with the Design

I noted the following problems:

    1. The initial cap starting the first paragraph on the right-hand page was too light. It didn’t attract the reader’s eye. The reader’s eye had to go to this point to start reading, so the visual cue had to be more prominent.


    1. The headlines and subheads (other than those in the text box) were too light. This gave an overall greyness to the page spread (i.e., little distinction between the heads and text, and no immediate cue for the reader to go to the subheads). In addition, the headline typefaces in the text box were exceptionally close to, but not exactly the same as, the subhead typefaces in the main columns of text.


    1. The “8” that designated the chapter of the book was too light. In addition, the curve of the photo (knocked out to allow for the positioning of the “8”) seemed superfluous and cute.


    1. The justified text columns seemed too rigid. They also did not allow for an interesting contour around the columns of type (that is, the columns of type were just two tall rectangles providing no complexity or visual interest).


    1. The photo seemed boring since it was so monochromatic and since there was no action reflected in the image.


    1. There were too many visual points of alignment. That is, too few of the graphic elements (heads, subheads, photo, folios, etc.) aligned with one another, creating a chaotic look. The chaotic look worked against the simplicity needed to lead the reader’s eye through the page spread.


  1. The overall greyness of the page gave no direction as to how the reader’s eye should travel through the page spread.

The Design Solutions

I realized this was plenty of criticism to offer my client, so together we discussed options that wound up improving the two-page spread significantly. My client also created an additional page spread (an interior spread for pages following the chapter opening). With these two spreads I knew my client could create the remainder of the 48-page book, applying all of the design decisions (page grid, typeface choices and sizes, box rule lines, and so forth) to all successive pages of the book. All of the visual decisions had been made, allowing for creation of a coherent design product.

Here are the design decisions and why they helped:

    1. My client made the photo abut to the center gutter and bleed on the left. This gave it a sense of expansiveness. Immediately above it she placed the same light beige screen that she had used as a background for the text box on the opposite page. (She bled this screen off the top of the page above the 4-color photo.) Most importantly, she aligned the top of the photo on the left-hand page (which rested at about the two-inch mark below the top of the page) with the top of the two columns of type on the right-hand page. This created a visual “axis” (or alignment) running all the way across the two-page spread. It simplified the geometric, visual shape created by the photo and the text.


    1. Above the photo on the left, my client placed the “8” of the chapter head. She made it huge for emphasis. She also made it orange. (This kept it from being as “heavy” visually as an “8” printed in black ink.) On the opposite page, she also made the subhead orange, and she made the initial capital letter of the first text paragraph bolder, and orange as well. (This would make the reader’s eye jump from the chapter number “8” to the initial cap to the subhead. In general, knowing what to read first, second, and third puts the reader at ease and makes reading pleasurable.)


    1. Including the entirety of the photo (without cutting away a semicircle for the “8”) highlighted the beauty of the entire image. It made the reservoir and dam seem more expansive and interesting.


    1. My client made the heading at the bottom of the left-hand chapter-opening page much bolder than before and set it flush right to make it stand out (readers usually expect flush left heads). This gave a visual precedent for the flush right head in the text box on the opposite page. The heading was bigger, bolder, and the two lines were tightly set one above the other, as my client had done in the text box on the opposite page. (It is a useful rule of the graphic arts that consistency in the treatment of visual elements simplifies the design. This makes reading easier and more predictable.)


    1. My client placed a thin, vertical rule between the two main text columns. She also added folios (page numbers reversed out of a blue box). For interest, she raised them above the center line. She also aligned them with the top of the photo and the two text columns. The blue solid with reversed type echoed the treatment of the text box label (“Box 8.2”). The repetition made for easy identification of these visual elements. It also gave more coherence to the page within a simpler grid, or structure.


  1. Setting the subheads within the text in an orange color made them seem different enough from the head in the text box that I no longer minded that the two typefaces were close but not exactly the same.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

This was the overall direction my client and I took to improve her design. Each time you deconstruct and analyze a design the process will be different, but it always helps if you look at a few things each time:

    1. Does the reader’s eye know how to proceed through the page spread? What is most important, secondary, tertiary? If your reader knows where to look for important information, reading will be easy and pleasurable. If not, he or she will stop reading altogether.


    1. Is your photo (or are your photos) interesting? Are they cropped in such a way that they tell a story. Does the photo cropping make it easier or harder to know what’s important?


    1. Can you simplify the page “geometry”? That is, can you draw fewer imaginary grid lines to which you can anchor graphic elements? The fewer these “axes,” the easier it is for the reader to progress through the page design.


  1. Can you use color (a secondary, highlight color) to help your reader progress through the page design?

These are just some thoughts, but the best way you can train yourself to think along these lines is to look at brochures, books, posters, signage—every printed item you see–and consider how the color choices, typefaces, page grid, type alignment, etc., make the printed products easier or harder to read. Then start to apply the same set of rules to your own design work.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: A Print Book Design Make-Over”

  1. Chetan says:

    Useful information!


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