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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 Design Before the Ink Even Hits the Paper

My fiancee picked up two art print books at the thrift store this week to get ideas for future art therapy projects for our autistic students. When I looked closely at them I noticed a few differences in their design and materials. I thought this would be a good way for me to discuss a few elements of book design that will make your print books look especially sharp.

Physical Description of the Books

Both books my fiancee bought are 8.5” x 11” format, perfect bound with fewer than 150 pages of text, and printed in 4-color process ink. They look alike until you check them closely under a good light.

The First Book

The first book has an 80# cover-stock cover. It appears to be a matte coated stock because the paper has a slightly rougher feel than a dull coated sheet and a bit of mottling (uneven coating). It is not unattractive, since the mottling looks intentional. It just looks a bit more distressed and edgy than the second print book.

Because the subject of the first book is making artistic journals incorporating collage, and since the overall tone of the imagery is bold and gritty, I think the choice of paper is appropriate. The interior stock seems to be 100# text, also a matte coated sheet. Both the cover and the text stock are a very bright white, which highlights all of the art in the print book. You could argue that a gloss coated paper might present the art in a more vibrant manner, but in my opinion, the artsy tone of the book and the matte coated sheet are an even better match.

The Second Book

The second book has a much thicker cover. It mics to 20 pt. on my micrometer. An online paper comparison spreadsheet I use says that this would be about 150# cover stock, which I think is rare. I am more used to 130# cover stock, which I often see as a substrate for thicker-than-usual business cards. It has a certain rigidity that gives the print book heft and a serious tone. It almost feels like a case bound book.

The paper used for the first book is actually more reflective than the paper used for the second, but this is because the second book paper is far smoother. It is a dull sheet, so it seems to absorb the light rather than reflect it. This dull quality, however, does not make the photos any less crisp, since the designer has specified a gloss varnish coating for the images. In some cases the coating covers the entire photo, but, for variety and emphasis, in other cases the designer has only spot gloss coated the silhouettes of the most important elements in the photos.

Interestingly enough, the subject matter of the second book is similar to that of the first. It is about hand-made gifts, but many of the samples in the photos are collages or assemblages (3-dimensional collages).

Overall, the dull text and cover paper make this print book seem more subdued and sophisticated than the first. Perhaps this is also due to the heavy weight of the paper.

Cover Coatings on Both Books

The first book about journal making has what feels like a dull film laminate on the cover. However, since the cover stock itself is matte coated, the dull coating seems to act as a lens to accentuate the uneven mottling of the original matte paper coating.

In contrast, the second book about hand-made gifts has a thicker dull laminate cover coating, and this accentuates the total lack of surface texture of the dull coated cover sheet beneath. Again, it seems to soak up, rather than reflect, the light.

Press Scores on Both Books

Both books have a press score. This is an indented vertical fold running parallel to the spine and slightly less than 1/2” from the spine. It allows the cover to open more easily and more evenly (like a hinge on a door). Moreover, I think it is also a reflection of the quality of the print book. In my opinion, it makes a perfect-bound book look more finished.

The press score on the first book (the one about making journals) is slightly less visible, and also slightly less consistent in depth, than the press score on the cover of the second book (the one about hand-made gifts). When I see the two books side by side, I like the deeper score better, and it makes me appreciate the overall design of the book a bit more.

The Subconscious Effect of Paper Choices

Keep in mind that all of these choices are probably invisible to most readers. Readers respond to these details subconsciously (but powerfully). However, they may never be consciously aware of just why a particular print book appeals to them. (These are also some of the tactile qualities that set a print book apart from a digital book on an e-reader.)

Moreover, the differences between the books based on the designers’ paper choices extend beyond the visual. There is a difference in the feel of the matte paper and dull paper as well as the dull film laminate on the covers of the two books.

In fact, I have often found myself gravitating to books with dull film laminated covers in the thrift stores my fiancee and I frequent. Sometimes I think the feel of the book in my hands makes as much of an initial impression as the subject matter or the graphic design.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

It’s always a good exercise to go to a used book store and collect a few print books that appeal to you and then try to determine why you like them. If you can articulate the reasons, you can often go on to apply what you have learned to your own design work.

Think of the paper choices you make as analogous to the choice of a frame for a painting. You could say the same thing about the graphic design of a book, since the look and the feel of the printed book contribute to the reader’s experience of the subject matter contained therein.

When choosing paper, keep the subject matter in mind and select paper that reinforces the content and tone of the writing. This may be a smooth white sheet or a textured, colored sheet. Think about the feel of the paper, its hue, its ability to reflect light with sufficient brightness. Also think about the thickness of the paper. If it is too thin, not only will images show through the paper (you will see what’s on the back of the page you’re reading), but the paper will also feel flimsy.

Think about the binding as well. In the case of these two books, both were long enough to warrant perfect binding instead of saddle stitching. But if the book you’re designing is shorter, you may still want to select perfect binding over saddle stitching because it looks more substantial, more like a book than a periodical.

Once you have selected the paper, give careful consideration to the cover coating. Talk with your printer. He may only offer UV coating, film laminate, or aqueous coating. It’s always best to request and compare samples to make sure the finished look of the coating will complement the look of the cover stock you have chosen. Keep in mind that if you select one of these cover coatings and your printer does not have the equipment to apply it in house, he will need to subcontract the work, and this will increase the price and lengthen the production schedule.

Whenever you’re in doubt, always ask for a paper dummy to show how the individual sheets of paper will look and feel, and how the completed, bound book will feel as well.

And if you do opt for perfect binding, consider a press score. It gives a more pristine, finished look to the final product.

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