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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 Unity and Variety Aid the Reader’s Eye

I found myself back in the hospital recently with an infection following a total hip replacement. After fasting for the better part of the day at the surgeon’s request, I was pleased when a change of doctor’s plans enabled me to finally eat.

In the surgery ward’s family room I sat down to the best hospital food one could imagine (hunger is the best seasoning), a plate of Beef Burgundy. Needless to say, I wanted reading material to go along with my dinner, and I found a copy of the hospital’s current print book/magazine for company.

As a student of commercial printing I found several things to recommend this print book, particularly in terms of design. And all of these design techniques centered around grouping a vast amount of disparate information and presenting it in digestible chunks.

As an object lesson for print book designers, magazine designers, or practically any other kind of designers, here’s how they did it.


To put this in perspective, this little print book is 16 pages, self-cover, saddle stitched, with an 8.5” x 11” format. (Self-cover, by the way, just means the entire print book is on the same paper stock—100# white gloss text—rather than having an additional, thicker cover.) The magazine is 4-color throughout. It is called Adventist Healthcare & You.

Interestingly enough, at 16 pages in length, it really is a good tool for understanding book design and magazine design. You can see specifically how the cover was designed to grab the reader’s attention and convey information. You can see how the first page is used for a table of contents and short news briefs. Then you can see how a two-column grid has been used to present three separate feature stories (articles on a medical center, stroke treatment, and heart surgery).

A three-page (presumably) pull-out section follows, using three-column layout and subject headlines reversed out of solid color bars to separate by topic all the educational seminars the hospital offers this particular month. The change in format alerts the reader to the change in content. It also groups related material for easy reading, topic by topic.

Now that we’re past the center pull-out spread, the print book goes back to feature articles in the original two-column format (showing the reader in a visual manner that we’re back into feature stories). One is about anti-inflammatory diets, the next discusses head injuries and concussions, and the third is about breast cancer.

All of these may initially appear very different, but if you look closely you will see similar running heads, reversed out of solid color bars, describing the content of the articles. You will also see similar fonts (at least some). Even if the large headlines and the highlight colors differ from article to article, there’s still enough similarity to create a unified “look.”

Moreover, this structure of the print book (cover, front matter, feature stories, calendar of events, more feature stories, infographic as an action device to involve readers, and final mailing back panel and two final short articles) makes it easy for the reader to skim the entire print book or jump from article of interest to article of interest. It’s the similarity of design that makes this possible.

Variety: Color Usage, Photos, Typefaces

There are a number of tips and tricks the designer has used to unify the design while also allowing for variety.

I had mentioned the consistent use of column width and text and subhead typefaces to reflect similar kinds of information, but for variety, the designer has used sidebars. These look alike because they are the same width (they break these sidebar pages into one wide column and one narrow sidebar column), but they are the same width and they employ the same typefaces. For variety, one is green and another is blue, and since the green one is dark enough, the type has been reversed rather than surprinted (as is the type in the blue sidebar).

Photo treatment is another design factor. The feature articles are replete with photos. Interestingly enough, the photos in each particular section have similar colors. For instance, one has a lot of earth tones. To unify the design of this particular two-page spread, the designer has used an orange hue for subheads, part of the main title, and an infographic.

For contrast, the next article, on heart care, includes a photo with a light purple hospital wall. Therefore, the designer has used purple as an accent color for a portion of the title of the article, the initial capital letters in the text column, and the sidebar. Finally, a third feature article does the same thing with dark blue and light blue.

So the take-away is that the structure is the same (based on column width and typeface—for the most part), but the font treatment of part of each feature story title and the color “key” of each two-page feature article shift for variety. Things look alike enough to feel unified and different enough to stand out and appear as unique.

I had also mentioned the slight difference in the typefaces used for part of each feature story title (to highlight certain words). Upon a further pass through the print book, I see that for the most part the different type is a script font. If you look closely, even though the type size differs from page spread to page spread, using the same script font makes for a further sense of unity. The same goes for a minimal use of a condensed sans serif font for contact information, registration for hospital seminars, and such.

Finally, if you page through the print book quickly, you will see that the running headers include two- or three-word all-caps descriptions of the contents of each page spread. They appear in the same place on each page, but their color differs (again allowing for both unity and variety).

The Book Cover

I often look at a book or magazine cover last when I’m deconstructing the design of a publication because I myself usually design the cover based on the contents of the book. In this case, the magazine title (also known as the “flag”) is at the top of the page in an all-caps condensed sans serif typeface (a heavier version of the type used in the book itself, again for unity).

The designer nestled the much smaller name of the hospital above the main title type and a description of the periodical (along with the date) below the magazine title. Everything is flush left for simplicity of design. For variety, the ampersand in Adventist Healthcare & You is reversed out of a blue circle. In two other positions on the book cover the same dark blue appears as well. How did the designer choose the color? The woman on the cover (the focal point of the photo) is wearing a dark blue dress, and there is blue in the flowers behind her. So again we have unity.

The piece de resistance is the fact that the subject of the cover photo (the woman) looks directly at the reader, and she’s smiling. This is an age-old technique (even used by the master fine arts painters) for involving the viewer in the photo. The fact that she’s smiling makes the overall tone of the magazine cover warm and approachable.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Start to make it a habit to collect books, magazines, and brochures you like. Make a “swipe file.” Periodically go through these printed items and articulate for yourself exactly why each works as a design piece. Consider such issues as type choice, column width and placement, overall design grid, running headers, sidebars, and color placement. Moreover, consider how the cover, contents page, feature articles, and back matter have been designed for ease of readability and immediate recognition of their purpose.

Ask yourself how the designer has taken all the content and presented it in understandable chunks, how the designer can lead the viewer’s eyes through the page spread, and how the designer can introduce variety into the design (to keep it from becoming monotonous).

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