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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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: Visually Organizing a Print Book

People’s attention spans seem to be getting shorter. Too many things to see. Too many things to read. All these visuals coming at you at once.

When I was in school, textbooks had a few photos, charts, and graphs, but mostly I read page upon page of straight text.

In total contrast to this, I found a fascinating print book at the thrift store this week. It’s essentially a sociology textbook for those who have already graduated (laypeople rather than students). And it does a masterful job of visually organizing a vast number of complex topics into timelines, charts, and bite-size chunks of text. Exactly the way we consume material on the internet. Visually and spatially.

The book is entitled The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, and it was curated (edited, compiled) by the following contributors: Christopher Thorpe, Chris Yuill, Mitchell Hobbs, Megan Todd, Sarah Tomley, and Marcus Weeks.

The Key Is the Visuals

Since graduating from college, I’ve learned more about things I didn’t study in school than things I did. Everything from economics to history, to all the other subjects I avoided. In the last 40 years these subjects have become interesting to me because they have become relevant to my daily life. There are probably many other people out there who could say the same thing.

In those 40 years (and before), experts have learned a lot about how people consume and master information on new subjects. In addition, between the ‘90s and the present, the internet has created a shift in how people consume content from a linear reading style to a more random, or at least spatial, approach that favors images, video, sounds, and short chunks of copy (such as bulleted lists).

This is not to say that “long-form” (the current name) journalism and literature have disappeared. The more spatial way of consuming information (like jumping around among a stack of books collecting facts and quotes for a term paper) has just grown exponentially in part because of our exposure to the internet.

The other point to consider is that you can consume and retain information more efficiently if it is presented in an organized manner. When you see how large concepts are connected, you can understand them and remember them better.

The Sociology Book

All of this information on how people learn (based on my reading in psychology, human perception, blog and other marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising) leans toward a more visual treatment of content. This includes an increasing use of photos, captions, call-outs, quotes, time-lines, and flow charts. The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained is replete with all of these, and the book employs them masterfully.

I’d even go further in my description. This print book contains fire-engine red, full-bleed divider pages to set apart one section from another. It also includes screened sidebars describing the influential social thinkers (who would be called “thought leaders” today). And there are full-color photos and also infographics to visually show how concepts are related and how one event or process leads directly to another.

There are also screened “In Context” sidebars that place the concepts discussed (such as globalization) within a setting of historical events.

Finally, in describing the organization of The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and how this organization facilitates learning, here’s a description of a sample chapter. Keep in mind that after the front matter of the print book, each article (instead of chapters) follows this graphic presentation.

  1. Each section begins with a double-page divider, with a red solid block of color bleeding off all sides and surprinted with the title of the section in all capital letters in an ultra-bold, sans serif typeface.
  2. The next two-page spread includes a red half-inch bar (a timeline) extending from the left page to the right, bleeding on both sides. Above and below the line are dates in a black sans serif type with arrows pointing to short paragraphs describing significant events. All of these snippets pertain directly to the subject of that section, such as “The Foundations of Sociology.”
  3. Each section then contains a handful of related articles (maybe 10). There is an opening “pictogram” for each article, printed in black ink over the local color. (By local color, I mean one of the many bright, saturated colors that distinguish each article from every other article. These colors do repeat occasionally throughout the print book.) The benefit of the pictograms is that they illustrate each concept in a simple, visual way, and they immediately grab the reader’s attention.
  4. To the right of the pictogram is the title of the article in the all-caps, sans serif font, printed in black. Below the title is the name of the sociologist under discussion, and above and below this title block is a 1/2” solid bar of the local color. The effect is that the reader’s eye goes here first, without question.
  5. Then there’s the “In Context” box immediately below the pictogram (all within a three-column layout) to give the historical surroundings of the key concept or subject.
  6. Some articles include quotes (to enhance the reader’s level of trust in the content of the book). Each quote includes large screened quote marks above and below the text and solid color bars (the local color again) to frame the quotation and the quote marks.
  7. Some articles include flow charts (hand drawn circles and arrows around short blocks of text, which are set in roman type with bold type highlighting the most important words).
  8. The book includes running heads at the top of the page, typeset in uppercase letters and screened to gray. You always know where you are in the book.
  9. Finally, the print book includes a three-column layout of text, which is still important in this visual layout. The text of each article begins with a drop cap in a heavy slab-serif typeface. The text itself is set in a small roman version of this typeface. With all of the sidebars and quotes, the solid bars of color, the duotones, and the pictograms, the reader’s eye–or at least my eyes–appreciate the white space (even if it is within the text columns).

What We Can Learn from This Book

This print book is a wonderful case study in how people learn today. And if you’re a designer or a writer, you can make yourself incredibly relevant by studying the design of print books like these and incorporating what you learn into your own design and writing work. Here are some observations:

  1. If you set up a design structure for a book that treats all chapters (articles or whatever else you call them) in the same way, your reader will understand that these are all equal-value components of the overall print book (i.e., design reflects function).
  2. Do the same with the cover, front matter, and section markers. In the sample sociology textbook described above, you can understand the book’s structure immediately. Whether you do this dramatically or more subtly than the book I described, create a consistent, overall structure for the book. Your reader will immediately know where she/he is in the text.
  3. Keep chunks of information short and self-contained (as in the sociology book’s sidebars and quotes). Bulleted or numbered lists are good, too.
  4. Be aware that people learn better if you show how the concepts are related. A flow chart is good for this. It shows how one concept or event continues into the next (cause and effect, if you will). Make sure the design reflects this.
  5. Pictograms (often used in infographics) are immediately recognizable because they are so simple in design. Think about the signs on bathroom doors. There’s no question about what they mean.
  6. Quotations (short ones are best) can capture the essence of an idea. They also add to the credibility of a book or magazine. (If such and such expert says so, it must be true.)
  7. Drop caps (initial capital letters) date way back to the illuminated manuscripts monks drew and painted by hand. They grab your attention. You immediately know where to start reading.

The Take Away

Increasingly, people prefer to learn from either videos or short bursts of information presented in a visual manner. This makes your job as a designer all the more important. Do research. Study how people are best able to digest and retain new information. You can learn this from marketing, advertising, psychology, and similar textbooks. If you are skilled at presenting information in an easily digestible way, your design skills will always be in high demand.

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