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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: Tips for Designing a Truly Memorable Print Book

Photo purchased from …

If a print book is a pathway to an adventure, then the cover of the book is the doorway to that experience. I think the photo above captures this sense of possibility.

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I think they are wrong. Moreover, I think that if you are a graphic designer, this awareness (of your power and responsibility) can inspire you to inspire your reader.

Here’s an example (although it pertains to record jacket design). Back in the ‘70s, when I was a teenager, I bought an Olivia Newton-John album not just because I recognized one song but because I thought the cover photo was beautiful. Later on I bought a Gregg Allman album in part because the surrealistic cover intrigued me.

Here’s another example. When my fiancee and I go to the thrift store, she gravitates immediately to books that are square, that have a dull cover coating rather than a gloss coating, and that have any elements that appear to be hand drawn. (She likes the “journal” look.) As a sculptor, she has also made a number of artistic clocks (and other sculptures) out of books.

In both cases (the record album in the mid-70s and the books in the thrift store), the “sale,” the “I want that” moment, came before either I or my fiancee had really considered the content: the music on the record or the words in the print book.

How Can You Use This Information?

There are a number of tools available to the graphic designer to make a print book memorable. I’m going to focus on the cover and overall format in this article. The inside design of the book is a major part of its aesthetic appeal, but the cover really is the doorway. If you can’t get your prospective reader to pick up the book, then he or she will probably never read it.

And the best way to design a captivating book is to do what every other designer is not doing, something unique.


The aspect ratio of the book’s height to width can make a book unique. My fiancee handed me a print book she liked last night. It is square. Most books are taller than they are wide. This is often termed a “portrait” or “upright” orientation. Since most books conform to this standard, if you design a book that is square, it will stand out among the taller books. The same is true for “oblong” books, those that are short but very wide.

(Keep in mind that oblong books are often more expensive to produce than upright books, so discuss this with your printer early in your book design process. This is because not as many wide pages will fit side by side on a standard-sized press sheet to be printed in a standard-sized commercial printing press as would fit if they were tall and narrow.)

In addition, intriguing formats work only if they reinforce the message of the book. For instance, a wide-format book (or oblong book) about the harsh but beautiful landscape of Iceland would highlight the wide natural rock formations by the ocean.

A Description of the Cover

The square book my fiancee handed me has a hard cover (it is a casebound book). However, unlike a lot of books, it has both a dust jacket and a cover printed on litho paper laminated to chipboard. (Another common option is fabric glued over chipboard.) Usually fabric covered books (a modern version of the early leather-covered books) include a dust jacket for the cover illustration or photo and then only foil-stamped lettering on the fabric-covered hard case.

In contrast, the book my fiancee handed me has a printed cover and a dust jacket. (It is entitled The Little Big Book of Life, edited by Natasha Fried and Lena Tabori and designed by Jon Glick.) The designer, who was truly inventive, approached the book dust jacket design in the following way. The cover pictures a young boy looking out onto a moonlit ocean. The yellow of the moon is echoed in the gold foil stamping of the title and subtitle.

Beneath the dust jacket, on the hard cover, is a series of four frogs riding bicycles. The images are all the same except each frog and bicycle is larger than the preceding one. This creates a sense of movement across the page. Moreover, the design of the illustration reflects the style and tone of the dust cover art. It also may be what the boy on the dust jacket is thinking about as he looks out onto the moonlit ocean.

The treatment of type on the inside flap of the dust jacket and the spine and front cover of the actual book is consistent, providing a sense of unity to the artwork in spite of the different images (boy vs. frogs). Keep in mind that in most books the dust jacket either contains all the art (if the actual book cover is fabric) or matches the cover, if the actual book cover is printed on a press sheet laminated to the binder’s boards.

In my fiancee’s book, the gold foil stamping I had mentioned on the front of the dust jacket is echoed on the front flap of the dust jacket and the spine of the print book. The effect of this is to lead the reader’s eye from the front of the dust jacket to the front flap of the dust jacket and on to the spine and and front cover of the casebound book. There’s a sense of transition, of movement. And all design, type, and illustration work are consistent with the front cover.

Then there are patterned green endsheets and flyleaves. The colors and patterns are consistent with both the dust jacket illustration and the illustration on the book cover. Finally, the frogs on bicycles reappear (traveling the opposite direction from those on the front cover, starting on the title page and traveling backward onto the left-hand page opposite the title page). There are the same frogs as on the front cover, and the same staggering of the size of the frogs on the bicycles, to provide a sense of depth and movement.

If the book designer stopped here, both my fiancee and I would have had an enjoyable experience without ever reading the book or ever seeing the interior illustrations or the coherence and diversity of the overall print book design.

If you were designing this book, you might have chosen other options, such as a soft cover, with turned edges laminated to a press sheet rather than to chipboard. This would feel like a casebound book, but the cover would be more flexible, less rigid than either fabric or paper laminated to binder’s boards.

Or you may have chosen French flaps, which fold back into the front and back interior covers. These make a perfect-bound book look like a casebound book with a dust jacket. They also provide room for copy, photos, or illustrations on the inside front and inside back covers of the book.

In both of these cases you would have designed an intriguing printed product with a taste of the magic visible in the illustrations.

More Goodies

The book also has an exaggerated, curved spine that bows out nicely. And it includes a fabric ribbon with which to mark your place.

Finally, as I page through the book, I see that every page has been tinted in some way in pastel colors with full bleeds, along with the type and the intensely colorful illustrations. This print book could have been in a different language, one that I couldn’t even read, and I still would have been intrigued. I understand why my fiancee bought it at the thrift store.

So you really can judge a book by its cover.

Moreover, in this day and age, print books often have to compete with e-books for the reader’s attention and money. But a book such as this one goes way beyond anything you can buy for an e-book reader. So when you design a book, and particularly its cover and format, play to the strengths of the print book, those qualities that can’t be duplicated in a non-tactile, electronic medium.

The Takeaway

    1. Look through your bookcases and the bookcases at brick-and-mortar book shops. Find books that grab your attention. Pay no attention to content at this point. Look for unusual sizes, color treatment, interesting illustrations and photos, visual puns, embossing, unusual paper choices or paper coating choices.


  1. Deconstruct the design. Think about the variables such as format, paper choice, choice of binding, cover coatings (dull, gloss, or subtle combinations of both gloss and dull), design grid and typefaces, illustrations, embellishments such as foil stamping and embossing, and additions such as the fabric bookmark.

If you think about it, a memorable book often shares qualities with the oldest leather-bound books of Gutenberg’s time and thereafter.

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