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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: An Approach to Book Page-Spread Design

Photo purchased from …

My first job straight out of college, back in 1980, was editor-in-chief of a small community newspaper. I made almost no money, but that was ok because it was great fun and a tremendous learning experience. I even sold ads, laid out the paper, and delivered 50,000 copies of the tabloid every two weeks.

I had spent all four years of college and two years of high school in publications, but almost exclusively from a writing and photography perspective, doing theater reviews and interviews for the college newspaper, managing yearbook production every year, and coordinating an off-campus magazine focused on Catholic parents. (I was neither, interestingly enough.) I also produced a literary magazine sponsored by a local church.

But the reason this may be pertinent to you is that other than simple magazine and newspaper layout (taping photocopies of type columns on pre-ruled paper for the paste-up artists to follow in preparing camera-ready art), I didn’t have to make any design decisions. All I had to do was position photos (one column, two column), text at a predetermined size, and advertisements on a grid system. Therefore, I didn’t need much design skill, nor did I have much design knowledge or experience at the time.

I would venture to guess that a number of you designing print books, brochures, and such are in a similar position, perhaps having entered publications management first as a writer or editor, and then having absorbed all responsibilities for company publications (writing, editing, design, and print buying).

Editing by Design

Early in my publications management history (in my second job designing and copyediting print books for a government education non-profit foundation), I discovered a design-education print book by Jan White entitled Editing by Design. I would encourage you to buy this book. It was a watershed moment in my professional life back in the early ‘80s when I found my first copy.

Editing by Design has no photos. All artwork consists of hand-drawn thumbnail layouts of book pages. These actually become supremely interesting if you’re trying to learn page layout for book printing, because Jan White gives you a handful of rules, which you can learn and then break as you become more fluent in the discipline. But no other print book I’ve found is as good a primer on the subject.

Contrast: An Element of Design

Since the book is an inch thick I have decided to randomly select a few rules to highlight in this article, perhaps as a teaser so you’ll buy the print book.

One of the tools of both publications page design and fine art drawing/painting/sculpture is contrast. Things look big because they are placed next to things that are small. Things look more important in contrast with things that are either less interesting or totally consistent in appearance.

Here are some examples from Editing by Design.

Jan White notes the contrast between a page spread with a large photo on the left (bleeding off all sides to appear larger than the page size and also bleeding several inches onto the facing right-hand page) and a right-hand page with a large headline surrounded with lots of white space, a drop cap, and some text. These are followed by a few page spreads with a simple three-column design for the running text. Maybe there is a pull quote in the center column of one of the text-only page spreads.

You have seen this overall design in many magazines and print books.

In this simple layout of maybe three consecutive page spreads, your reader knows exactly what’s important. The initial large photo grabs the reader both visually and emotionally (if the content of the photo is exciting). The contrast in size between the dramatic photo and the “body copy” of text on the following pages presents the reader with a hierarchy of importance.

On the initial page spread, your reader’s eye travels from the large photo on the left onto the following right-hand page because the photo bleeds several inches onto this page. Then, if you have included a large headline above the three columns of type and maybe even a large drop cap at the beginning of the first paragraph, your reader will know exactly where to go first, second, and third. Large photo, headline, drop cap, text.

For the successive text-only pages, with a pull quote in the center of the middle column (let’s say that it is set in 14 pt type, and the body copy for the three-column layout is 10 or 11 pt), the contrast in type size will make the pull quote stand out. Your reader’s eye will go immediately to this text.

Your reader wants this direction. Otherwise, she/he has to decide what is most important, of secondary importance, of tertiary importance, etc., and this will slow down the reading process.

And to go back to the original premise, this is all based on contrast, primarily a contrast of type size (and therefore of visual weight). Contrast helps provide a road map of importance that leads the reader’s eye through and around the page.

Other Kinds of Contrast

If you look further through Jan White’s book, Editing by Design, things get a little spicier.

One hand-drawn example shows a very narrow stack of lines of type on the left-hand page, set justified, at maybe 14 pt type, with lots of leading. On the right-hand page, there are three columns of body copy (just the running text of the book) and another pull quote in the center column.

Because the stack of lines of type on the left is narrow, it is surrounded by a sea of unused white paper. Therefore, the reader’s eye goes directly to this block of copy after reading the prior page spread (photo with bleeds, headline, initial cap, running body copy). It is the contrast between a simple rectangular shape containing only a few lines of copy and the vast amount of surrounding, unused white space that makes for a dramatic page spread and also for a road map the reader’s eye can follow. The few lines of type are the most important design element. The pull quote is the second most important. Then the reader can digest the three columns of running body copy, a sea of gray on the white page.

It is the contrast in presentation, as well as the size of the groupings of information, that separates each design element from the others and indicates the level of importance of each.

Or here’s another example from Jan White’s book. Large is only large because something nearby is small. An image of a huge face on a right-hand page looks much larger if the image on the facing left-hand page is a full-body (but significantly smaller) image of the same person. (Let’s assume that on this book page spread the large photo on the right bleeds on all sides and the much smaller photo on the facing page is surrounded by a sea of gray (body copy set in the normal column width in three columns running from the top of the page to the bottom of the page).

If you think about this, one level of contrast is the regularity of the columns of body copy (that are always the same width, and maybe justified) compared to the more varied facing page. There is a rhythm in their regularity, randomly punctuated by the larger images. Point and counter point.

Making images larger than life works in the same way. One page spread in Editing by Design includes a sketch of a coffee cup up near the headline and surrounded by columns of body copy. The coffee cup is actually larger than life size, and because of this it stands out and looks huge. You can use this concept to make something really jump out. Just make it larger than life.

Another drawing of a print book page spread in Editing by Design contains an image of a hand on the left-hand page with a butterfly alighting on one of its fingers. The photo, which is a silhouette, jumps the gutter onto the right-hand page, and a finger extends into the first of two columns of body copy. Due to the size of the hand (again, larger than life), the eye goes immediately to this image and then follows the finger across the gutter and directly to the columns of type the reader needs to absorb next.

So it’s all about contrast of size:

    1. The large and varied image contrasted with the sea of gray body copy.


    1. The larger than life-size image of the hand contrasted with the reader’s expectation of a life-size or smaller photo.


  1. The abundant white space surrounding the silhouette of the hand (as opposed to a regular square-edge photo) contrasted with the rectangle of gray, unvaried body copy.

And this series of contrasts does two things. It simplifies the organization of the page, grouping visual elements together (the hand and butterfly, the columns of text) and identifying their levels of importance and the order in which they should be viewed or read.

The Takeaway

Incorporate this approach into your own print book page design work, and your reader will love you.

But how, you may say, can you learn to do this? The way I have learned over the years has been to identify everything I really, really like (all the books, brochures, posters, and such) and articulate what they do well. So in your own design work, find the design grid (number of columns and where they are placed), note the typeface and type size, and perhaps the use of color. And consider what other graphic approaches the designer has used to lead the reader’s eye along a predetermined path around the two-page (not one-page) spread.

Then go to an art museum and notice how paintings (for instance) do exactly the same thing.

Practice makes perfect. It’s a lifetime process. But if you love learning, it can be an enjoyable journey.

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