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Book Printing: Designing for Print vs. the Screen

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A colleague of mine edits and designs print books for the World Bank, NATO, and several other government agencies. This week she mentioned her frustration in designing a physical book that will be repurposed as a book for online reading in Nairobi, at least on a computer and possibly on a handheld device as well.

Clearly there are a number of differences in design (both technical and aesthetic) that need to be addressed for this to provide an optimal reading experience. In my colleague’s case, for instance, a physical book designed to be read in two-page spreads will be much larger in format (and the design will be more complex, including charts and graphs as well as photos) than an ebook or a document to be read on a tablet or smartphone.

In addition, readers in Nairobi might not be able to access especially large files (in terms of storage space and/or required computer memory) for the online version of the print book my colleague is designing.

Specific Design Differences

Right off the top of my head here are some things to consider.

There will be differences in computer programs (and devices) used, differences in page formats and image resolution, differences in reader eye movements around the physical book page vs. web page vs. ebook page, and differences in reading backlit computer screens vs. reading text illuminated by reflected ambient light (for physical books).

And yet on the positive side, there will be the opportunity on digital reading devices to incorporate video and audio (as an alternative to the missing tactile qualities only available in physical books).

For instance, one designs a print book in double-page spreads. The reader’s eye can travel across and around a larger space than in an ebook or on a web page (both of which are usually designed for optimal reading on either a small vertical screen or a larger horizontal screen but, unlike print books, usually not as a two-page spread).

Therefore, if the goal is to move the reader’s eye through a double-page spread and on to successive, similarly designed pages, this becomes much harder with an ebook or web page (especially when you take into consideration needing to navigate the links to other pages inherent in a computer-based publication).

The bottom line is that the design and pacing will always be different when you compare a print book to an ebook or web page.

Book design becomes even more challenging when you design one publication for use as both a physical book and an ebook. For instance, the books my colleague produces for NATO and The World Bank often must be viewable online as well as in print.

In this case, my colleague might have two choices. She could save the finished print book as a PDF file, which would be readable on a desktop or laptop computer, computer tablet, cell phone, or ebook reader. Unfortunately, although the design would be faithful to the original (printed on paper), in most cases the reader would need to scroll around the two-page-spread design (even if the book pages were saved independently). And since the reader’s view on many of the devices (in other parts of the world) would be much, much smaller than the 8.5″ x 11″ (give or take) format in which the physical book had been originally designed, the overall effect of the design would be compromised on an electronic reader.

Of course, the alternative would be for my colleague to create a completely different design for the ebook. However, in many cases given the number of ebook formats and the plethora of e-reader devices, there would be a likelihood of formatting problems occurring (for instance, problems in anchoring drop capital letters to paragraphs, or problems with anchoring photos or charts to a particular page or paragraph, or even general problems with type formatting not appearing as planned).

Beyond this, the nature of an e-reader is to allow the user to change the font, point size, and other text attributes. What this means is that the designer’s vision of a particular publication, which had originally been fixed and immutable in a physical book, may be very fluid on a computer or e-reader (and beyond the control of the book designer), and this will make it a very different design challenge.

In addition, photos for print books need to be saved at a much higher resolution (300 dpi rather than the 72 dpi that is adequate for the web or ebooks). Anything of a higher resolution used on a computer (web page or e-reader) will slow down the computer’s displaying the page. But in a physical book, anything of a lower resolution than 300 dpi will look fuzzy or will have pixellation.

In addition, designing for the internet or an ebook cannot take advantage of any tactile characteristics inherent in a physical book, such as the smoothness of a soft-touch matte film laminate or a foil stamp, or the roughness of an uncoated book paper. On a computer, these are irrelevant to the reading experience, whereas when reading a print book, the feel of the paper is an important component of the overall experience.

Finally, a publication designed for reading on the internet or an e-reader depends on a backlit screen, whereas a print book only depends on reflected, ambient light for reading. Reading text on a backlit screen tires the eyes. Granted, many of the e-readers with less contrast between the text and the gray background will minimize this eye fatigue, but overall the reading of electronic matter is more tiring to the eyes than the reading of printed matter.

Therefore, many if not most people don’t actually read web pages and e-books. They scan them, taking less time to absorb individual words and/or just plain skipping words. So the medium actually changes the reading process as well as the reader’s approach to absorbing the design and navigating an e-book page, web page, online brochure, etc.

In this light I have seen online periodicals (over the years) that have sought to replicate the page-turning approach to reading a print book or magazine. You can see two pages side by side, and you can click on a specific location on a page to enlarge it. Moreover, since one of the features of an online publication is the ability to include links to video or audio, such online publications can set themselves apart from physical books in these new ways as well. (As with physical books, it’s prudent to play to the strengths of the medium when designing computer-based publications as well.)

I’ve also seen combined designs incorporating both printed text and computer imagery. One in particular comes to mind that had a physical book attached to the left side of a two-panel folder and a small, flat computer screen attached to the right panel. I believe it contained a sales message for a high-end graphic novel for adults. By incorporating both the benefits of print and the benefits of electronic reading devices (such as sound and video), this promotional device made for a completely immersive experience. The only thing that would have improved the experience would have been a link to a virtual reality program, which I assume would have been included in future iterations of the device (it was a number of years ago).

Presumably the future of the ebook (or web page) and the print book will be for both electronic media and print media to continue to coexist, with each requiring different approaches to design and navigation, and with each offering specific benefits the other lacks (sound and movement for the computer-based publication and physical qualities like paper texture for physical books).

The Takeaway

So what can you do with this information as graphic designers, presumably designing for both print publications and electronic reading devices?

  1. If at all possible, design a different publication for each medium. Don’t expect a print product posted online to be as readable as the original paper version.
  2. Simplify the design for online reading.
  3. Present small chunks of content online (use short paragraphs and bullet points, for instance).
  4. Find websites you like and deconstruct the design. Think about how the designer used colors and fonts. Think about how how the website leads the reader’s eye through one screen, through an entire (scrolled-down) page, and from one linked page to another. Do the same kind of analysis for an ebook product. Think about how you can present small chunks of information and imagery in such a way that the reader will know what is of major importance and what is of minor importance.
  5. Do the same for books, brochures, and other printed products.
  6. Now the hard one. Think of how you can visually relate a print product to a web page or to a digital version of a book. Think about the fonts, colors, imagery. What can you do to make the print design and the electronic design coherent, such that they will present a single brand image?
  7. Now discuss the technical ramifications of what you are doing with a savvy computer geek to determine the computer requirements and the potential pitfalls.
  8. Good luck. If you can do this well, you’ll be in consummately high demand as a designer.

2 Responses to “Book Printing: Designing for Print vs. the Screen”

  1. Robert Thorpe says:

    Please take me off your E-mail list, I’m retired from the trade.

    • admin says:


      I have forwarded this to the publisher. If you are not taken off the list, please let me know. Thank you.



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