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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: A Page-Design Case Study

A dear friend of mine from college designs print books. She used to be an editor. Now she both edits and designs textbooks and annual reports for government organizations and NGOs (non-government organizations). She’s a great designer, self-taught, so sometimes she will run a book design past me asking for advice.

The Sample Annual Report

My friend sent me cover samples of an annual report last week. To give you an idea of the design issues she and I discussed, picture an 8.5” x 11” format print book with a vertical, teal bar running down the left half of the cover (or slightly less than one-half). Out of this vertical color bar, at the bottom left side of the book, she reversed the title, set in four lines in a simple sans serif typeface. Immediately to the right of the title, on the white bar that comprised the remainder of the cover (excluding the image), she printed the year of the annual report, vertically, in teal type.

Starting immediately above the title, my friend the designer devised a picture box containing an image of roads and other infrastructure (the focus of the organization addressed in the annual report). The picture box started out very wide and then swooshed around like a ribbon of road on a map, crossing from the vertical, teal bar onto the white remainder of the cover. Near the endpoint of the swoosh, within the white vertical space, my friend the designer set the government organization’s logo, which also contained a teal, white, and black color scheme.

An Analysis of the Design

What concerned me at first about the overall design (since I had been asked to comment) was that the photo seemed to have been an after-thought. The page seemed to be a geometric treatment into which almost any photo could have been inserted.

The designer told me she had been reviewing annual report covers on the Internet to get ideas. She noted that this was the current vogue. While we were on the phone I Googled “annual report covers” and found that all sample images were almost exactly alike (and my friend’s version fit right in with the trend). Although I would have preferred a focus on the content of the image, with text positioned as supplemental information, the designer had considered the graphic context, and had created her design in a similar vein.

One thing I neglected to mention was the dark blue shadow my friend had included along the bottom of the picture box (the swoosh that gave the feel of a hilly road winding off into the distance). The blue shadow, crossing from the teal background on the left into the white background on the right, visually linked both sides of the cover design while drawing the reader’s eye directly up toward the government organization’s logo.

Elements That Worked in the Design

I liked the balance of the design. The small logo in the upper right corner, in an otherwise empty field of white, drew attention to itself. It also balanced the text block in the lower left corner, the title of the annual report. I liked the way the reversed lines that comprised the title of the annual report contrasted the vertical treatment of the year. In addition, all text in this area hung together in a simple rectangular space, as did the logo in the upper right. This is one reason they balanced each other.

There was almost a feel of a Yin/Yang symbol in the design, with white text reversed out of teal on the left and teal surprinted over the white background on the right side of the print book. The flowing swoosh that was the picture box further echoed this Yin/Yang feel (in addition to alluding to the flowing nature of a hilly road).

All of this was effective because the designer had simplified the overall shapes of the design into a few simple rectangles that balanced one another, plus the contrasting shape of the swoosh. All of this resembles an approach one would take to creating an abstract painting, as well as a design for an annual report cover. A few text boxes aligned on only a few horizontal and vertical axes created a bold, simple cover treatment.

The Designer’s Question About the Interior Pages

My friend the designer asked a question about the ragged bottoms of the interior-page columns. She had designed a page grid with flush left/ragged right columns.

I suggested that she not align the bottoms of the columns exactly. In fact, having them almost align would look worse than having a rhythm of columns ending in an up/down, staggered fashion. I said the ragged right, informal nature of the columns of type would lend itself to this treatment, and the approach would give the outside margins of the double-page spread a more relaxed sensibility with more white space. It would also relieve my friend of the need to make everything align exactly (which could be problematic).

For the final pages of chapters or sections, however, I suggested that she position the two short columns side by side (not necessarily aligning, but reasonably even). I also suggested that my friend the designer print out the cover and a few text pages, lay them on the table and look at them, just to see whether they seemed to flow, one into the other—that is, to see whether the overall design carried from the cover through the first few pages of the print book.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. Think in terms of margins and alignment when you’re creating a cover for a print book. Create a simple pattern, then simplify it further.
  2. When you have a pattern, a visual rhythm, add a little contrast.
  3. Try to have the design reflect the content (like the shape of the road on the cover reflected the fact that the government organization in question provided roads and other infrastructure to developing countries).
  4. Make sure the design of the cover flows into the design of the interior. Print out pages, look for recurring design elements, and add more if necessary to provide cohesion between the cover and interior, and among the interior sections.
  5. Look at what other designers have created (Google is useful for this analysis). Find ways to make your design fit in, but also find ways to make it unique—often a daunting task.

4 Responses to “Book Printing: A Page-Design Case Study”

  1. Alex says:

    Some very valuable points here. My favourite has to be number 3. Making a design match the content of whatever is being printing is a great tool to build a picture for whoever is reading the material. Overall its worth making sure that when you do print something you put the effort into designing it well as this will help to maximise the worth you gain from any money you invest in printing.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you completely. What distinguishes great design from lesser design is that every aspect of the visual presentation reinforces the editorial meaning of the piece. It’s really hard to do, but it’s worth the effort. Now when I see a well-designed publication, poster, or whatever, I am far more likely to be interested in the content and to remember it. And I think the best way to learn how to do this is to study printed pieces that click for you, that you want to keep forever. I have a swipe file of my own, and sometimes I just look through the samples and see what I can learn. It goes beyond the typeface, design grid, and treatment of the images and touches on paper choices (brightness, whiteness, surface texture, coating). Even the binding makes a difference. A well-designed piece can sell, persuade, educate, or do anything else better. It’s worth the time as well as the money.

  2. I just like the helpful info you supply on your articles.
    I will bookmark your weblog and take a look at once more right here regularly.

    I’m reasonably certain I will be told plenty of new stuff proper here!
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    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you find the blog helpful. Keep coming back and checking out the website.

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