Book Design for Beginners: A Brief Overview

by Nina Hoeschele

Published at 2012-08-23

This summer, I rounded out my Ryerson Publishing credentials with my final course in the certificate program: Book Design. A daunting challenge for someone who works mostly with words, but one I was hoping to master. Art-making is familiar to me, but design is quite a separate beast; art can be chaotic and spontaneous, but in design, functionality and effectiveness are paramount.

There are far too many topics under the umbrella of book design to even dream of covering in one blog post. (Perhaps a sequel is in order?) For now, consider this an overview of a novice’s first learning experience in the world of book design.
Design Basics
When we talk about designing books, the first thing that comes to my mind is the cover. The old adage about not judging a book by its cover is not going to be helpful here; the fact is, if you’re a book in a bookstore competing for a buyer’s attention, you’d better hope your cover isn’t drab.
Then, of course, there’s the interior design. This includes the more obvious concerns about layout as well as type design, which is far more important than you might think. The type of font you choose, as well as the amount of space between the lines (called “leading”) and the individual letters (“tracking”), can drastically alter how pleasant the text is to read.
Clearly there is a lot to learn about here. Fortunately, my class had a seasoned book designer as a professor to show us the ropes.
After equipping us with the key principles of design—and running us through a tutorial in the complex functions of InDesign, the industry’s standard design program—our instructor set us loose to experiment, both with covers and interiors. This approach was effective; design theory is nothing without design practice, so getting your hands into it is the best way to grasp the concepts.
Design Projects
Our three major assignments ran the gamut of design problems: first, we had to create an interesting design for a black-and-white, text-only book of speeches; second, we had to create a cover for a novel with (in my opinion) an incredibly bad title; and finally, we had to take an existing book (or one of our own invention) and redesign it, front to back.
The first assignment was definitely the most daunting for me—how on earth are you supposed to be visually interesting with nothing but text? Plenty of ways, as it turns out. You can play with your font choices and craft interesting relationships by choosing fonts that either complement or contrast each other (but not too many at once!); you can create interest and direct the eye with spacing and alignment; and you can jazz things up with columns and text boxes, if you so choose. What was utterly amazing in the end was the variety of final products; among the course’s 25 students, no two projects were alike.
The cover assignment was a good exercise in limitations. When designing a cover, you only know so much about the book’s contents, yet you need something that’s accurately representative of them—not to mention visually enticing to the reader. And the principles of type design apply equally in this process; your book’s not going to get very far if the title is hard to read.
The final assignment was the culmination of the many things we’d learned over the months: our design had to incorporate the book’s cover, half-title and title pages, table of contents, a number of interior page spreads, and the index. Weeks were spent fiddling, revising, commenting on each other’s work, and revising some more. We also had the benefit of our instructor’s feedback to help identify issues in our designs.
My major issue, as it turns out, is space. I chose to redesign a travel guide of Scotland (one that got me through three weeks of ill-planned backpacking at age 18, and thus is close to my heart, but was never that pretty to look at)—and, with so much information, I had trouble resisting the urge to cram things together. Let me demonstrate a few of the many tweaks my work required...
Just below is the first draft of one of my two-page spreads. My classmates and instructor pointed out that the text box and the headings were a bit cramped. The instructor also noted that the “where to stay & dine” headings were not well “tied in” to the rest of the text.
Here is the second draft.  Note how more space and more attention to the style of the headings make everything much clearer:
And then there was the table of contents—much more complicated than you’d expect. In the sample below, I thought the alignment would make the page numbers stand out, but it turned out to be confusing—as you can see, particularly under chapters 2 and 3, the first column's numbers were often much closer to the second column than to the information they actually represented.
Once the feedback was in, I made some improvements:
Much better!
Though I’m no design genius, I left this course feeling much more comfortable with design principles and software than I expected. For a practical skill like design, there’s nothing like doing, and this course gave us a great opportunity to get our hands dirty.