Home : Book Design – Revisiting Classic Layout for Print and EBooks

ipadView2Book design has changed since publishing became a gigantic industry. Typesetting was once performed by trained craftsmen who apprenticed to masters before inking their own plates. Phototypesetting arrived in the 1960s and by the late 1980s, digital publishing transferred the job to a new generation of young, digital artists. Much of the old wisdom got left behind—paved over by the pixel. This article looks at a piece of design history—page layout—and places that history in a practical contemporary context.

Book Design: The Role of History

I bought my first Macintosh in 1987. I remember learning Pagemaker and stumbling over concepts like “leading.” Why not just call it line spacing?  I learned about publishing technology and worked in the field, but it wasn’t until I started teaching college design classes (jobs I got because I knew the software) that I encountered the history of design and its value. My students were talking about Constructivism and the Bauhaus School and Pushpin Studios. I was all about Beziér curves, vector graphics, and the clone tool. The Graphic Design department chair looked me in the eye one day. “Get ready,” she said. “You’re teaching History of Graphic Design next quarter—and you’d better know your shit.”

This was one of the best favors anyone has ever done for me. I started with the present, worked my way back through cave paintings in France, and found myself on an inspiring journey that changed the way I worked and taught. Over the years, I’ve infected a handful of students with my love of design history and seen them win portfolio awards on graduation day. You can’t just pick up a guitar and play the blues; you have to listen to modern day bluesmen and work your way back to Robert Johnston. Design is the same way; without roots it has no soul.

Book Design: Trade Books Suck (Don’t Imitate Them)

Getting off the soapbox and onto the topic at hand, the subject of this article is page layout. Big publishers have sacrificed it to the gods of efficiency. Pick up a book in an antique store and you won’t find half-inch margins. But when you’re printing and shipping 30,000 books, small type, tight leading (called “leading” because line spacing was once adjusted by inserting lead shims between rows of metal type), and narrow page margins save significant ink, paper, and shipping cost. Readers aren’t complaining and publishers are wise to save the money.

But I have picked up so many books and thought That type is so dense! This looks like a chore to read. As I’ve gotten older and made it a habit to always tuck a pair of reading glasses into my shirt collar, I’ve become less forgiving of “efficient” book design. Reading a properly typeset page is a joy—not a job.

typesetting comparison

trade margins (left) vs. classic layout (right)

The tragedy is compounded by POD (print  on demand) and short run publishers who blindly imitate the design aesthetic of trade books, imagining that the similarity between their books and mass-market books will inspire confidence in readers. Herein lies the missed opportunity. So what if your book is 25 pages longer? On a one-book-at-a-time basis, the difference in cost is negligible. Small publishers are not restricted by efficiency requirements. They miss an easy chance to exceed industry standards and release books that are better looking than those offered by the trade.

Book Design: Your Mileage May Vary

Before I offer solutions, let me concede that many people have gotten used to the “trade book aesthetic.” Classic layout appeals to some while appearing outdated and obsolete to others. Regardless of its basis in economics, an argument can be made that half-inch margins are part of contemporary visual language. If you prefer that look and think I’m arguing for the equivalent of reintroducing “thee,” “thy,” and “doth” into modern English, by all means, use any design strategy that pleases you. There is no right or wrong way, but whichever path you choose should be the result of conscious consideration of options.

Book Design: Ideas for Elegant Page Layout

canons of page design

Wikipedia offers an excellent description of Canons of Page Cosntruction, but the explanations are a bit technical. The article discusses various mathematical bases for deriving an “ideal” page layout (that will be of interest mostly to typography geeks) but the unspoken secret is that they all look pretty much the same.

One easy way to apply these is to copy one of the layout diagrams from the article, import it into your layout software, and stretch it to fit a two-page spread of your desired size. Because the gutter (between pages) will swallow some space on the inner edges of your pages, I usually bump the text areas outward about an eight of an inch, but the images on Wikipedia make useful templates.

Tschichold’s “Golden Canon” and Rosarivo’s (right) are described in terms of a page divided up into ninths but the true foundation of this design is sensible, easy to understand, intuitive, and interesting. It’s rooted in a fundamental aesthetic principle: the “rule of thirds.”

Photographers use the rule of thirds to guide their compositions. Images where the subject is centered are static, balanced, and uninteresting. Calculated asymmetry is a classic formula for adding tension and interest to an image. The example photo on the right is composed according to divisions of thirds. It’s balanced but not too balanced. The example on the left is boring because of its symmetry and perfection.


Rosarivo’s and Tschichold’s constructions apply the rule of thirds to book design and add a twist; they divide the thirds into thirds—ninths. In the second example on the right, Rosarivo’s construction shows the page with a grid of ninths superimposed on top.

The text takes up two thirds of the overall width of the page and two thirds of the overall height. This leaves a third for margins in each direction.

The unused third of the page is then divided. Two thirds of the remaining third are used for the bottom and outside margins. One third of the remaining third is used for the inside and top margins.it.

This design works well for traditional print books. It’s based on the premise that the two pages of a spread will balance each other out. As mentioned above, the design does not consider that an eighth-inch or more of the inner margins will disappear into the gutter. Without some adjustment, the final printed pages will look shifted toward the spine. But if you ever picked up a book in an antique store and marveled at how much better it looked, classic layout may very well be what you’re noticing.

Book Design: Classic Layout for eBooks

Ebook designs intended for small screens like phones should probably minimize margins in favor of presenting a reasonable amount of text as comfortably as possible. Phone screens don’t offer enough real estate to squander on luxurious margins, but tablets and desktop screens are well-suited to take advantage of classic layout strategies.

The difference is that usually, only a single eBook page is displayed at a time. How do we use our rule of thirds to display a single page that isn’t part of a two-page spread? The solution is to use the rule of thirds on the vertical axis while centering the text horizontally. Presto! — a one-page, on-screen, classic eBook layout. Such a layout is easily rendered in most viewing devices with basic CSS. Why wouldn’t you?


Book Design: Closing Thoughts on Classic Layout

Big publishers must be forgiven for bending the aesthetics of book design to the requirements of printing and shipping economics, but small publishers have no excuse. When it comes to eBooks, the prevailing design aesthetic is based on the assumption that an eBook is merely a container for data; the value of elegant typography as an important enhancer of the reading experience has been almost universally overlooked. Classic layout offers an ample quantity of text per page while improving readability and allowing the selection of typeface to subtly and invisibly set the tone of the book. Certainly, the layout adds nothing to e-publishers’ costs or the ebook’s file size.

Whether you’re publishing a print edition or an eBook, consider the value of traditional design formulas. Books are hard enough to sell without making them dense, intimidating, and uncomfortable to read. Why not leverage the advantages of POD and short-run publishing to produce beautiful books that big publishers can’t afford to print?


Book Design – Revisiting Classic Layout for Print and EBooks — 9 Comments

  1. Did you look into the impact of book design for ebooks? You mention POD (also printed) but I did not see much of the popular theme of printing for ebook devices such as Kindle or Kobo. Here, users can select the size of their font, so the display is almost dynamic, changing with teh preferred font size of the reader. Any thoughts on this?

    • EBooks are specifically mentioned along with a suggested strategy for CSS at the bottom of the article. I actually have a lot of thoughts on eBooks and typography but I’m still “in the laboratory experimenting with ideas.” Stay tuned.

  2. I’m intrigued that page count doesn’t matter to small and self-publishers. All the POD services I use charge by the page – so 25 extra pages can add up and means you might have to increase prices to cover the cost. Also I recently did a really beautifully designed book for a self-publishing author that came to 238 pages. The author insisted I redo the design, including reducing margins and heading spacing, to bring it closer to 180 pages. With the best will in the world I couldn’t bring it below 200 pages (the original design wasn’t overly spacing, just nicely so), and she agonised over the cost of an “extra” 20 pages. Apart from print cost, it adds to weight and therefore postage costs. Perhaps these are uniquely Australian concerns where our printing and postage is much higher than in the US.

    On ebooks, I find you can spend a lot of time on design which is overridden by the ebook reading device – not just from the default view – particularly when it comes to page and paragraph margins, not to mention fonts.

    • If your goal is strictly to retail books, think of your book as a commodity and try to be efficient. But if prospective customer user has your book in-hand and is on the fence about buying, consider whether an “inviting” feel to the text might not tip the scales in your favor. The reader probably doesn’t care if you charge an extra dollar for a book; books are cheap regardless. Given the low profit margin on a $20 book, you can probably buy the same cup of coffee with your per-book royalties if the book brings on a tad less revenue. When you consider the fixed costs of flat-rate shipping on the low end and that big distributors ship by the boxcar-load, the differences in freight cost are also negligible. I’m sometimes surprised when people buy my books without even asking what they’re about; they see them, open them, and want to own them.

      I withdrew my paperbacks from the market; they don’t represent the way I want to be perceived as a writer. For an extra $5 I can deliver a cloth bound, foil-stamped, beautifully typeset, hardcover book. Why wouldn’t I?

      I’m an indie writer who will likely never sell books in large quantities; I can think of a million things I’d rather do than waste my time selling $20 retail products and at least a few of those uses of my time are guaranteed to be more lucrative. Every hour I spend marketing books takes me away from my studio where I can bill hours. Writing is pleasure. Book design is a joy. Publishing is an adventure. But I don’t spend much time worrying about whether I’ll make $5 profit on a book or whether my added pages will suck a dollar of that away. And if I ever have the high-class problem of having to print in volume, a switch from POD to offset printing will widen my profit margin more than a cramped design.

  3. What a pleasure to find other “typography geeks”! When I try to explain what’s “wrong” with a publication or ad’s layout, or what would be more esthetically pleasing to a reader’s eye to family or friends … well, their eyes are almost spinning. Anything that makes reading seem a “chore” is actually counterproductive!

  4. What a cool breeze of elegance to relieve the hot air of frantic hype we indie publishers and authors are sweating through now. Thank you for making sense and standing up for quality. Many winters before digital, excited by the type designer’s art, I ran across some of this. I recall tasting the thrill of Albrecht Duerer’s serif breakthrough of insight. If there’s an Edward Rolf Tufte Award, I nominate you.

  5. Since I got my iPad last week I am, for the first time in my very digital life, considering reading digital books.

    But I will always prefer print. And I will always prefer print properly proportioned, artistically designed rather then financially constrained. I try not to be frustrated when my clients look at the interior design I’ve created for their books and say “but it doesn’t look like a normal book.”

    I particularly appreciate your point that print on demand allows us to exceed the aesthetic employed by traditional publishing. For a few cents per copy, why would we not?

  6. Wow, Dave! Once again you’ve written a brilliantly researched article on a topic not many people seem to be considering these days. As a book production professional myself, I certainly appreciate the time and care you’ve taken to write this post—as well as to hunt down and provide the engaging examples.

    I admit, I’m one of those typography geeks, but I believe that comes in handy when working with self-publishing authors as I do. Someone needs to be looking out for the author’s and book’s best interest when it comes to beautiful, appropriate layout and design, and it’s nice to know there are professionals like you (and me) who care enough to make it a priority. I, too, pick up big house books sometimes and wonder how the book designer could have chosen the font he or she did, not to mention the line spacing or margins. Sometimes the density of the type is an actual detraction, neglecting to provide the seamless reading experience it should.

    With that I say: Long live the legacy of traditional publishing—which can be maintained beautifully, even in POD, with the appropriate attention to the vital details. 🙂

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