Book Design Basics Part 1: Margins and Leading

book designerBook design is a lost art. Though book design dis­cus­sions usu­ally focus on cov­ers, con­sider how much more time a reader spends star­ing at the text. An ele­gant book block is just as impor­tant. Decades ago, pro­fes­sional trades­men prac­ticed the fine art of type­set­ting. Today, book design is often exe­cuted (pun intended) by ama­teurs. As easy as it is to set type, many fine points of typog­ra­phy are com­monly over­looked. Fortunately, for the design-aware, dig­i­tal tools like Adobe InDesign make it pos­si­ble to pro­duce pages that aspire to the old stan­dards of hot metal type. This is the first of a series of arti­cles offer­ing book design tips to help pol­ish your pages.

Sacrificing com­fort­able mar­gins is unfor­tu­nately a good busi­ness deci­sion, even if it’s a bad design deci­sion. As the book indus­try has grown, page mar­gins have shrunk. Text is packed ever more tightly onto the page. Why? A big pub­lisher may print 30,000 copies of a new author’s book. That’s a huge finan­cial risk. If more text can be fit on each page, the print run uses less paper and less ink, result­ing in huge savings.

Fortunately, self-publishers don’t have this prob­lem because print-on-demand (POD) allows for the pro­duc­tion of one book at a time. Using clas­sic mar­gins and print­ing a few more pages per book adds neg­li­gi­ble cost while giv­ing POD pub­lish­ers a com­pet­i­tive edge.

Book Design Tip: Margins

Page Margins make a dif­fer­ence because cer­tain shapes and pro­por­tions are nat­u­rally pleas­ing to the eye. These have pro­vided a his­tor­i­cal back­bone for clas­sic archi­tec­ture and were adopted by type­set­ters as early as the 1400s. A page with a well-proportioned and well-positioned block of text is per­ceived to be at rest. Removing ten­sion from the design allows the reader’s focus to return to the mean­ing of the text.

Wider Margins not only bring visual har­mony to the page, they pro­vide space for those who like to anno­tate the text and a place for read­ers to rest their thumbs with­out cov­er­ing up the words.

Line Width is another impor­tant book design con­sid­er­a­tion. We read by tak­ing in groups of 3–4 words at a time. The aver­age book has 2–4 word groups per line. Text set in wide line widths becomes dif­fi­cult to read because it’s more dif­fi­cult for the eye to keep track of where it is in the text. That’s why news­pa­pers use nar­row, sin­gle columns; to facil­i­tate faster and eas­ier read­ing. The rela­tion­ship between mar­gins and line width is obvi­ous; wider mar­gins mean nar­rower line width. The rule of thumb is 65 char­ac­ters per line, but ideal length can vary with choice of type­face and with the writ­ing itself. Writers who use long words or lan­guages like Spanish or German can find their work frag­mented by dozens of unwanted hyphens if type­face, type size and mar­gin sizes aren’t balanced.

White Space lets a design “breathe.” Seen as a sin­gle unit, a block of text has a cer­tain den­sity. Viewed out of focus, it appears as a dark gray rec­tan­gle within the white rec­tan­gle of the page. Dark and light areas of the page should be in har­mony. If the page is too dense, it feels heavy; the page cre­ates ten­sion. Ultrawide mar­gins feel lux­u­ri­ous and are often used in adver­tis­ing design, but they don’t do much to help with the prac­ti­cal task of get­ting enough text on the page to effi­ciently and effec­tively con­vey the mean­ing of the text. Balanced book design is important.

According to Richard Hendel in On Book Design,

In books of text meant for con­tin­u­ous read­ing, fac­ing pages should be posi­tioned in rela­tion to each other such that the reader thinks of them as a sin­gle unit. The gut­ter margin—the mar­gin by the spine—is there­fore smaller than the front margin—the mar­gin oppo­site the gut­ter, so that the two fac­ing blocks of text are close together and the space to the out­side of them is greater. The top mar­gin is smaller than the bot­tom mar­gin, which is the largest of all. The large bot­tom mar­gin is another of those con­ven­tions of ideal Renaissance pro­por­tion that we now think of as rules. The text block that sits square in the cen­ter of the page can look arbi­trar­ily placed. Books with large top mar­gins and small bot­tom mar­gins some­times feel as though they have met with some mishap at the bindery.

Typographers have devel­oped sev­eral Canons of Page Construction. Many have arrived at sim­i­lar con­clu­sions by dif­fer­ent means. Though it’s dif­fi­cult to explain why one specif­i­cally pro­por­tioned rec­tan­gle is more uni­ver­sally pleas­ing to the eye than another, cen­turies of suc­cess­ful appli­ca­tion sup­port the idea. A com­mon form for clas­sic art and archi­tec­ture is the “golden ratio” of 1:1.618. To imple­ment the golden ratio, sim­ply cre­ate a rec­tan­gu­lar box in your draw­ing or page lay­out pro­gram 1 inch wide x 1.618 inches tall. Scale the rec­tan­gle up pro­por­tion­ately to pre­serve the rela­tion­ship between width and height

The J.A. Van de Graaf Canon is a book design based on the “golden ratio” and a sur­vey of medieval man­u­scripts. It works for any page size, and enables the book designer to posi­tion the text body in a spe­cific area of the page. The black, angled lines pro­vide insights into the geom­e­try Van de Graaf used to posi­tion the red text blocks but in today’s dig­i­tal world, things are eas­ier. Download the SVG file or the high-resolution PNG file, import the design into a two-spread mas­ter page and adjust mar­gins accordingly.

Van de Graaf canon in book design

Van de Graaf canon

The great typog­ra­pher, Jan Tschichold, pro­posed a sim­pler set of guides for posi­tion­ing and siz­ing a golden rec­tan­gle on the page. The results of Tschichold’s Golden Section Canon are iden­ti­cal to the Van de Graaf Canon but much eas­ier to con­struct by draw­ing a few guide lines on the page.

Tschichold's Golden Section Canon
Tschichold’s Golden Section Canon

When plan­ning mar­gins, remem­ber that a book spread isn’t flat. A cer­tain amount of paper will dis­ap­pear into the gut­ter where the pages are attached to the book’s spine. Even when fol­low­ing stan­dard print­ers’ guide­lines (Lightning Source spec­i­fies ¾ inch mar­gins all around the page), I like to move my text boxes an extra 1/8” out­ward from the gut­ter. Though this would seem to go against the con­ven­tion of hav­ing larger out­side mar­gins than inside mar­gins, enough of the inside is swal­lowed by the gut­ter to make up the difference.

Waves Page Layout Using Tchichold's Canon
Waves Page Layout Using Tchichold’s Golden Section Canon

Of course, not all book design needs such spa­cious mar­gins or for­mu­laic approaches. Before you type­set your book, drop a text box full of sam­ple text into a page spread. Play with mar­gin spec­i­fi­ca­tions until you achieve a bal­ance that works.

Book Design Tip: Leading

Leading (pro­nounced “led­ding”) is the typographer’s word for line spac­ing, named for the lead shims that were once inserted between rows of type­set char­ac­ters. Possibly, you have played with the con­trols in your word proces­sor and seen how text looks with sin­gle or dou­ble line spac­ing selected? Manuscripts are gen­er­ally cre­ated double-spaced, not only so edi­tors have a place to write com­ments above the text, but because they’re eas­ier to read that way. Convention sug­gests a lead­ing value of 50%—that’s 50% larger than (1.5 times the size of) your cho­sen type­face. In other words, if you’re using 12-point type, start with 18 point lead­ing. From there, make fine adjust­ments to account for the type­face itself. I like to set a full block of text with my selected type­face and type size, then expand the lead­ing so the last line sits per­fectly on the bot­tom of the text box.

Here are sam­ples of 12 point Centaur Regular set to dif­fer­ent lead­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Type sizes and lead­ing are com­monly spec­i­fied with a slash between them. 12-point type at 18-point lead­ing is notated as 12/18.

Examples of Text Leading

Examples of Text Leading

Notice how the tight lead­ing looks tense, intim­i­dat­ing and dif­fi­cult to read? The val­ues in the mid­dle feel com­fort­able. Once we get to 100% lead­ing (12/24), the text starts to fall apart; our eyes have to jump too far from one line to another.

When in doubt about mar­gins, lead­ing or other impor­tant typo­graph­i­cal ele­ments, defer to a trained eye. Even if you’re a do-it-yourself pub­lisher on a bud­get, a capa­ble designer likely won’t charge much to help you develop some type spec­i­fi­ca­tions for your book. That sim­ple guid­ance can make a huge dif­fer­ence in the book’s final appearance.


The com­plete Book Design Basics series:

Book Design Basics Part 1: Margins and Leading
Book Design Basics Part 2: Optical Margins, Indents and Periods
Book Design Basics Part 3: Running The Numbers
Book Design Basics Part 4: Dashes, Hyphens and Dots
Book Design Basics Part 5: Small Capitals – Avoiding Capital Offenses
Book Design Basics Part 6: Drop-caps and Initial Impressions
Book Design Basics Part 7: Use Hyphens for Justified Type
Book Design Basics Part 8: Fine Control Over Justified Type
Book Design Basics Part 9: Simulating the Appearance of Traditional Print
Book Design Basics Part 10: Page Layout: Illustrated Books and the Rule of Thirds
Book Design Basics Part 11: Book Cover Design: Moving from Screen to Printing Press
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Book Design Basics Part 1: Margins and Leading — 11 Comments

  1. Really wanted to use the golden ratio to lay out the inte­rior of my book, but those mar­gins are ridicu­lous. I could see lay­ing out a cof­fee table book like that, but not a novel.

      • Looks nice, but too much wasted space. That’s why you won’t find a mass mar­ket novel with this lay­out. I under­stand the esthet­ics. Just not practical.

        • I agree. As stated in the arti­cle, “A big pub­lisher may print 30,000 copies of a new author’s book. That’s a huge finan­cial risk. If more text can be fit on each page, the print run uses less paper and less ink, result­ing in huge savings.”

  2. Stumbled across this while look­ing at Golden Ratio the­ory for book cover design (iron­i­cally enough, con­sid­er­ing your sec­ond sen­tence). Not exactly what I was look­ing for, but as I’m adven­tur­ing in POD right now, very very cool info. Bookmarked! Thanks.

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