Page layout programs like Adobe Indesign and Quark, allow typographers to exert fine control over justified text to remove gaps and “rivers.” The default settings produce “pretty good” results—better than a word processor—but a few small tweaks will dramatically improve the spacing of your text. This article explains how to balance hyphenation settings with word spacing, letter spacing, and glyph scaling to optimize the appearance of justified text.
My last “Book Design Basics” post discussed the importance of hyphenation settings. These should be adjusted to suit the line width and the purpose of the text. A long legal disclaimer in small print in a narrow box can often be set without regard to how many hyphens are required to produce consistent spacing. Body text is likely to be a compromise based mostly on one group of settings. A short blurb on the back of a book cover should be poked and prodded until spacing and hyphenation are ideal. This article explains how to combine hyphenation and justification settings to achieve optimal results.
Disclosure: If you’re reading this article, you’re probably working on your own next book and don’t care about mine (selling books to writers is like selling boxed lunches at a chef’s convention). At the risk of appearing self-promotional, I’m using the blurb from my new book’s back cover as the example text. It offers a perfect, real-world, one-paragraph example of how adjusting hyphenation and justification settings can turn so-so text into a harmoniously spaced, easy-to-read message, but if you feel I’m “slipping an ad into your drink,” you can bail out here.
Still with me? Good. Let’s look at the text in its “pure” left-aligned form:
The spacing is ideal for the font (Adobe Garamond Pro) as it’s unaffected by justification settings; the spacing you see is the spacing designed into the typeface. Many people prefer left-aligned (ragged right) text for this reason, but others prefer justified text because of the neat, tidy way it fills its box. Continue reading →
Hyphens are an important contributor to elegant, easy-to-read typography, especially when text is fully justified as is the convention in book typography. This article explains how justified text works, and how proper hyphenation improves the legibility of your type.
Text justification works by expanding the spaces between words on each line until the evenly spaced words precisely fill the width of the text field. Some typographers hate justified text; they prefer the natural spacing of the type to the artificially expanded spacing, and they don’t mind the uneven right edge. A compelling argument can be made that ragged-right (left-aligned) text is the most legible, but a beautifully proportioned rectangle of text set inside the rectangle of the page is likewise an engaging aesthetic experience. Designers must balance page layout considerations against the need to format text that’s inviting and comfortable to read. Continue reading →
In my work with writers, I come across many common technical problems with manuscripts. These usually spring from the best of intentions as the writer attempts to create the feel of the finished book within the manuscript. Though they’re trying to be helpful, it requires more of the typesetter’s time to strip out all of these stylistic additions. When it comes to manuscripts, simpler is better.
Here are ten tips for writers to consider while they create their manuscripts and ready their books for the design and production process.
1. The double space – Digital typefaces have carefully designed kerning tables that control spacing between various pairs of letters. That way a capital “A” can nest closer to a capital “W” than it would to another capital “A.” Most style manuals specify single spaces but if you want wide spacing, ask your typesetter to insert emspaces. Emspaces are single characters—wide spaces, not double-spaces. Double-spaces were a convention that attempted to get typewriters to imitate the wide spacing seen in book typography prior to the early 1960s when electronic typesetting methods took over. The first thing your typesetter will do is convert all your double spaces to single spaces but if you can break the double-space habit, you’ll save a step. Read more about sentence spacing here. (Really! Read it, especially before commenting.)
Don’t put double spaces after a period. Your typeface already knows how much space is required.
Additionally, consecutive spaces are often used by writers who don’t understand how to set tabs and indents. An indent is not equivalent to five spaces. Indentation is controlled in your word processor’s paragraph settings dialogue or by manipulating the rulers above the text (see below).
Don’t use consecutive spaces to move text around. Use tabs and justification. When it comes right down to it, don’t use double spaces at all. Continue reading →
Book 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.”
Are images analogous to words? Is what makes a sentence sound “right” the same thing that makes an image “pop” or a jazz solo “burn?” The similarities are noteworthy but the differences are important. Just as the best of writers seek the guidance of an editor, smart publishers rely on book designers who understand the “grammar of design.”
Good design, like good writing, communicates clearly and effectively. It all boils down to some sort of archetypal math. The “golden rectangle,” for example, has proportions that are pleasing to everyone. Though much of design is pure opinion, some of its power is as mysterious and universal as love. But at least part of it can be described in terms of how a page provides intuitive visual clues to its elements’ hierarchy of importance, and to what the literal and symbolic meanings of those elements are.
Visual confusion and tension are fine as long as there’s some sort of payoff that makes the visual anxiety worth the angst; M.C. Escher was a master of that. In the same way, we can write playful sentences that present amusing confusion; they’re logically impossible but they sound right. Optical illusions create conflicts of perspective. Semantic illusions are similar; they’re simultaneously grammatically correct and logically absurd:
Do you walk to work or bring a lunch?
What is the difference between an orange?
On a scale of one to ten, what is your favorite color?
I'd like a large with no ice, please.
Is it faster to Chicago or by bus?
Others present annoying confusion; they’re logically correct and easy to understand, but they sound (and are) wrong.
I think York is the best town in which a person could live in.
Why couldn't they just build it gooder?
The meanings of the sentences in the second set of examples are much clearer than those of the first examples but they register as “wrong” all the same. Continue reading →
This third installment of Judging a Book by its Cover looks at great book cover designs that won the 2012 Design Observer 50 Books-50 Covers award. Part 1 explored how most book design rarely rises above “competent.” Part 2 looked at the state of self-published book covers. But rather than criticize blindly—it’s too easy to proclaim that a design fails or succeeds—both articles explain what works and what doesn’t work about a variety of covers.
After exploring a field of generally mediocre-to-poor examples, I want to try to answer the most difficult question of all: what does work in design? No magic formulas exist. Many designs succeed simply by avoiding some of the weak practices described in the earlier articles. Other designs succeed for many reasons—and ironically, those reasons—and even the perceived success of the work—may not be obvious at first glance. Continue reading →
Part 1 of Book Cover Design: Judging a Book by its Cover critiqued “professional” covers taken from Amazon’s Editor’s choice list. Read that article first as it provides background for this one. The article looked at design elements that worked and identified some that didn’t. This section looks at covers of indie books. As a group, these covers represent the state of self-published books quite well. Certainly, it’s easy to describe a design as “weak” or “ineffective.” But understanding and articulating why a design doesn’t work is more difficult.
To clarify, I don’t like making any distinction between self-published books and traditionally published books. As we saw in Part 1, design standards for trade books aren’t very high. This should represent a golden opportunity for self-publishers to present their work as a gourmet product. Instead, after spending years writing a book and polishing a manuscript, too many writers bypass professional editors and designers, believing they can produce satisfactory work on their own. The results are shown below. To a large extent we are responsible for the stigma attached to self-publishing.
If you’re not a graphic designer, this article won’t catalyze any grand transformation. But it will hopefully help you see more deeply, recognize the value of working with a professional, and assist you with distinguishing between real cover artists and overconfident pixel-monkeys. As a self-publisher, only you can set the standards for excellent work. Set them high.
Nothing screams “amateur” like a poorly crafted book cover. The standards for book design aspired to by trade publishers are not all that high, but self-publishers routinely fall short of them. If you want your book to be taken seriously, package it like you’re serious about it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in literature occurs when a well-crafted, meticulously edited bookblock is paired with an uninspiring cover.
This article reviews a selection of “professional” book covers to explore what works and what doesn’t in book design. Rather than go straight to the top and bottom of the design spectrum, the examples are pulled at random from Amazon’s Editor’s Choice list. I assume they’re trade-published books but the distinction between traditionally published books and self-published books is irrelevant; good (and bad) book design comes from all corners of the publishing universe. I chose these as a random sample of books that sell well.
Part 1 of this article explores mostly “competent” covers. They aren’t all excellent or groundbreaking, but they convey some sense of professionalism and attention to detail while communicating some essence of what the book is about. As a designer, I care much more for some of these covers than others, but whatever I might think of them, their aesthetic qualities didn’t stand in the way of the books’ success.
Few subjects arouse more passion among writers and designers than the debate over how many spaces should follow a period. If you adhere to a style manual, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t specify a single-space. Chicago and MLA specify one—debate ended—but the popular arguments in support of the single-space after a period (arguments I must confess to having perpetuated in previous writings) turn out to be mostly apocryphal. The single-space after a period is a simple style evolution—and it’s a fairly recent one. This leaves traditionalist typesetters like myself in something of a quandary; staunch advocates for the single-space must question whether their “classic” design work is authentic.
This article surveys book typography from the 1700s to the present. The survey is small and the examples come from various publishers in different parts of the world, but the trends revealed are, at least, a catalyst for deeper exploration. As a “core sample,” the images suggest a certain path of typographical evolution.
I recently responded to a question in a writers’ forum from an author who was in the process of designing a cover for her novel set in a swamp in New Orleans. “I chose a ‘swampy’ font that hangs down over the art to make it look like Spanish moss,” she said. For her previous Zombie fiction book, she chose a typeface appropriately named “bullet in the brain.” Though these might seem like obvious choices, their obviousness is precisely what makes them a liability. This article offers a few thoughts on book cover design for genre fiction.
Book Cover Typefaces: You Get What You Pay For
Excellent typefaces often cost hundreds of dollars. Fonts on free font sites are very often either ripped off and renamed or designed by amateurs. Rarely will someone take the time to design a serious typeface and give it away. FontSquirrel and a few others offer some quality typefaces but gimmicky fonts often lack a full set of characters. For example, they may offer only capital letters and might omit dollar signs and other useful glyphs. Like free clip-art that’s available to everybody, free fonts get downloaded and used over and over and over. Paying even a small price for a typeface ensures that 99% of amateurs won’t be using it. Continue reading →