How to design a book: the creative’s guide

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Take your book design to new heights with this expert advice.

We all know the unspoken rule is you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Indeed, in terms of design thinking, there’s a hell of a lot more to creating a beautiful, legible book than what’s on the outside. The principles of layout, type selection and use of imagery are complex; the role of a book designer holds much more than meets the casual reader’s eye.

As with any creative project, there are no hard and fast rules for designing a book, but there are a few basic principles that designers adhere to. Again though, such rules are often there to be broken: legibility seems like an obvious one, but with more conceptual art books, for instance, sometimes you can get away with type and layout that challenge the reader to look as much as to read; images can be layered and morphed and chopped and screwed around with; stories can be told in traditional, linear formats, or as post-modern, nonlinear modes of expression.

Sometimes a relevant solution can also be something that doesn’t suit the content

Sara De Bondt

The basic tenet is design should adhere to what’s being designed, format should work with content, and design shouldn’t (most of the time) overshadow what the book is conveying to its readers.

Naturally, a shiny, seductive cover just isn’t enough. Erik Spiekermann once said that a book with a great cover and shoddily designed interior is “like great packaging, but when you open it, the food inside looks brown and boring. It may still be nourishing, but my appetite is gone.” So how does good book design keep us hungry, and ultimately satiate us?

The book design process

Once a designer has been commissioned to design a book, they’re usually briefed on the concept, and given some placeholder content to play around with. After that, it’s often a period of heavy research into the book’s themes and topics. Then it’s on to some experimenting with rough ideas of layout, playing around with typefaces, possible colour combinations, and the image selection.

Along the entire process, a good designer will also be considering the mechanics of the production: how it will be bound, the paper, cover stocks, and so on.

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“I start by listening to the people involved: the authors, editors, artists, etc,” says designer Sara De Bondt. “Then I try to find out more about the subject, and find relevant design solutions that suit the content of the book. Sometimes a relevant solution can also be something that doesn’t suit the content, but that contrasts it.”

While as a designer you aren’t always in a position to pick and choose the projects you take on, the vast majority agree that an interest in the subject matter – or at least, working to find something in it that piques your interest – is pretty important.

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