10 tips for better book designs

 20 January 2014

There are many parts, processes and people involved in the production of a book. Successful and open-minded relationships between clients, designers and editors are essential. Book designer Thomas Bohm of User Design shared 10 tips for improving your book design.

The physical experience of reading your book is important to bear in mind if you are self-publishing. Image: User Design
The physical experience of reading your book is important to bear in mind if you are self-publishing. Image: User Design

1. Make the gutter as wide as it needs to be

Text in books is frequently hampered by the arch of the open book. If the text on the inner edges of the pages falls into the margin area known as the 'gutter', it can be hard to read.

Often this is because the designer has failed to make the gutter wide enough, so the text bends into this area. 

If the text on the inner edges of the pages falls into the gutter, it can be hard to read.

Many books these days are 'perfect bound' using hot melt glue. This often dries very stiff, which does not allow the open book to lie flat, unlike cold melt glue which is flexible.

Typically, for a perfect bound book the left and right inner gutters should be no less than 25mm each side.

If you have had books produced by the same printer before, you can measure to see how much the book arches into the gutter.

Making the gutter wide enough will stop the text from falling into it.

2. Consider how to lay out tables

If your book contains tables, you might be tempted to make the columns as wide as possible, making the table fill the width of the page.

But this can increase the space between columns, making it harder for readers to read the table horizontally.

Best practice is to space columns horizontally with as little space between them as possible, but no less than 5mm. Aim to reduce the amount of white space in your columns, so that you can lead the reader's eye across columns from left to right more easily. 

3. The design should reflect the content of the book

It is much better for the book if its content is reflected in its graphic communication.

This includes:

  • the cover image
  • typography
  • any other imagery.

Read the story or contents page to find out what issues are raised within the book.

You should be aiming for book covers which graphically describe the book as well as possible.

4. Add running heads and chapter numbers

Almost all books greatly benefit from adding a text header, known as a 'running head', on every page. On the left hand pages, this should contain the book title.

Aim for visuals which graphically describe the book.

Also important is a running head on the right hand page with both the chapter title and chapter number in it.

Doing this will greatly increase the book's usability: 

  • The reader will be able to navigate the book much more easily
  • If a page is photocopied, it will be easy for the reader to find out which book the page has come from.

If a chapter title is added to the right-hand page but no chapter number, the reader won't be able to find the chapter easily.

Rather than being able to look for the chapter number in the running head, they will have to rely on the contents page, or flicking through the whole book.

5. Avoid Roman numerals

Some books use Roman numerals (i-x) for preliminary pages, to distinguish between the front matter and main story.

However, using them isn't always advisable. When people cannot read and understand their value, they are an empty statement.

It is more user-friendly to use Arabic numbers (0–9) throughout.

6. Take care with typography

Often word spacing is not optimally adjusted, or it is forgotten about.

Often word spacing is not optimally adjusted.

Typographic issues such as 'leading' or 'kerning' are usually taught on design courses. However, word spacing is typically ignored.

The default word spacing (also known as justification) values for justified text on software packages such as Quark Xpress or InDesign isn't always ideal.

Decreasing the optimum or desired word spacing to around 90 per cent creates a smoother and tighter line, reducing the amount of harsh space between words.

The book designer Jost Hochuli states that "the word spacing required by a lowercase 'e' is sufficient" for the average word space size.

To get an even smoother fit of letters and words on a line, you can adjust character spacing.  

On Adobe InDesign, letter spacing is measured in units of 1/1000-em. On QuarkXPress, it is measured in unites of 1/200-em.

  • If you're using Adobe InDesign, try a value of -3 per cent for minimum and 3 per cent maximum.
  • On QuarkXPress try -0.6 per cent for minimum and 0.6 for maximum.  

7. Use off-white or cream paper

The choice of paper is important for the design of a book and can contribute to its overall atmosphere.

Due to trends in the paper industry and myths about bright white paper somehow being cheaper, use of this for books has rapidly increased.

The problem that high bright white paper presents is that the contrast between black text and the paper is too much (0–100 per cent). Off-white or cream paper is less stressful on the eyes.

People with dyslexia also often complain that the contrast of bright white paper and text causes an unstable and blurry reading experience.

There are exceptions to this rule, however: for people with visual impairments, maximum contrast on a page is desirable.

The trend towards bright white paper makes it quite a challenge nowadays to find uncoated off-white or cream paper stocks, and it can be even more of a challenge to find coated stocks. 

8. Let readers submit their feedback

So often books are published in a very linear fashion. They go through the editorial, design and production stages without getting feedback from the main people that will use them.

Books are rarely tested as physical products. To make the process more user-centred, consider putting contact details on the back cover or colophon.

Ask yourself whether what is being suggested is an improvement over what you have.

This allows people to submit their feedback about the design work you have done.

A special email address, a webpage with a form, or a paper tear-away form could be provided.

Someone could write something which could help improve the design, or maybe they have spotted an error somewhere.

9. Take care with editorial and client relationships

You will have to judge when it is the right time to suggest improvements, and when to agree to make certain changes.

Some clients are very open to feedback, while others will reject your every suggestion, claiming that they know better, that they 'do not do it like that', or that your design is 'not suitable'.

Remember, a book comes about as the result of a long collaborative process. 

10. Let designers do their job

If you are using a designer, listen to what they have to say with an open mind.

A book is a collaborative effort. Judge the right time to suggest improvements.

Take care to ask yourself whether what is being suggested is an improvement over what you currently have, rather than rejecting it on the basis of style or what you typically tend to do.

Increasingly, printed books are being subjected to competition from other areas and technologies. It is essential that books are as well-produced as possible in order to survive.

Visit User Design's website to find out more about their work. They also have a web resource on designing self-published books.

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