In Book Design Made Simple, we have given you samples and instructions that serve as foundations for your own book designs. And if you follow them, you can be certain that you have produced something very good. But are you confident about your work? Do you think it looks good? Do you wonder if anyone else will think it’s good? Do you worry that if you come up with ideas of your own they might be “bad”?
I’m worried that you might be worried, so I decided to write this little piece about acquiring good taste in book design. I’ll tackle the easier topic first: page design. Then I’ll delve into cover design with some useful exercises and examples.
Some basic page design rules
Let’s assume that you have gone through parts I through IV of Book Design Made Simple, and you have made some design variations of your own. You started out using Minion for your text, but then you decided to switch to another typeface. Then you changed the margins, fiddled with the chapter openings, and designed some running heads and folios. Good for you! That is exactly what we were hoping you’d do.
Check the guidelines below and think about your design. If you’ve done what is suggested below, you should be fine.
- Typefaces: Stick with a serif typeface family for your main text (see p. 129). Sans serif type is great for short passages and headings, but not as easy to read in long sections of printed text.
- Leading: Pages are easier to read with more leading in the body text. If you can afford to add to the length of your book, experiment with extra leading. If you’re using a baseline grid (chapter 23), you’ll have to adjust that, of course. Try adding leading a point or two at a time, but don’t get to the point where the type looks double-spaced! Readers will think you typeset your book in Word, and we certainly don’t want that.
- Margins: Make sure the inside margin is large enough; margins that are too narrow are a major annoyance. The fatter the book, the wider the inside margin. For a big tome (more than 500 pages, say), you should use at least 7/8-inch inside margins, and more if you can—up to about 1.25 inches will look perfectly normal, and your readers will thank you, even if it’s unconsciously.
- Running heads/running feet: In chapter 27 we show you lots of possibilities. Some of the examples on p. 220 are pretty edgy, so if you don’t design yours to be any more extreme than those, you should be fine. You don’t want readers to be distracted from the book’s message.
- Chapter openings: The examples in chapter 24 show good taste. The proportions on those opening pages are pleasing to the eye, so try to stick with the spacing used in one of them, and then do what you want with the type. One little hint: Do not start the chapter text halfway down the page. There’s something about using the halfway mark that just stops the eye from moving and deadens the space.
You can get a feel for what’s good design and what’s not by looking at as many books as you can. A bookstore—more so than a library—will have lots of contemporary examples, so sit down and browse through a pile of books there. I can almost guarantee that after a while you’ll begin to spot some poor design elements. You might notice a running head that’s too large or too close to the top of the page, or maybe a chapter number that’s so funky that it’s unreadable. This exercise should give you more confidence in your own work or maybe point out areas where you can improve your design. But whatever you do, stick with the basic principles that we point out on pp. 143–145 of Book Design Made Simple: repeat elements, remember the Rule of Three, and use white space well.
Book cover design trends
Designing a good book cover is more complicated because covers are showier and have a lot more color. Colors are subject to fads. Display typefaces are subject to fads, too.
Oh, boy. What to do? Well, consider that your book will probably be on the shelf only for a few years. Even if the book lasts through many editions, you have a chance to (and really should) redesign the cover for each new edition. The color and typeface fads pass slowly, so you can stop worrying.
Choosing colors for your book cover
People find colors to be attractive after they have been around for a while. Have you ever noticed this? The first time you saw an orange car you probably said “yuck!” Then the twenty-first time you saw that same color on a car, I bet you started to admire it a bit. Right? But a few years later that orange car started to look a bit dated. So look around you for fashionable colors. Try these resources:
- Clothing catalogs or websites
- House furnishing catalogs or websites—note especially the bedding and towels
- Communication Arts magazine publishes color trends each year
- Illustrations and graphics in magazines that your readers would read
In these sources you might find a definite trend, or you might simply discover a color you like a lot. Either way, you’ve learned enough to get yourself going. It’s not vital that you follow the crowd, but being aware of the fashion and open to new color combinations will improve your results.
Choosing typefaces for your book cover
There are fads in book cover typefaces, too. Just do an internet search for “book cover design trends” and study what’s going on. Once you’ve seen what the current cover designs look like, you might decide to go with the flow, or you might decide that what’s currently popular is not right for your book. At the moment you see many book covers with hand lettering and with trees, leaves, and vines, for instance. There are so many that it’s starting to look boring at this point.
As we point out in Book Design Made Simple, typefaces indicate a book’s subject matter and mood. Some are subtler than others, and you should find one that’s suitable for your book. The first three examples below are fairly obvious.
Here are some more examples. Using the wrong typeface on a history book or historical novel could confuse the reader. You might notice that often the name of each typeface (in green) hints at its origins or its vibe.
When reading the articles, make note of the typefaces used as examples because many of them are available to you in the Adobe Creative Cloud Typekit application.
Laying out your book cover
Layout is vitally important. You need to create a focal point (p. 390), force some movement or balance (i.e., make the viewer’s eye move or stay in one place, p. 392), and blend the colors and type to make a unified whole.
Now here’s a little exercise that will demonstrate what I mean by “movement.” Before you look at each example below, take a deep breath and slow down. Pay attention to your eye movements. On each of the three covers below, you will begin looking in a certain spot on the cover and then your eyes will move (or not). Pay attention to the route your eyes take. Below each cover I’ll describe how my eyes move when I look at it. See if you agree. If not, where do you look first? And next?
When I look at the cover above, I start at the upper end of the ramp, then travel down and read the large white title. Next I follow the ramp down to the author’s name. And finally, the orange section at the top pulls me up to read the series title, which helpfully explains the meaning of the main title. What about you? This author’s intent is to help people get back into the workforce, and the cover demonstrates forward movement but with stops along the way. And that is exactly how the author wants her readers to use the book.
With this cover, my eye stays in the center area. I read the title first, then the subtitle and author’s name, then I circle around to the butterfly, and start over again. The frame around the main part of the image causes me not to stray from the center area. And I designed this cover to make that happen. The point of this book is to get readers to slow down, pay attention, and contemplate life.
This mostly-black cover emphasizes the vertical with that thin yellow line. When I look at it I go straight from top to bottom, lingering on the main title, then from the bottom, I jump back up to the title again. The bright colors in “LOOK” and “SUCCESS” are what cause this second look at the title. The idea behind this book is to push readers forward in their careers. No sitting still!
Do you see what I mean now by movement? If you don’t know where to look first and find yourself jumping all around, you are probably not looking at a good design. You can try this on your own with as many covers (and paintings, and posters, and print ads, and billboards) as you like. Then figure out how you can achieve the movement you want on your own book cover.
Still feeling insecure?
Are you still concerned that you are doing something wrong? Once again, a trip to the bookstore will be to your benefit. Look at the covers on the shelf where your book will soon be sitting. What do they all have in common? Colors? Size or style of type? Layout of the type? The subject matter in photos? Background colors? There’s sure to be something. You want your cover to fit in but also to stand out from the others. This sounds contradictory but it’s not impossible; in fact, it’s what professional designers aim for all the time. So pick some elements that you like from other books, juggle them around, and come up with a unique cover for your book.
More sources for book design excellence
Book design competitions abound! You may not have heard of them, but in the book design community, awards in these contests mean a lot. It’s best to go to a book award event in person so you can browse through the entries at your leisure. But if you can’t make it, try these websites and search for others to get a glimpse at some recent winners:
Relax! Enjoy your design journey. Your book is going to turn out just fine. And don’t forget to send us a sample chapter and your cover so we can post it on this website!