One difference between art and design is that art concerns itself with questions and design concerns itself with answers.

Successful design is an answer to a problem. If you like design, they are “fun” problems! In book design, the answers that need to be uncovered include:

  • What fonts best reflect the author’s tone?
  • How will the manuscript fit into this page count?
  • What page grid will best support the content?
  • How will the different elements of the manuscript (sidebars, lists, boxed text) be designed and placed to complement the running text?

There are lots of ways to uncover answers when I design a book interior. When an author’s book is signed onto our list, things like the design direction for the cover, the length of the manuscript and page count, the marketing plan, intended audience, and the competitive titles are discussed, and this information travels with the manuscript to me. My job as an interior book designer is gather all of this information and brainstorm on my own to come up with efficient and creative answers to the design problems and to satisfy the expectations of the Editorial, Cover Design, and Marketing departments. Here’s the tools that I have found the most useful over the years.

Book Designer’s Toolkit

Not all of these tools are used for each title. Tool selection depends on level of title (A-list books get the most attention as they have the biggest marketing push behind them), deadline, budget, and scope of project (straight text or complex layout, 1-color black or 4-color process, etc). But the items with a “✓” mark are my must-haves and apply to every title. (You can click on the images to make them larger.)

What travels with title to Production Department:

The manuscript ✓

A good place to begin, right? I don’t have to read the whole book, but reading the front matter, the first chapter, and scanning the rest of the manuscript and back matter (plus reading the marketing copy from our catalog) lets me know the author’s tone and the general structure of the text (how many chapters and headers there are, ratio of running text vs. sidebars, etc).

Creative brief ✓

This two-page brief communicates to the layout designer the stats (trim size, page count), reader demographic, art budget, structure of the book, elements that make up the manuscript, design direction. It’s not a substitute for talking one-on-one with the editor or art director, but they give us a great start and a jumping-off point for brainstorming.

Competitor titles from the Title Information Sheet

The Title Information Sheet is written by the editor when the book is signed. I find the section about competitor titles most interesting. A lot of times the interiors of these titles can be researched by Amazon’s “look inside” feature. This gives me an idea of what books might be sitting on the same shelf and of how I can make my title fit-in yet stand-out.

Cover ✓

The book interior must match the cover to make a complete package. Fonts, art, and a general design feel are all usually copied from the cover. The cover designer is also a great resource during the brainstorming process because he or she has already sat through multiple rounds of revisions with the sales team.

Word count worksheet ✓

Most straight-text books need this worksheet so that the layout designer knows how many words per page to shoot for in order to make the page count. Going up in page count will affect manufacturing costs (it will take more paper to produce the book) and a lower page count may make the book seem slim in comparison to similar titles on the shelf.

Book map

If a book has a certain number of items per page (like a cookbook with recipes or a craft book with projects) then we usually forgo the word count worksheet in favor of a book map. The editor paces out the pages so that he or she knows that they are on track with getting the right amount of material from the author.

What I generate during design process:

Font “contact sheet” ✓

After scouring my favorite typography sources I like to put together a sheet of possible fonts. That way, I can see how they get along and narrow down my choices to only fonts that support the tone of the book harmoniously.

Layout sketches ✓

Working on a computer in page layout software like InDesign sure makes the process go faster, but the trap is that anything I do in a program can look final and polished. Taking pencil to paper is the only way for me to quickly blast through ideas and, just as importantly, discard the bad ideas. Here’s a couple of examples:

Sketched cookbook recipe layouts and final design. Need for a flexible grid won out.

Sketched story title page layouts and final design. Didn’t use sketches but they helped me get rid of lots of bad ideas. Or, should I say ideas that just wouldn’t work for this title.

Art research

Many times the cover designer will have already made a folder of possible art pulled from the web. Most of them will have been discarded during the cover-approval process, but even that discarded art is useful because it will tell you the design direction not to go in. For interior designs that need spot art, I make my own folder and pull art into it for review with the art director later.

Color story

This is the same idea as font contact sheets when choosing color for 2- or 4-color books. Putting all of the colors together helps to make sure that all is in harmony. We use DS swatches for 4-color process titles to ensure accurate printing of color at the press. Messing around with color sliders can be fun, but that won’t provide you with the best mix of ink values to achieve the effect you’re looking for. Trust Pantone to figure out those mixes of color for you. This particular color story above has the final colors along with the final fonts to get a picture of the design direction before it’s applied to the manuscript.

And then the sample approval begins:

Samples ✓

This is where all of this information and all of these ideas come together. No amount of brainstorming will ever take the place of actually applying the ideas to live text. Live manuscript text can “break” the most well-thought out design … which means it wasn’t the best design because it only lived in theory. The design must be put in service for the live text. Our samples include the title page, front matter (including the full table of contents), a chapter opener or two, and a few spreads of text with all of the different elements in the manuscript represented. This is printed out because the computer screen is not the final output of this process. If the design doesn’t work on paper then it’s back to the drawing board for tweaks.

Informal meetings with editor and art director

At any time during the interior design process, we can call the editor and/or art director down to make sure we’re on the right track. Straight-text titles might not need this much attention, but complex titles can sometimes take several visits from our art director (and late in the process my tired creative brain can always be jump-started by our AD’s rapid-fire brainstorming skills).

Circulated samples to the art director and publisher ✓

The final step is emailing a PDF of the samples to the art director and publisher for final approval. If corrections are requested then they are made and another round is circulated with an updated version number. To have a sample approved during v1 is always the designer’s dream! However, this is frequently not the case and as a designer I have had to learn to suppress my ego in the name of serving the reader. After (sometimes) struggling for hours on a creative solution, I can feel possessive or defensive on my worst days. But on my good days I love the idea of teamwork and that I am but one link in this chain. It’s important that all of our departments work together to create a useful, visually appealing, and profitable product.

Graphic design is often called the “invisible art” because if it’s done right, all of the steps that were made to get to the final design are not visible … the design fades away and the content shines like it was meant to look like that all along!

In future posts, I’ll describe how bookstore field trips sustain this creative cycle and how eBook design, or even an eBook QC program, can possibly benefit from a similar process, built upon the craft and care put into print books.