by Paul Barrett of Girl Friday Productions
A book designer’s work, if done well, should go largely unnoticed. While a cover needs to shout to attract buyers, the fundamental core of a book—its interior—must be designed to facilitate quiet, distraction-free readability. This isn’t as easy as uploading text to a pretty template; a design sensibility is important, but so is an understanding of how the brain interprets information. A good book designer takes into account an array of variables and ministers to countless minute adjustments—yes, there are “rules” that must be followed. But far more important to consider are the psychology of the reader and the book as physical object.
Here are the biggest factors that contribute to a book’s readability:
- Characters (or words) per line: The eye, when reading, works just like a typewriter, grinding through letters and words before snapping back to the left edge to tackle the next line. If a line of text gets too long, the eye gets fatigued and the reader can lose her place. Similarly, if a reading line is too short (think of a (printed) newspaper article), the eye may go a little crazy having to jump back and forth so often. For books, twelve words per line is considered a happy medium.
- Lines per page: Too few lines on a page and the type loses cohesion (and the book may balloon out to a thousand pages). Too many lines and the page becomes black with type—reading becomes a wholly uninviting endeavor. There’s no real standard for lines per page; good leading (i.e. the amount of space between lines of type) should dictate.
- Margins: Of course, margins serve an important visual function, giving the text block some “breathing room” on the page. But they also serve a structural function. Outer margins give the reader a place to hold the book without obscuring the type. Top and bottom margins allow for running heads and folios (page numbers). And inner margins keep the text out of the “gutter,” the crevice created in the middle of the book when the pages are bound together. The gutter is less a concern in shorter books, but longer books have larger gutters, and must therefore have larger inner margins.
- Font choice: Many serif (or sans-serif) typefaces will work fine for running body text, so long as an appropriate x-height is chosen. X-height refers to the height of a lower-case “x” relative to the rest of the characters. Too small an x-height and a 12-point font can look much smaller. Too big an x-height and a font can look bulbous and cumbersome. It’s often said that serif fonts are easier to read in large blocks of text, as the serifs help our eyes move horizontally along the line. While hard evidence for this claim remains elusive, it’s probably best to choose a serif for your running body font. There’s no reason to rock the boat here—remember, your goal is to get out of the reader’s way.
- Typographic hierarchy: A typical novel requires very little typographic play—a running- body font and a chapter header will usually do. But if a book requires subheads, captions, inter-textual elements like text messages, e-mails, or robospeak, or any other nonstandard elements, typographic hierarchy becomes paramount. An interior designer must assemble a group of typefaces that work together to create a harmonious visual “whole,” though each must stand on its own within the group. A reader should instantly recognize a subhead on page 73 as being the same as the subhead on page 12. A sub-sub-sub-head should be distinct from a sub-sub-sub-sub-head, and a caption needs to look different—but not too different, from the running text surrounding it.
But a well designed template that takes into account all of the above should produce any number of delightfully readable books, right? Well, not really. Once a book’s text has gone through its initial layout, a lot of nitty gritty polishing is still required to create a glitch-free reading experience. There are, of course, typos, which must be ferretted out by a proofreader and fixed by the designer. But type is a finicky and sensitive beast, and sometimes the removal of even a single comma can decrease the amount of lines on a page, leading to unwanted “widows” or “orphans”—distractingly short lines or a single line left hanging on a page. Further, hyphenation must be given careful attention to ensure that no “bad breaks” are created (it’s best, for example, not to split a word between the end of one page and the beginning of another). These may seem like small things, and they are, but a book-length manuscript poured into even an impeccably designed template will necessarily be rife with small errors. Over the course of several hundred pages, these errors greatly diminish the reading experience.
With ebooks ever on the upswing, facilitating easy digital conversion is becoming more and more fundamental to the role of the designer. While the book designer of yore was content to create a book that simply looked good, today’s designer must understand how to create robust paragraph and character styles, apply rules to ensure on-the-fly accurate hyphenation given a dynamic line length, and even accommodate adjustable body text sizes. All of which is not to say that the above rules should be thrown out the window—a book’s print version must still look impeccable, and provide that glitch-free experience that every reader expects and deserves. But under the hood, this same book must be nimble and pliant, ready to accommodate an array of devices, software versions, and typeface availabilities.
Paul Barrett is the design lead at Girl Friday Productions. In his ten-plus years as a professional book designer, he’s handled countless layouts, from the elegant illustrated edition of David McCullough’s 1776 to the tongue-in-cheek Baby Boomer’s Eye Chart Book, which he co-wrote for Running Press. Paul’s MFA in creative writing makes him the rare designer who can also catch a typo.