“Traditional” Book Design

In today’s world of mass-market publishing, attention to good design of a book’s interior is easily overlooked. A typical book may by set in a bland font, with the text as small as it can be to be legible, and margins stretching as close to the edge of the page as the publisher dares. This is a very efficient way to lay out a book: it uses the least amount of time, and requires the fewest number of pages.

But is the book readable? Sadly, in many cases this casual, flippant approach to designing a book leaves the content less readable, and as such it dishonors the value of the words and diminishes the message of the writer. Most readers won’t notice this consciously, and even fewer will know to attribute it to the design—but the problem remains that poorly designed books hinder the author’s content, rather than advancing it.

Good interior design overcomes this, presenting the book as it ought to be: clear, readable, and without distraction from the content by the design itself. Again, few readers will notice; often, good design is, to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, “99% invisible.” What they will experience, however, is content that is empowered to flow freely from the page and into their hearts and minds, as it was intended to do.

Returning to Renaissance Thinking

One of the most influential typographic designers of the 20th century was Jan Tschichold (1902–1974), who "pioneered" a return to renaissance book designs typified by books produced before the modern era of book production. Tschichold's masterwork of design instruction is The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design. In it, Tschichold outlined what has come to be called the "golden section" of page layout, which refers to a specific mathematical ratio of proportion of content to page.

In short, the golden section requires that a page's content be restricted considerably compared to many more contemporary designs, allowing for two vital factors to be emphasized: first, the size of the text-block, attending to a specific width (based on the number of characters in a given line) and height (scaled proportionately to the width)—which results in wider margins; second, the placement of the text block on the page, which particularly emphasizes balance on the page in relation to the whole book, especially in relation to the opposing page. As a result, the text block is smaller than is typical in many modern-era publications, and is off-set toward the spine, leaving wider margins on the outer-vertical and lower-horizontal sides of the text.

In addition to the inherent balance this lends to the book as a whole object (rather than each page singularly considered), there are functional benefits to this approach as well. The particular attention given to the height and especially the width of the text block makes it eminently more readable, as it accommodates the limits of the eye and brain to follow the text from one line to the next. Also, the wider margins at the bottom and outsides of the pages gives a reader a more natural place to hold the book, either one-handed or two, without obscuring the text or requiring adjustments in position.

(For a good brief discussion on Tschichold's "canon" of page design, see
Canons of Page Construction.)

Tschichold's design principles are illuminating, and he presented arguments for it in
The Form of the Book that are both historically and practically compelling. However, anyone accustomed to mass-produced contemporary book designs may find, upon close examination, that a book laid out according to Tschichold's canon to be peculiar, and even awkward: the wider margins and off-center placement of the text block cause a book to feel unbalanced, which requires a bit of a "break-in" period before readers find it as comfortable as Tschichold envisioned it to be.

(To be fair, once a reader re-adjusts to this style of design he/she will find it to be delightfully easy to read, and may come to regard the more typical contemporary designs as difficult to read or even crude!)

Tschichold, and others who followed in his path, has influenced me greatly in how I approach book design. While most of my designs employ what I consider to be a “modified Tschichold” approach, the fundamental principles are preserved and applied carefully to lend every book I work with a healthy middle ground between the old and new.

My Design Commitments

Because of my love of books and of the written word, and my embrace of the design philosophy outlined above, I hold forth the following commitments to all of the books that I work to produce:

  • A commitment to service—I believe the value of good design and service to the reader is an act of service in and of itself, separate from (yet symbiotic with) the content.
  • A commitment to usability—I recognize that books need to be easily read, and not a strain or challenge for the reader (this has been described as the difference between legibility and readability)
  • A value of beauty in the form of the book—I strive to keep in mind that a book's form and its function as a readable object are intertwined
  • An awareness of the mixed-media output—I seek to proactively anticipate the needs that arise when designing a book to have both print and digital forms
  • An economy of resources—I hope to strike a healthy balance between being lavish and being stingy with the materials we have to work with