10 tips for better book designs


This is a guest post from Thomas Bohm. Thomas studied graphic communication, and now works for book publishers and businesses, whilst running User Design, Illustration and Typesetting a graphic communication design, illustration and production service. Thomas writes, researches and occasionally publishes. He wrote Punctuation..? (2nd edition, User Design, 2012) a fun and fully illustrated book on punctuation. Has won awards from the following competitions: British Book Design and Production Awards, 3×3 Magazine and European Design Awards.

Here are 10 tips for improving book designs, they come from my own practical experience and observations. There are many parts, processes and people involved in the production of a book, decisions are usually not down to one person alone, but a group of people each with their own requirements, understandings and style preferences. Subsequently a successful and open minded editorial/designer/client relationship is essential for good results.

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

Text in books is often hampered by the arch of the open book and falls into the gutter, which causes text which is hard to read and annoys readers because the text on the inner right side and inner left side bends into the gutter. One reason why this happens, is because the designer has failed to make the gutter wide enough.

Many books these days are perfect bound, the typical hot melt glue used dries very stiff and does not allow the book to lay flat, unlike cold melt glue, which dries flexible and allows books to open much flatter (Kinross, 2007). 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/binder before, and will do again, you can measure to see how much the book arches into the gutter. By making the gutter wide enough, it will stop the text from falling into the gutter and let the text be presented in a much more flatter and readable way.

2. Position columns in tables as close together as possible

One way to position columns in a table is to space them out to fill the width of the table or main body text width, although this makes it harder for readers to read the table in a horizontal way. It is best to space columns horizontally with some space between them, but no less than 5mm. Creating tables which have columns horizontally spaced close together makes it much easier to read tables horizontally and also to link possible table headings to the left of table to other data to the right.

3. Reflect the content and issues of the book in the book cover design

Book cover designs often present a thin singular concept or imagery in relation to the books content and issues. This produces a book cover communication which does not relate the content of the book to the reader and does not lead to further speculation or imagination. It is much better for the book cover’s communication, through typography and imagery, if the book’s content and issues are reflected in the graphic communication. Read the story, contents page or blurb to find out what issues are raised within the book. This will lead to book covers which are more appealing and imaginative.

4. Almost always add running heads to the book and put a chapter number in it

Books benefit from adding a running head on the left page containing the book title with a running head on the right page, with both a chapter title and chapter number in it. Doing this will greatly increase the books usability and the users’ ability to navigate around and find information in the book. If the book gets photocopied or split up into electronic documents, it will be easy to find the source of the book or chapter number which the page comes from.

5. Never use Roman numerals

Some books use Roman numerals (I–X) for prelim pages to distinguish between the front matter and main story, using them in not advisable because people cannot read and understand their value, creating an empty graphic statement. It is much clearer to use Arabic numbers (0–9).

6. Adjust the word spacing for better typography

Usually word spacing is not optimally adjusted or it is forgotten about. Typographic issues such as: leading or kerning are taught in educational establishments, however, word spacing is typically ignored. The default word spacing (also know as justification in Adobe InDesign, or hyphenation and justification in QuarkXPress) values for justified text in QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign are as follows:

Adobe InDesign
Word spacing80%100%133%
Letter spacing0%0%0%
Glyph scaling100%100%100%

Table: default word spacing (justification/hyphenation) settings in QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign.

In QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign the default word spacing is 100%, which is usually too large, although every typeface is different, by decreasing the optimum or desired word spacing to around 90% not only makes the text more economically fitting in documents but creates a smoother and tighter line, reducing the amount of harsh word space holes, subsequently improving the reading experience because the eye is now reading a tighter setting of words, rather than hitting large word space holes. The book designer Jost Hochuli (Hochuli, 1993) 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 justified line of text, you can use character or letter spacing, in general a value of -1% (Adobe InDesign) or -0.2 (QuarkXPress) for minimum and 1% (Adobe InDesign) or 0.2 (QuarkXPress) for maximum is sufficient (Adobe InDesign is measured in 1/1000 em space and QuarkXPress is measured in 1/200 em space).

7. Use off-white or cream paper

The choice of paper is an important choice in the design of a book and can contribute much to the overall atmosphere of the book. Due to trends in the paper industry and minor myths about bright white paper somehow being cheaper than off-white or cream paper, the amount of high bright white paper used for books has rapidly increased. The problem that high bright white paper presents, is that the contrast between black text and high bright white paper is too much (0–100%). Off-white or cream paper is not only more pleasing but less stressful on the eyes. Due to trends in the industry towards more bright white paper, it is now quite a challenge to find uncoated off-white or cream paper stocks and even more of a challenge to find coated stocks in off-white or cream paper. An exception to the rule is for people with vision impairments, when indeed maximum contrast is desirable.

People with dyslexia, 10% of the world’s total population (Pennington, 1991), also complain that the contrast of bright white paper and text causes an unstable and blurry reading experience and that the letters move around on the page (Bupa, 2011). It has also been known that people with dyslexia use colored acetate overlays on top of printed information.

8. Add details so users can submit their thoughts and feedback regarding the design of the book

So often books are published in a very linear fashion, going through the editorial, design and production stages without getting feedback from the main people that will use them and they are rarely tested with people. An idea to make the process more circular and user-centered would be to put details either on the back cover, colophon or somewhere else in the book, which allow people to submit their thoughts and feedback. A special email address, webpage with a form, paper tear-away form, or simply a guestbook, could be provided. A major benefit from doing this is that you never know what feedback you might get, someone could write something which could help improve the design, or maybe they have spotted an error somewhere.

9. Tread carefully in the editorial/design/client relationship

A book is more often than not a collaborative effort. You will have to judge and sense when it is the right time to suggest improvements and agree or disagree to make certain changes from feedback. Some clients are open and welcome suggestions and feedback, others will reject your every suggestion claiming that they know better or that ‘they do not do it like that’ or ‘it is not suitable’… Jennifer Rowsell (Rowsell, 2000) perhaps sums up the relationship best: ‘[…] textbooks (in the case of my study, reading textbooks) and other educational schemes are the product of a long collaborative process between actors whose roles in the company are sometimes complementary and sometimes in conflict. The resulting artifact, smooth as it may seem, cannot fail to be the result of numerous transformations and compromises, not only of differing points of view, but of differing intended functions for the text’.

10. Let the designer do their job

Ideas and suggestions developed throughout design projects sometimes do not get implemented when they should do. Please consider what your designer has to say with an open mind and ask yourself, if what is being suggested is an improvement over what you are currently doing or have. Rather than rejecting what is being suggested on style basis, or what you have typically done before. Printed books are increasingly being subjected to competition from other areas and technologies, so it is essential in order to survive, that books are produced as well as possible and that new impulses are considered.


Bupa. (February 2011). Dyslexia. Viewed October 2012.

Hochuli, J. (1993). Book design in Switzerland. Pro Helvetia, Switzerland.

Kinross, R. (2007.05.02). Books that lie open. Viewed October 2012.

Pennington, B. F. (1991). Diagnosing learning disorders: A neuropsychological framework. Guilford Press, New York.

Rowsell, J. (2000). Textbooks as traces of actors, systems, and contexts: a transformational text analysis. Education for Social Democracies Conference – Changing Forms and Sites. Viewed November 2006.

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  1. Some interesting comments in these tips which I’ve come to late. I agree with the main tenor of these notes that the process should be a collaborative one; sometimes the designer does not know how the book will finally be produced and may not even have direct contact with the production department about it or has no clear brief.
    I’d be inclined to add a couple of caveats:-

    viz. Point 1: It is important to consider the end-production of the book in design, and vice versa, for the production dept to consider the design before deciding on the most suitable production route. Clearly, a sewn book block which has been produced long-grain gives the most satisfactory result. A significant factor in UK book production particularly affecting the lay of an open book relates to the manufacturing ‘style’, specifically the orientation and binding
    of the book. If the book is bound cross-grain, as so many books in the UK are, then this factor is more pronounced for the reader. However, if produced long-grain, this is much less of a problem and the book will lie open more naturally instead of the pages always straining against the spine to snap shut – hence
    the ‘arch’. For reference, compare a book manufactured in The Netherlands, Germany or most other continental European countries with any number of books on the display table in your local bookshop [if you still have one].

    re. Point 5. Not quite sure who these people are who can’t read or understand roman numerals. This is simply a clear convention that separates the prelims (and postlims if present) from the main body of work. Simple. Learn.

    re. Point 7. Creamier papers are more significant in relation to textbooks, granted; however, the content is the key. I don’t think one should apply the same rules to half-tone illustrated works where the tone of the paper should not detract from the images displayed. Also, for example, I think the dramatic impact of a graphic novel would be much-diminished if the contrast between ink and paper was diluted.
    dna 8may2015

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