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6 tips for better book design

I’m a book designer. When I introduce myself as such people often ask if I’m an illustrator. Some book designers are skilled illustrators, but, the focus in my work tends to be more concerned with type and layout.

I came to book design via a graphic communication background not an arts or illustrative background, which I think becomes obvious when you look at my work. It is minimal and, where possible, relies on the materiality of the book object, rather than on the content of the cover.

For me, there is nothing more satisfying than that well-set page of type. I’ve honed this skill over the last few years but I still have a lot to learn, and I like it that way. Here are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way…

1) Build up your paper library

Paper is one of the main tools of the trade and my studio is filled with swatch books and samples, everything from standard uncoated/coated stocks to coloured, transparent, mirrored and textured substrates. Other useful samples include grey board, marble papers, head & tail bands, and ribbons. It’s important to remember that these more traditional tools don’t necessarily need to be used in traditional ways.

2) Get to know your printer

Build up a good relationship with them, build trust, and over time you’ll get to know the extent of their machine’s capabilities. You’ll discover where their passions lie and in doing so get to know which printers to approach when looking for different finishes, and they’ll begin to understand the way you work too.

3) Learn how to make a good print specification

And remember to check it against the quote you receive back from the printer. It’s not unusual to have requested one thing, only to find it has been substituted or missed off completely. Sometimes there will be a reason for this, other times it will be an error. When dealing with tight budgets, neglecting to include the price for a particular element (a few scatter-proofs or a round of image corrections perhaps) can impact on costs significantly

4) Don’t rely purely on email

This medium has it’s advantages, but if in doubt, pick up the phone. Whether this is to your printer or your client, print-production is a complex process and may be better understood through dialogue over the phone.

5) As previously mentioned … don’t be afraid to use traditional materials in non-traditional ways, but do be prepared to invest time to ensure the best outcome.

Whilst working at John Morgan studio in London, we produced the exhibition catalogue for Turner Prize winner Helen Marten. Parrot Problems was unusual in a number of ways; the head and tail band (traditionally used on the top and bottom of the spine) in this edition was glued onto the inside front cover at the foot of the page, so that when the book is closed it protrudes. This unusual kind of device inevitably means having detailed conversations with your printer, producing diagrams/visual mock-ups and a round or two of blank dummies to ensure the idea has been adequately understood.

Another very unusual and somewhat tricky feature to navigate during production of this book was the cover substrate. We used a nylon reinforced bitumen paper from an industrial company and we came across many issues. The outcome worked well, but the time and effort involved in trouble-shooting such a product from a company who are not used to dealing with the printing process was definitely ‘complex’.

6) Pay for quality typefaces

And don’t be afraid to include a cost for this in the quotes to your clients. The typography department at Reading university saw Book Design, Typeface Design and Information Design taking classes together. I have seen first-hand the blood, sweat and tears that go into designing fonts, and it has reinforced the importance of paying craftspeople for their hard won skills.

Emily Benton is a freelance book designer. Prior to this she completed a Book Design masters at Reading, and worked for the Everyday Press and John Morgan studio in London. A selection of her publications can be found here www.emilybentonbookdesigner.co.uk or you can email studio@emilybentonbookdesign.co.uk for a full portfolio.

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