by Joel Friedlander
The first book my son ever got truly captivated by as an early reader was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. We had read the earlier Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together, with me doing most of the reading since he had just learned to read. By the time the second book came out, he was determined to read it himself.
It was a remarkable experience to watch him drop into the world of witchcraft and wizardry, to be completely absorbed by the world created by J.K. Rowling, waiting every day for the chance to dive back into that world again. This is a magical moment for any parent, even more so for someone who inhabits the world of books.
But suppose he had been introduced to Rowling’s work through a computer screen, or in one of those “designed in Microsoft Word” ebooks? Would he have sunk so easily into the vast world he came to know and love?
Interior book design must be the most self-effacing kind of design there is. When it works, it’s almost invisible.
A good book design enhances the flow of the author’s ideas to the reader, while doing nothing to impede that flow. Then reading becomes an effortless movement in which the words themselves disappear and the mind is fully engaged with the subject matter at hand.
The Rowling books work because they promote readability with many of the elements I’ll explain below, and because they are ideally suited to their intended audience. From the open feel of the page typography to the charming Mary GrandPré illustrations at the head of each chapter, they keep the young reader moving through the story to find out what happens next.
It all adds up to books that are terrifically readable. And readability is the key to getting the author’s message across.
The 3 Essential Design Elements
The form of the book hasn’t changed much in the last 500 years. Tall columns of evenly spaced type, margins squared up all the way around, anything that’s not text subservient to the text itself. Ample margins to allow for eyes to rest and hands to hold the page.
But even within that context, decisions have to be made that have a critical effect on the readability of the finished book. Of course the most basic decisions have to do with the main text block on each page.
Here are three areas that determine that text block, and therefore how well the book communicates the author’s ideas:
1. Typeface selection. Selection of a base typeface has the biggest effect on readability. Book designers tend to stick to the same group of typefaces. We each have our favorites, but almost all of these typefaces have one thing in common: they are classic book design typefaces.
Using a classic typeface like Bembo, Bodoni, Caslon, Garamond, Janson, Granjon, Sabin, will immediately help your book be readable. These typefaces get used over and over for a reason. They are workmanlike roman faces that produce a harmonious and rhythmic line with just enough variation to keep the eye interested.
Typefaces designed for the computer screen rarely translate well to the page. On screen typefaces like Verdana perform well; in a book they tire the eyes and fatigue the reader.
2. Line length. Another important choice is how long your line is in relation to the size of the type you’re using. This is critical because lines that are too short break the text so often that the natural phrasing of sentences is disrupted, and readability suffers. Well laid-out text will have about 10 to 15 words per line, depending on the type of book.
Very long lines, on the other hand, cause “doubling” where you lose track of which line you were on when you have to travel a long way from the right margin back to the left to start the next line. And in extreme cases, text on long lines can become unreadable. Think of reading your favorite book laid out as a web page on a modern, flat-screen monitor. It’s easy to have as many as 35 to 40 words on a line on these monitors.
It’s interesting that the digital gadgets we have for reading books, like the Kindle and the Sony Reader, are the first vertical screens I’ve seen since the rotating monitors of years ago. Finally, the “landscape” screens we’ve been forced to read on are being flipped on their sides, an acknowledgment of just how deep-seated reading is as a habit, and just how conventional our expectations are of what a “page” is supposed to look like.
3. Leading. As in many trades with a long history, the terms we use today tell us something about the history of the craft. During the 400 years when type for books was set by hand, one letter at a time, the way to space the lines and to provide more structural stability to the thousands of little pieces of metal, was to interleave the lines with thin pieces of lead.
But the leading—the space between the lines—is critical in readability. Too little space and the lines blend in with each other, confusing the eye. Too much space and they lose their connection with each other and interrupt the continuity of reading. Getting this element of page design right gives readability a boost, as the lines, and thoughts, flow easily down the page.
More Design Details
The following elements of page design also affect readability:
• Running heads and folios
• Margins and how the type column lays on the page
• Typography of subheads and pull quotes
• Sidebars and extra-textural elements
All influence how enjoyable the book is to read. But getting these three elements right at the beginning forms the base for excellent book designs. Typeface and line length produce the basic text block around which the rest of the page is built. When this is done well, both authors and readers benefit.
Resources on Book Design and Typography
Here are a few classic books on book design and typography. All are available from Amazon.com (affiliate links)
The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design (Classic Typography Series) by Jan Tschichold
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography by Jan Tschichold
The Complete Manual of Typography by Jim Felici
Another free resource is the excellent enewsletter from myfonts.com with new type designs, interviews with type designers and examples of creative uses of typography.
Joel Friedlander is the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, a publishing services company in San Rafael, California that has launched many self-publishers. Joel is an award-winning book designer, a self-published author, and blogs about publishing and book design at TheBookDesigner.com.