Everyone wants an engaging book. Creating that engaging book is never a solitary endeavor.

Every writer needs an editor. Every book needs a designer.

Fiction narratives in print are generally all about text, unless it’s a graphic novel, a children’s book, or a novel by Sebald. (Actually, we recently did the illustrations for a work of literary fiction to be published by Holt in June 2010, but that’s another post). In designing a book of fiction, the book designer’s job is to present the text on the page in a way that is highly readable and without interrupting the reader’s experience of the story, or, in John Gardner’s words, “a vivid and continuous dream”.

But non-fiction almost always benefits from making the narrative more visual. Absent the hands of an extraordinary writer, non-fiction books often transport the reader not into a glorious dream but to a snoozefest (where the dream is probably something other than the book).

Making the narrative more visual doesn’t necessarily mean the use of images. It’s also about the use of white space & visualizing blocks of text on a page. (You’ll notice that writing for the Web is about much the same thing). Of course, decisions about chapter lengths, section sizes, etc., are the domain of the writer & editor, but book designers have a lot of latitude in how to present the text.

A friend recently gave us a set of three great books by Edward Tufte that came out in the 1990s: Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, & Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative.


Tufte gets to the heart of what book design is all about without talking specifically about book design: the arrangement of information on the page (or, increasingly, the screen as in the case of e-books).