Can one say that designing a book can change your life?


We often hear that books change people’s lives. I myself have been shaped by the books I’ve read over the years. But that was reading. This time I had the experience of designing the book that would change my life.

Toward the end of last year we received a 4-page manuscript by an author bearing the improbable name, “Calvin Luther Martin.”

Reading the manuscript was not like reading 4 pages of a magazine, or 4 pages of Nietzsche. It was like entering a forest inside oneself to ask, “Who are we?”  Then opening the mind to discover the answer.

The text blew me away. Rich in imagery. The potential was enormous.


Color proof

Let me add a footnote, here. Most authors & editors would find it hard to let go of a manuscript and give the designer this flexibility: it changes the book’s shape into a new one, it requires trust. Of course the work is a collaboration. Finding the right image and the right letter size for each word requires flexibility from both parties. Understanding that the voice is the manuscript’s and not anyone else’s is the first rule.

Cutting the text

I was given absolute freedom to design this book and cut the text into the appropriate pages and even paragraphs. After reading the manuscript a few times, the cuts became obvious. The breaks needed to occur every time I had to stop, breathe, reflect, think.

We didn’t have a page count at the beginning of the project (since it depended on where the text was going to be cut). Finally, it came out to a 72 page book printed in 120grm neo matte, full color — quite a beauty!

Text cutting

Layout style

The layout style required breathing space, allowing the mind to wander, reinforcing the line of text with images while not overwhelming the reader. A discourse where white space, letters and images play a part on each page to tell a story. Images can be used as words—and letters can be used as images—to deliver the message to the reader.

Sample double page


The book ended up with about 40 images—photos & illustrations that range from the photograph of a sheet of paper to a painting of “The Wing of a Roller” by Albrecht Dúrer, to Jesus on the cross. Whatever conveyed the message, whatever propelled the mind in the right direction was used.

Sample double page

Images page


After designing a few pages, I realized we would be changing sizes, spacing, and using the letters as images. For this task I wanted a classic roman family, with clear letterforms, without much contrast between the thin & thick parts, not distracting from the words—or the images formed by the words. From a shortlist of transitional families, I decided to go with ITC New Baskerville.


Book Cover

Early in the process we agreed on the “missing ‘I’” for the title. Only later, after absorbing the book, does the reader discover the ‘I’  on the back cover, illustrated by the images of the book, just as letters were illustrated in illuminated manuscripts. For, like those, this book is illuminating.

Book cover


Uncluttered, with plenty of white space. The website keeps the essence of the book. A place not only to click to buy the book but to go back after reading it.

The Great Forgetting website

By |September 23rd, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , , |6 Comments


A few days ago we got a comment that made me think about the concept of inspiration:

“I’m designing a layout for books and need lots of inspiration. It’s hard to find it in google. Any idea where a good place to start?”

it’s in front of you, in the manuscript.


NOW THE LONG ONE: how to find it in the manuscript?

I would start by forgetting about looking for “inspiration” in Google or examples of other book designs.
Why? Simply because nothing you may find there will be done for that particular book. You would have not being hired if the design was out there. Neither should you wait for something magical coming from beyond. But you must work towards finding something that strikes you from the manuscript.

In first place, reading the manuscript will give you a general idea of the kind of design the book needs:

  • is it a manual? Ask yourself how could you make it clear where instructions begin and finish? Explore font weight variations or different typefaces. Think about what kind of indicators could help the users when troubleshooting.
  • is it non-fiction narrative? Help people understand the concept better with a layout that aids the reading of the text. Think of spacing, letter size, white space, clarity, etc.
  • is it a 400-page novel? Make it comfortable to read by using a typeface and layout for optimal reading. Give people space to hold the book in their hands, such as good margins to rest a thumb on the bottom of the page, and on the side to turn the page.
  • a workbook? Allow the readers to breathe between exercises. Think of white space. Help them with simple typefaces, such as sans serifs, and give readers room to think and work their way through the book.
  • an inspirational book? Inspire them with a wonderful harmony between image and text. Consider typographical images, watermarks, and beautiful capital letters.

When you have the general idea, work on each particular aspect. Here the list could be endless, for every book is unique and alive in its own right.

As designers, we must find the best graphical way to present a book for a good understanding and reading. Each book carries within it a unique space, color, and contrast that provides a rhythm. Like music. We designers also need to remember that the best book design is invisible: guiding the reader effortlessly through the book. That can only happen if the design emerges from the manuscript. No other way.

Looking at other people’s work may be inspiring. I am inspired by other designers, but also by writers, by constructors, by a perfect color palette found on a petal, by dairy workers, by calligraphers, by the sun melting the ice in the early morning. By people that love what they do. By seeing dedication. To me, inspiration is the movement that such a sight provokes the desire to improve.

What is inspiration to you?

By |June 4th, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , |6 Comments

Working with color

Here’s a sneak peek at one of the major projects we’ve worked on during the first part of this year: The Great Forgetting by Calvin Luther Martin, published by K-Selected Books.

Book design in full color proof

We’ll be discussing this book’s design a lot more but for a look at the cover go to the publisher’s page.

By |May 18th, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Working with color

A Q&A about book design amid the changes in publishing

Katie Peek over at A Canary in the Data Mine: Explorations of Data Analysis and Information Display blog posted an interview with me on the topic of book design and the changing world of electronic publishing.

By |March 11th, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on A Q&A about book design amid the changes in publishing

BOOK COVER + LAYOUT + BOOK WEBSITE = one & only message for a book

One of my favorite projects of the past year was designing the book Tomorrow May Be Too Late by Thomas Marino. The work included the design of the book cover, page layout, and the book website.

From Rich Merrit’s review:
“Banker by day, stripper by night. Twenty-one year old Tom Marino invites you to be a voyeur on a year of his life, one of youthful exuberance and mistakes, loves and loves lost. Enjoy a sexy romp through the late eighties from Philadelphia to New York. You will cry, laugh and grow angry along with Tom as the man he loves takes advantage of him…. His honesty makes this a compelling read and perhaps you will avoid his mistakes, or if you don’t, perhaps you will have as much fun making those mistakes as he did.”

This is how I love to describe the book: Tom was married, worked in a bank & lived a straight life. When he started stripping & fell in love with a guy, it all changed. The book is a ‘naked account’ of his love story during that first year as a gay man. Oh yes, we had fun working on this book design.

This is the concept that every part of the project should carry along.


I consider memoirs delicate works by definition, so it needed to be treated carefully and at the same time it had to be true to the content, including many stripping nights & hot scenes.  After reading the book and discussing the cover concept with the author we decided to go with a hot-love cover. The challenge was to keep it masculine, because that is also true to the story. Helvetica Neue Caps with strong weight variations was a big part of the answer.

Book Cover Design for Tomorrow May Be Too Late


For the layout, I gave it good margins for holding the book (ideally, the reader’s thumb will fit in the interior margin to hold the book in your hands) and also for resting the eyes. (The book is about 380 pages). For the text:  Caxton Light, a very readable font that allows the text block to breathe in a normal line-height due to its small ascenders & descenders.
Page Layout

The Helvetica Neue in different weights (from the cover) worked well for the headings and Table of Contents.

Table of Contents


Using the story told in the book as a theme, I’ve done a set of broken-heart-icons to use in different pieces (back cover, chapter numbers, website & more).
Broken Heart -icon set


The Web site for Tomorrow May Be Too Late has grown quite a bit from the initial idea: we started with a basic book Web site (cover, blurb, reviews, about the author and about the book).

Later we added new features:

  • We integrated an author blog to the Web site.
  • Shopping cart -very important if you are self-publishing!
  • The time frame of the book (’80s) was used to create a soundtrack page with the music mentioned in the book.

Book Website

By |January 8th, 2010|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , |3 Comments

How Book Design can Enhance Non-Fiction

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).

By |December 29th, 2009|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , |3 Comments

DESIGNING BOOKS: why we do it?

The end of year approaches, bringing that time to reflect on what it’s all about.

It’s easy to let the production aspects of any job overwhelm your daily work, whether it’s the deadline of completing tasks to deliver a book on time, mastering a particularly challenging feature of InDesign, selecting the best typeface for a specific project, or devising an attractive layout that presents the information on the page in an engaging manner. These are all elements that comprise the day-to-day occupation of a book designer.

Ultimately, our greatest satisfaction in designing books doesn’t come from any one activity. It’s all about the whole thing: the book, obviously. But it’s not about holding the book in our hands, viewing our design. For us, it’s all about providing the author with a superbly designed book, a book that the author loves, a book that brings the author’s vision and words to life on the page.

We’re thankful to our great clients who give us the opportunity everyday to design books.

Book layout that we're currently working on!

By |December 4th, 2009|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , |2 Comments


Working with self-publishers & small presses is a wonderful thing: they are dedicated to each project & open to new ideas. The work turns into a very collaborative process and I can offer new approaches to the book design.

This is a project we’re about to finish for a new customer, a small publisher: a poetry book for children.

Poems are very delicate creatures, and normally I wouldn’t dare manipulate the layout of poetry. However, the client specifically requested a book designer’s approach for the typography and layout.

By reading the poems I realized that each one had its own individual identity within the whole group of poems. I thought it would be interesting to bring out the story of each poem by using the typography to reinforce that unique character or situation.

I envisioned a book that the reader would find engaging & attractive to the eye. So, I mixed text and illustration by allowing the lettering to form parts of the illustration.


One of the reasons I started looking for alternatives to the more traditional approach was that the publisher wanted her target audience to be children from 6 to 12 years old. Six-year-olds need bigger font than 12-year-olds. Using different font sizes throughout the book opens the book to a broader audience, whereas setting all the text in one size would target a more specific age group.



Since the book will be printed in black ink only, a few pages with black background sprinkled throughout the book is a good option for breaking the black on white (caution! you need to discuss this option with your printer).


By |October 12th, 2009|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , , , |8 Comments

Book design: How to Take Photos that Move Houses

A great book that we designed last year is Ed Wolkis’ How to Take Photos That Move Houses. This full color book represents an example of the complex challenges in book design. Ceci is going to have a very in-depth post on the book design issues for this title. Meanwhile, head over to the book’s website and take a look at some sample pages from the book.

BTW, this book is not just for real estate professionals. It’s a fantastic book on photography for anyone.

By |September 30th, 2009|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , |Comments Off on Book design: How to Take Photos that Move Houses

Catching up: We’ve been designing books, not blogging

Our book design blog has been fairly quiet this year. 10 posts all year. That’s not much blogging. The lack of blogging isn’t from a lack of things to say, simply a lack of time with all the books that we’ve been designing. Despite the global economic crisis, the freelance book design business is healthy. Now, it’s time to make an effort to catch up on the blogging. And along the way perhaps we’ll get a chance to update our online portfolio, which is woefully out-of-date.

Stay tuned for more posts. I’ll be making brief posts about many of our current and recent projects while Ceci will offer more in-depth posts examining specific design aspects.

By |September 28th, 2009|Categories: Book Design|Tags: , |Comments Off on Catching up: We’ve been designing books, not blogging