Modern Book Design: The Legacy of Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner

Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner are two of the most influential figures of modern book design and typography. Their take on this often esoteric but widely consumed aspect of graphic design influences our practice here at Reidhead & Company Publishers. These designers—through advocating for a more modern and functional style—revolutionized how graphic designers created books and even how the public perceived books. Today, we can witness the impact of their work and ideas in the designs of countless books, marketing, and brands worldwide.

Modern book design is inspired by the use of rational grids.

Jan Tschichold, a German typographer and book designer, was a key designer and theorist in the development of modern typography. He emphasized the importance of clear, functional layouts and argued for using grids, sans-serif typefaces, other design tools to achieve this goal. Tschichold’s 1928 book, “The New Typography,” epitomized this new approach to typography and laid out the principles of modern book design.

Paul Renner, another German, also played a pivotal role in the development of the “New Typography,” and his work, “Typographie als Kunst” (Typography as Art), further expanded on the principles laid out by Tschichold. One of Renner’s most significant contributions to book design was the use of proportional geometry, which he used to create a clear and harmonious grid for the book, upon which designers could quickly assemble text and images in a rational yet aesthetic manner. Hyphen Press produced a wonderful book on Renner; here is the link.

Their approaches marked a significant departure from the previous styles of book design, which often relied on ornate and complex layouts, such as Art Nouveau (which is back in vogue, but as a rejection of the long normalized modernism). The new style they advocated for was one of practicality and minimalism. As a parallel development to the Bauhaus movement, the new typography marked a paradigm shift that rejected traditional norms and enthusiastically adapted to the design needs of the machine age and mass production.

Of note, both designers rejected Nazism, were arrested by the German authorities for their political stances at various points, and ultimately emigrated to Switzerland to escape the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

The influence of Renner’s grid on my approach to book layout is significant. I strive to create clean and easy-to-read structures. The design should never interfere with the reader’s relationship with the content. Instead, it should facilitate and nurture the time-delayed conversation between the author and their audience. To achieve this, I often build on Renner’s concept of proportional geometry, realizing it in foundational grids that create simple yet flexible layouts that accommodate all types of content while pleasing the eye.

The work and ideas of these designers and their contemporaries helped establish a new and enduring approach to book design that we still use today. Though Tschichold eventually abandoned his strict adherence to modernist philosophy, the legacy of both designers endures in the world of graphic and book design.

Elements of Book Design: The Grid

One element of good book design, or page layout for any print or digital application, is the grid. The grid is similar to the rough framing of a building. In the building, the framing determines where the interior finishes will go. Similarly, a grid in graphic and book design determines the interior divisions upon which designers lay out the various elements, from type to illustrations and photographs.

It is important to note that sometimes book designers cast aside the grid in favor of a more expressive approach versus the rationalism of the grid. However, in the instance of a traditional, trade book that presents a strong narrative into which the reader will lose themselves, I favor using a grid to create a predictable and purposeful form that does not distract from the content the reader is after.

Designers can create grids using several approaches. In this post, I am showing a proportional geometric grid that is based on subdivisions of the book dimensions. The German designer Paul Renner described a similar process in his book Die Kunst der Typographie, published in 1948. The grid here is 18 X 18 for each page and 36 X 18 for a spread. Note that the diagonal lines intersect each division.

The document grid with horizontal lines intersecting the diagonal line.

Below is the text box stretched out over the grid. This particular book is over 400 pages long, so I wanted the text box not to get sucked into the gutter. There is also plenty of space at the top and bottom for headers and page numbers, and ample space on the outside edges for thumbs.

The text box with ample room along the margins for the gutter, headers, page numbers, and thumbs.

Next, I estimated the approximate leading and type size that I wanted to use. I then subdivided the grid units until I found the right match. In this instance, 2 units divided by 5 created the ideal leading for the type size. Digital typefaces allow this style of grid to shine because book designers can scale typefaces to any size, into the thousandths if need be. Note that the baselines split every other grid line. This adds a touch of expression to the rigid geometry by aligning to the grid and breaking it at set intervals.

The baselines, where the type will run, are built on the document grid.

Finally, I can set the content into the text block and place headers and page numbers onto the grid.

I indented the first lines of paragraphs 1 em, i.e. the height of the leading. The block quotes I indented two vertical grid units into the text box.

To convey new sections, I used a line break, no indent, and small caps. Having more than just a line break is important for when a new section starts at the top of a page.

Headers have a slight tint applied to fade them from the main text and thus be less distracting.

The final interior book design with the type set in place.
The reader sees the canvas of the typography stretched over the hidden frame of the grid.

Creating a book design this way is very enjoyable. Some might argue that a grid will constrain the typography and other visual elements. But I think that the grid frees the designer to find expression through form.

Book cover creation – an iterative process

How does one create a book cover? Does it materialize in the mind of the designer in a brilliant moment of inspiration? Or is book cover creation a formula in which the designer plugs in the genre of book and out pops a cover?

I liken it to an architect designing a building, though admittedly designing a book cover is a far simpler task.

There is a discovery phase in which the designer learns about the needs and wants of the client and about the restraints of the project. The drafts come next. These are conceptual ideas that can be presented to the client. Once a draft is chosen, multiple iterations are created within the style of the draft. Lastly, one of these iterations is chosen and refined, refined, and refined some more.

I am a visual learner, so here is the draft-by-draft book cover creation process.

The Initial Drafts

The book is a collection of the writings of Cindy Kamler, a community leader in wildlife rehabilitation. This background information established the theme of the book and directions for the cover.

We had several meetings after drafting these covers. We decided to create iterations based on the two covers with tracks and eliminated the vector-based image with the mountains.

Note the aspen leaf background on the middle cover. This was a sample stock illustration. Using stock illustrations helps to speed up the drafting process. Later, if the project needs custom art, you will be further along in the creative process and thus have a better idea of what you need.

Also, note that we used two different subtitles. We did this to get a feel for how the different subtitles would interact with the layout of the cover.

Iterations of the Selected Drafts

Next, we created a different version of each draft. We decided that the human footprints were a digression from the book’s theme, centering the book on a human rather than wildlife. And the cross-hatching on the cover with the animal tracks also had to go. So here is where we arrived after that:

At this point, we needed to pick one or the other. Our team chose the cover with the various types of animal tracks. It speaks to the style of nature guides and books of the past, including some that the client admired.

Creating Iterations of the Final Draft

Once we picked a draft and its accompanying style, we were then ready to create numerous versions, or iterations, of that draft. Here are three of those, but in fact, there were far more. Many of the iterations had a minor color or layout adjustment.

On this round, we decided on the cover with grass above both the title and the author’s name. With that decision, we were ready to create the back cover and refine it.

The Final Cover

Here is the (almost) final cover. I say “almost” because there will be a few inevitable minor changes to the back blurb copy, and the subtitle is still undergoing iterations.

The final book cover that was selected from the book cover creation process.

Print Considerations

Once the cover is ready to submit for a printed draft, we will have to decide between a gloss finish and a matte finish. I have a suspicion that a matte cover will look best (I like glossy covers for photographs and matte covers for illustrations). But all of this remains to be seen … EDIT: We went with the matte book cover, and it looks great.

Just like writing a book, the book cover creation and the design of the interior layout are also deliberative and intensely creative processes. They require time, openness, curiosity, and a willingness to step into new spaces. While many authors want to rush through this phase of the publishing process, don’t! Enjoy it, as this is the final physical manifestation of your idea.

The Basics of Book Binding Types

Perfect bound. Casebound. Softcover. Hardcover. Sewn signatures. Glued signatures. Case wrap. Dusk Jacket. Board book. Chapbook. Saddle-stitched. These are a few of the book binding types available to the publisher.

What does it all mean? And what combination is best for your project? In this article, I will explain the basics of the most commonly used book binding types and the types of publications for which they are suited. In the next article, I will discuss book cover types.

First, what does it mean to bind a book? A book consists of the interior pages (called the book block), a binding that holds the block together, a binding that attaches the block to the cover, and a protective cover. Binding a book refers to the method used to hold the book block together and then attach a cover to the block. In sales and marketing, the book cover type is often used to describe the binding, but, as we will discuss, that can be misleading, for cover types and binding types can be mixed.

Important in the binding process are the signatures. A signature is a folded sheet of paper that makes multiple pages. A book block typically consists of multiple signatures. One signature can have 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 pages.


A saddle-stitched binding is what you will often find in magazines, notebooks, comic books, or small booklets. Staples go through the center fold of the publication. This is one of the fastest and cheapest book binding types, and works best on thinner publications.

Board book

A board book is a special type of book in which the book block and binding are made from the same heavy-duty paperboard. They are designed to be very durable and therefore are used almost exclusively in children’s books. The pages and cover of a board book are typically two pieces of paperboard glued together, then the entire book is cut to shape (often with rounded corners for safety).

A board book.

Perfect bound

Perfect binding, or adhesive binding, is the most popular of the book binding types used (it is also used in some magazines). It is also the fastest and cheapest method. Signatures are glued together to create the book block and the cover is glued to the spine of the block. In some production processes, the ends of the signatures at the spine are cut off before the glue is applied. While in other processes, the signatures are glued together intact. In the later case, sections of the signatures are milled to allow glue to penetrate into the spine of the block and thus adhere to each page. Fully cut signatures are what you will see in most Print-on-Demand solutions. They are less durable than the alternative, but cheap.

If the book block is going into a softcover (a.k.a. paperback), the cover and book block are trimmed to size once assembled.

It is important to note that hardcover books can have a perfect binding. Once again, this production method is used for cost and time. Print-on-Demand hardcover books are printed this way.

The most common of book binding types, perfect binding.
Perfect binding.
Perfect binding with intact signatures.
Perfect binding with intact signatures.

Sewn bindings

The terminology can get confusing here because the terms are often used interchangeably between the block binding and the cover type. Case-binding is a popular sewn binding for hardcover books, but can also be used for softcover books. Signatures are stitched together, then fabric is glued over the spine of the book block. The cover, or case, is then glued to the book block.

There are different types of sewn bindings, including oversewing and Smyth Sewing. Again, it is important to remember that sewn bindings can have either hardcovers or softcovers. Softcover books with durable sewn bindings include nature and outdoor guide books, which need to be both durable and portable.

Softcover with glued and sewn binding.
Softcover with glued and sewn binding.
A hardcover, case wrap, with sewn binding. Another common choice among book binding types.
A hardcover, case wrap, with sewn binding.
Cloth hardcover with dust jacket and sewn binding.
Cloth hardcover with dust jacket and sewn binding.

Further Reading

Book Design: A comprehensive guide by Andrew Haslam is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dive further into the art and engineering of good book design and production.

Excerpt from Haslam's book on book design.
Excerpt from Haslam’s book.

Cover Types

But what about hardcover, softcover, case wrap, and dust jacket? I’ll discuss those in the next post.