Author Robin Morning is the foremost chronicler of ski history at California’s Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. To preserve this history for future generations, Robin started a small publishing company named Blue Ox Press. Robin’s first book, Tracks of Passion, is a beautiful large-format coffee table book with hundreds of historic images and writings that detail the development of the famous ski area. Her second book, For the Love of It, is a thoughtful piece of narrative non-fiction that tracks the lives of Dave and Roma McCoy, the founders of Mammoth Mountain.

Robin reached out to me as she finalized her written draft of For the Love of It. She was ready to move on to the design phase and needed a designer who could bring her vision to printed form.

The Project

Robin and Blue Ox Press wanted an elegant, easy to read book that would sit comfortably in readers’ hands when they curled up next to a fire with a cup of tea. Considering that For the Love of It is a book of ski history, I would expect nothing else.

Some might say, “Really? This is the design brief?”

My response, “Absolutely. And a good one at that.”

When we start thinking about the underlying design of a particular book, one of the first questions asked is “What do we want the reader to feel (in both the cerebral and physical senses) when holding this book?”

For example, holding a vellum bound Bible, Qu’ran, or Tibetan Book of the Dead can elicit reverence even in folks from other beliefs. A field guidebook printed on weather-resistant stock can inspire the reader to toss the book in a backpack as they run out the door to the next discovery. A large-format art book begs to placed on a table and the pages turned slowly and deliberatively. And a cheaply printed zine screams, “Stuff me in your back pocket, head out to the streets, read me, rip out my pages, destroy me, and create another!”

For Robin’s latest book, we needed to create a paperback that drew readers into their favorite reading chair, balanced well in their hands for a few hours of evening reading, encouraged dog-ears and highlights, and inspired them to get up early the next morning to create ski histories of their own.

The Design

Once we had the ethos of the book defined, we then had to determine the physical characteristics of the book. Blue Ox Press would issue the book as a paperback, so that was settled quickly.

The book’s size

We then looked at the word count and decided that the book should be no more than 424 pages. That page count would give us a spine width of just over an inch. Any thicker and we risked having a book that was just too big and perhaps daunting to casual readers. Knowing the spine width, we then were able to select a trim size that also would be comfortable in the hands and nicely balanced to the spine width. We settled on a trim size 5.5″ wide by 8.5″ tall, which is a standard trim size and appropriate for many paperbacks.

The book’s interior design

With the physical dimensions in hand, I was ready to dive into the fun and important task of designing a layout grid for the book’s interior. The various elements of the book’s interior, from text to image, are laid out using the grid. At this stage, it is important to move slowly and get the design right because adjusting the grid later can be tedious and difficult.

I’d like to point out that some book designers will not spend much if any time creating a design grid for traditional trade books. A book like For the Love of It presents a strong narrative and we want readers to lose themselves in the story. What we do not want is for the design to get in the way of readers’ experiences with the content. In this case, good design should disappear into the pages of the book. Designing a custom grid for the book allows me to create a predictable and purposeful form that does not distract the reader.

For Robin’s book, I created a proportional geometric grid 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 was 18 X 18 for each page, or 36 X 18 for a spread.

An image of the book design grid for a paperback book.
The document grid with horizontal lines intersecting the diagonal line.

After creating the grid, I was ready to stretch out the text block over it. Since For the Love of It is over 400 pages long, I wanted the text box not to get sucked into the gutter. I also left plenty of space at the top and bottom for headers and page numbers, and ample space on the outside edges for 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 really shine because the typefaces can be scaled to any size, into the thousandths if need be. Note that the baselines split every other grid line, adding a touch of the expressive to the geometric by both keeping with the grid and breaking it at set intervals.

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

An image of the interior design of a paperback book.
The reader sees the canvas of the typography stretched over the hidden frame of the grid.

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

Selecting a typeface for the book

For the main text of a book, especially a narrative, I advise using a serif typeface. Of these, I mostly use Adobe Minion or Adobe Caslon. Both typefaces are impeccably designed and have a broad offering of fonts. We went with Caslon for Robin’s book as it matched her previous book.

Some Last Minute Changes

It is a rare book that doesn’t need to go through several rounds of proofreading. I always advise that authors have proofreaders go through a digital draft of the designed book and then a printed draft as well. In the case of For the Love of It, proofreaders read through the digital draft several times. Each time I had them mark up the edits using Adobe Reader DC. This allowed me to import the edits into Adobe InDesign. It was a fast and relatively painless process.

Concluding Thoughts

Working with Robin Morning and Blue Ox Press was a pleasure. And I was thrilled to help in publishing an important piece of ski history. For the Love of It turned into an elegant printed book and a wonderful history of California’s Mammoth Mountain.