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 could be compared to the rough framing of a building. In the building, the framing determines where the interior finishes will go and how they will be fastened to the structure. Similarly, a grid in graphic and book design determines the interior divisions upon which the elements, from type to visuals like illustrations and photographs, are laid out.

It is important to note that sometimes the grid is cast aside 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 predictable and purposeful form that does not distract from the content the reader is after.

Grids can be designed around several styles. 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, or 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 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.

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

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

The reader sees the canvas of the typography stretched over the hidden frame of the grid.

Designing a book 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.

The iterative process of book cover creation

How does one create a book cover? Does it materialize in the mind of the designer in a brilliant moment of inspiration? Or is it 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 process of creating a recent book cover.

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. The vector-based cover with mountains was eliminated.

Note the aspen leaf background on the middle cover. This was a sample stock illustration. Using stock illustrations helps to speed the drafting process. Later, if custom art is needed, 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. The cover with the various types of animal tracks was selected. 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 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.

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 …