Finding your way through a book is a bit like navigating in a car. As with driving, it is best if people don’t have to pull out maps. Map reading often indicates a failure of navigation. Reasonable structure and good signage can get most people where they are going. Just as city planning and civil engineering are as important as cartography to finding your way, editorial functions are as important as graphic design to book navigation.
Different Roads, Different Signs
In some cases, not much structure is needed. A rural Interstate highway, like many novels, doesn’t give you much chance to get lost. Mileage markers and, perhaps, some clearly marked rest stops suffice since the trip is point-to-point on one inevitable route.
Navigating through an engineering text or a movie guide is more like driving around town. There are more places to go and more choices to make than in a novel. But towns can seem rational (or at least conventional) even to a stranger passing through. Stores and restaurants are on Main Street, houses on Elm, and Central Highway gets you through with the fewest stop signs.
One way that towns signal their content to travelers is with clearly delineated districts. Just as building setbacks and lawns signal a residential district, the use of colored backgrounds or alternate typefaces can let a reader know that secondary, auxiliary, or explanatory information lives in this area. Signs that say “Downtown Shopping District” aren’t bad, but a concentration of shops is a stronger signal; form is a cent=er sign than a label.
The more ways you can help people find things the better. Sometimes we have so many tree-lined streets that the visitor is baffled about getting to the housewarming party. Here in Southern California, the suburbs go on for hundreds of miles so many of us carry a Thomas Brothers Guide or two. These handy books have area maps that, like a clear table of contents, let us find out what page to turn to in order to locate a local map of our destination. When that’s not enough, there’s an index of every street in the county that will guide the lost visitor to the right part of the right page. In other words, the user has a choice of ways to find the information.
There’s no simple rule about the right number of choices for finding information. For instance, it would be great to have The Thomas Guide tell you where to find a café or a bar on your way home so you can recover from the screaming kids at the housewarming–like a gigantic version of one of Rick Wurman’s Access guides. Unfortunately, that would make the books harder to use for just getting around the freeways and finding addresses; they’d weigh 20 pounds, cost $70, and go out-of-date fast.
The Index Is for the User
The Thomas Brothers Guides need only a modest index. If I’m looking for Thousand Oaks Boulevard, I’m likely to look under “T.” I’m not going to search around for 103, acorn, quercus, or even oak. Most information isn’t so simple. How many hours have people spent leafing through software manuals because they couldn’t find anything in the index under “box” or “border” and the function they wanted was listed only as “rules around rectangles”?
An index is like a map–often used by someone who is lost. If they thought the way you do, they probably wouldn’t be lost in your book in the first place. Accommodate as many ways of thinking as possible. An index for a biography might need only to lead a reader to references to certain places or people. An informational guide will need a more robust index. (I know I’ll find a good software manual the day I pick one up and the index is bigger than the text section of the book.) Although some books may not seem to need an index, remember that not everyone will use your book the way you expect. (And although this may not be a navigation issue, a nonfiction book without an index will lose library sales.)
Somewhere between your town just mystically making sense to all travelers and the need for everyone to buy a new car with a GPS system falls signage. Some signs anticipate where people might want to go and direct them: Santa Monica Freeway that way, state park this way. The cut-out tabs on dictionaries get you straight to the first letter of your word. The same thing can be accomplished with printing that bleeds off the outside of a page, marking the edge of the book.
Most signage isn’t strictly directional–it tells you something about where you are and lets you infer something from that. You’re at 32nd Street and you just passed 34th, so 28th is probably the other way. The trick with signage is putting it in the place where someone is likely to look when they need it. This means making sure it’s frequent enough, but it also means not loading the street with so many similar signs that they all just disappear, or making the signs so large that the driver’s view is constantly obscured.
Some of the signs that are common in books include clear statements of subject matter such as subheads. As with street signs, the effectiveness of any form will be affected by its environment. A blinking light will stick out to the point of being distracting on a suburban residential street. On the Las Vegas Strip, it will disappear. In an even texture of 10-point type, a subhead of 11- or 12-point size (or 10-point semi-bold) will be dramatic. Larger or bolder type could be disruptive without being any clearer, but a noisier environment might demand greater contrast of size or weight. Other indications of structure help the reader understand where to look for new subjects or logical places to rest. The use of bold type, small caps, drop caps, or space can all signal a change in district or a major intersection to the reader traveling through the book.
Street signage often uses color or shape to reveal function–location signs green, informational signs blue, traffic directions yellow, etc.–but don’t expect that too many or too-subtle distinctions will register. Imagine trying to understand (let alone remember) the meanings of 12 different shades of blue. The same goes for distinctions between too many levels of headings or too many different districts. Tell your readers where they are but don’t tell them so much that they can’t focus on the scenery.
Gunnar Swanson is a graphic designer, media designer, writer, and educator who has taught at several universities, headed graphic design and multimedia programs, and been honored with more than 50 awards and publications. He is the editor and designer of “Graphic Design & Reading” from Allworth Press.
Swanson can be reached at 805/667-2200, email@example.com, or at