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Page Design 101

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At its most basic, the publishing process entails three steps:

  1. Write book.
  2. Print book.
  3. Sell book.

Our focus here is on an all-important set of activities between (1) and (2) that will affect (3) for good or for ill–namely, page design (size and arrangement) and typography.


Selecting a Size

Page design begins with choosing a reasonable size for the book. Look at other books in the same category. Unless you have a specific and significant reason to choose another size, stick with one that other books in the same genre use.

Some common sizes (with common names) are:


  • 4 x 5 “Pocket Book”
  • 4 x 9 “Rack Brochure” (This is also an excellent size for a small “tips” booklet since it will fit in a standard #10 envelope.)
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 (or 5-3/8 x 8-3/8) “Digest” (Half Letter)
  • 6 x 9 “Standard Novel”
  • 7 x 10 “Text Book”
  • 8 x 8 “Juvenile”
  • 8-1/2 x 9-1/4 “Software Manual”
  • 8-3/8 x 10-7/8 “Standard Catalog”
  • 8-1/2 x 11 “Standard Letter”
  • 9 x 12 &quotÐJusic Book”
  • 11 x 11 “Sunday Insert”


“Digest” and “Standard Novel” are the sizes independent publishers use most often. These sizes are practical to produce on most printing presses with a reasonable level of efficiency. If you’re planning to use any trim size larger than “Standard Letter,” you should check on costs with your printer. Many short-run book printers use “half web” or large sheet-fed presses that are not economical with some of the larger page sizes.

On a Xerox Docutech (commonly used with POD production), the “Standard Letter” and “Digest” (Half Letter) sizes offer a higher degree of efficiency than the others. With these two sizes, the amount of trimming required is reduced and so is the paper waste.


Professional Tools

Just as you use a word processor to process words, you should use a page layout program to lay out pages. It’s shortsighted to use the wrong tool for the job. The primary professional page layout programs suitable for book production are:

  • Adobe InDesign
  • Adobe PageMaker
  • Adobe Framemaker
  • Quark Xpress, and
  • Corel Ventura.

Any of these programs will generate good typesetting if you make appropriate adjustments to certain internal settings.

Quark Xpress currently has the largest market share for page layout programs. There are several reasons for this, none of which has anything to do with the needs of book publishers. (Although if you use and enjoy Quark, we aren’t suggesting that you change to another program.)

InDesign, a relatively new program, has quickly moved into second place for market share–also due to issues that have little to do with book publishing. (If you’re getting the idea that book design and publishing do not drive the desktop publishing software market, you would be right.) Nevertheless, InDesign has features that are particularly useful to book designers, and it has the best typographic “engine” of any of the page layout programs. It’s the first desktop program that equals (or exceeds) the typographic quality of the previous generation of dedicated typesetting computers.

PageMaker is the next most popular program. It’s the easiest to learn and it has features that make it particularly attractive for general trade books. (We didn’t say it was easy to learn, only easiest.) Because of programming considerations, it is likely that PageMaker will someday be withdrawn from the market in favor of InDesign. At present, however, Adobe has repositioned PageMaker as a “business graphics” program and lowered the price–a bonus for a program that has served book publishers well.

Framemaker has been around for many years. It is fairly difficult to learn but well regarded for complex documents that need frequent updates or have multiple versions (in different languages). Often used for software documentation, it has a wide following in the academic publishing area. A version supports SGML (Structured Generalized Markup Language)–a feature that’s useful only to those who need SGML. (And if you don’t know what SGML is, don’t ask.) It is also particularly strong with footnotes and tables.

Corel Ventura is the latest iteration of Ventura Publisher. Once a popular program (when owned by Xerox) on the PC platform, it has suffered from neglect and frequent changes of ownership over the years. It is no longer used by many publishers or supported by many printers.

Microsoft Publisher is mentioned only as a program to avoid for professional level work. While it can be used to produce books, most people who used it later regretted their decision. It is also nearly impossible to find a book printer who can directly support this program.

Avoid any other “low end” page layout programs too. They are best for simple newsletters and bulletins.


Layout Decisions

Page arrangements, particularly the choice of margins, are critical. Although generalizations are difficult, most authorities agree that margins should be generous rather than slender, that they should not all be equal in size, and that a progression in margin size is desirable–widest at the bottom, next widest at the outside, slightly less wide at the top, and narrowest on the inside or gutter.

Many additional considerations on margins are discussed in publications we’re suggesting as Enlightening Reading (see our list for titles), and books about book history provide examples of page layout used through the years, suggesting many design ideas.

But perhaps the most critical page design decisions have to do with typography, defined by Ruari McLean in his book Typography as “the art of designing communication by means of the printed word.” Communicating with images rather than words is different. When both images and words are used together, though, the word portion is still called typography.

The fact that typography is an art helps explain why some of the very first printed books remain among the best ever done and why anyone interested in understanding typography needs to appreciate some of the history of printing. We encourage exploration of that history (see Chappell in the Enlightening Reading list), but for now we’ll just leave it that writing has existed for about 7,000 years. Books in their earliest form (as scrolls) probably first appeared more than 5,000 years ago. Books in their familiar rectangular form appeared nearly 2,300 years ago. Printing with movable type began (in the West) some 500 years ago.

With this long history, the design of books has developed many accepted standards and discarded many experiments. It’s therefore best to stick with the “tried and true” methods to design your book.


Typographic Goals

The basic directions for typography, paraphrased from The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, are:

  1. The typeface or group of faces must harmonize with the content of the text.
  2. The shape of the page and the text block must also be in harmony with the text.
  3. Even color (by control of spacing) is essential. (“Color” in typographic language often, as here, means the relative darkness of appearance of the text blocks, not literal color.)

A list of goals might also focus on:


  1. Readability (accomplished by choice of typeface and leading)
  2. Balance in page layout
  3. Even color of the text.

These goals, though broad, correctly emphasize the essential role of the text itself in determining typographic choices.

Choosing a typeface that will harmonize with the text’s content and contribute to readability is easier if you understand something about typeface classifications. Although there are as many ways of classifying typefaces as there are typographers, one simple classification segments them into Old Style; Modern; Slab Serif; Sans Serif; and Display, Titling and Script. The illustration above [or below or whatever] shows the factors that distinguish the first four classes from each other. The fifth is a catchall category with a very broad range and variety of faces in this class.

What difference does it make? Don’t text faces all look pretty much alike? It’s true that only training and experience let you tell faces apart quickly or put a name to a particular face. But there are three reasons to be aware of these classifications. First, rules for mixing typefaces (given below and discussed by Williams in some of his design books) require you to recognize classes. Second, choosing a typeface that is consonant with the qualities of the text necessarily involves sensitivity to the style and historical context of each face. And third, if you need to match a particular face, knowing where to start–by typeface class–will help considerably.

When you want to recognize or match typefaces, it can help to focus on the g, a, e, and t, or sometimes b, f and y, which are often the most characteristic letters. Thus the letter combination “hamburgefonstiv” has come into use as an aid to typographers in examining characteristic letters of a typeface.


Class Characteristics

Old Style.

This is the style arising from the earliest Roman types. As the illustration shows, the most notable characteristics of Old Style typefaces are their clear debt to pen-drawn characters, a diagonal stress, and moderate thick/thin stroke contrast.

Generally, the Old Style typefaces are considered the most elegant and readable of all text faces. These are the most reliable category to choose from for the text of a book.


This unfortunate term was adopted when these faces were new, in about 1800. They have a mechanical feel, unlike pen-drawn characters, a significant difference in contrast between the thick and thin parts of a stroke, and a vertical stress. They remain popular in Europe, especially France, for text settings. These typefaces are usually better avoided in the U.S. unless you are very familiar with what makes a good, readable typeface. (The thin parts of the strokes tend to disappear, giving the reader a “picket fence” effect that can make comprehension very difficult.)

Slab Serif.

Devised for advertising around 1820, these faces have a name that describes their most salient feature. They are also called “Egyptian,” from the fad raging at the time of their introduction. Some have been very successful for text, such as Century Expanded, New Century Schoolbook, and Bookman.

Sans Serif.

Though many think of Sans Serif faces as intrinsically twentieth century, they date back to Greek inscriptions and to the Italian Renaissance. Their introduction into printing came at about 1830, and the earlier styles are still called “Grotesque” (from English and German terminology) or (in America) “Gothic.” (You may think of Gothic as referring to the ornate type used for many newspaper mastheads but that is more correctly categorized as “Blackletter.”) In the modernist period of the 1920s, Geometric versions were devised. “Humanist” versions have variation in stroke and avoid rigid geometrical design.

Display, Titling and Script.

This fifth class is used mostly for display work, such as advertising. Some of these faces could be suitable for titling in books, but none is normally used for text.

(Note: Experienced book critics and typographers, and laboratory studies by psychologists, have almost always concluded that serif faces are considerably more readable in text settings.)

When it’s necessary to mix typefaces–that is, to use more than one typeface on a page–two rules are helpful:

Rule #1: Don’t use typefaces from the same class together

Rule #2. Don’t combine typefaces with the same characteristics; make sure you maintain contrast. This more subtle and difficult rule is covered in detail by Robin Williams–no, not that Robin Williams–in his books The Mac Is Not a Typewriter and The PC Is Not a Typewriter.



Spacing Suggestions

First, a few definitions related to spacing:


  • “Page space”


      means the space occupied by text (or illustrations, or both), and the margins around the text.


  • “Horizontal space”


      has three parts:


      (which is in fact the space between letters),


      (the space between words), and


      (the width of the text block).


  • “Vertical space”




    (rhymes with “wedding”), the space between lines.

As Robert Bringhurst points out, readability and organization of the text are the priorities, then color. You can achieve these goals best if you:

    1. Choose the wordspace to fit the size and natural letterfit of the font; don’t allow the wordspace to be too wide.
    2. Choose a comfortable measure (from 50 to 70 characters per line).
    3. Choose leading to suit the typeface size, character, and x-height (the height of the body of lower-case letters [body = without ascenders or descenders; see the figure showing parts of type.]

Typefaces vary considerably in x-height, which affects readability (the larger the x-height, the more legible the text) and choice of leading.

An obvious giveaway of desktop publishing or of novice typographers is the failure to control spacing in their layout program, thus allowing both letterspace and wordspace to vary widely. Most page layout applications let you control the range over which wordspace and letterspace can vary to fill lines. We recommend changing default settings to: word space, minimum 85%, maximum 125%; letter space, minimum 0%, maximum 15%. But experiment for yourself and see how you like the look of different values for these attributes. Also, be aware that optimum values may differ for different typefaces.

General guidelines for leading parameters are: use more leading (a) with Sans Serif, bold, and italic type to increase readability; (b) with relatively long lines; (c) with short descenders; and (d) to lighten weight (color).

Most body copy is suitably set between 9 and 11 points (depending on the typeface) with two points leading–9/11, 10/12, 11/13. (The “auto” leading setting in most programs is 20% larger than the type size.) If you use 12 point or larger type, be very careful to ensure that it’s not really too large for the page (a common error, because it is more readable on the computer screen).

It takes judgment, experience, and a study of good examples to learn how these factors work and how they interact. But by trying different combinations, you can readily see what looks best to your eye.


[Sidebar #1]

Enlightening Reading



  • A Short History of the Printed Word,

Warren Chappell, 2000 (Hartley & Marks)

  • Anatomy of a Typeface,

Alexander Lawson, 2002 (David Godine, Boston): history and typography


Design (& Typography)


  • Book Design,

Douglas Martin, 1990 (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York)

  • Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works,

Erik Spiekermann and E. M. Ginger, 2002 (Adobe Press, Mountain View)

  • Type and Layout,

Colin Wheildon, 1995 (Strathmoor Press, Berkeley)

  • The Non-Designer’s Design Book,

Robin Williams, 1994 (Peachpit Press, Berkeley)

  • Methods of Book Design,

Hugh Williamson, 1983 (Oxford University Press, London); a paperback edition is available from Yale University Press.




  • The PC Is Not a Typewriter,

Robin Williams, 1990 (Peachpit Press, Berkeley)

  • The Mac Is Not a Typewriter,

Robin Williams




  • Using Type Right,

Philip Brady, 1989 (North Light Books, Cincinnati)

  • Basic Typography,

James Craig, 1990 (Watson-Guptill, New York)

  • Typography,

Ruari McLean, 1980, 1992 (Thames & Hudson, New York)




  • The Elements of Typographic Style,

Robert Bringhurst, 2002 (Hartley & Marks, Vancouver)


Additional Titles


  • A Manual of Style,

12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th editions – all useful (University of Chicago Press, Chicago)

  • The Electronic Type Catalog,

Steve Byers, 1992 (Random House, New York)


This article is drawn from the materials presented by Pete Masterson, Anthony Thompson, and Peter Goodman in the Book Design 101 class at the 2003 PMA Publishing University.

Anthony Thompson is a Co-owner of Signature Press, a publisher of railroad history books. See www.signaturepress.com for more information. Pete Masterson, Principal of Aeonix Publishing Group, a book design service, is just now finishing a book on book design for independent publishers. Watch for a spring 2004 release of “Book Design and Production: A Practical Guide for Authors and Publishers,” and see www.aeonix.com for more information.


[Sidebar #2]

Top Choice Typefaces

Some of the great metal typefaces have not been well digitized for computer use, but the Adobe digital versions have been extremely well reviewed. The recent Minion face, by Robert Slimbach for Adobe, is exceptional too, though not precisely an Old Style face.

In the selection of good “book” typefaces that follows, the emphasis is on Old Style faces for text use; the Sans Serif faces should usually be used only for titling.

  • Baskerville
  • Bembo
  • Californian (or Berkeley Old Style)
  • Caslon
  • Century Expanded
  • Garamond
  • Cheltenham
  • Jenson
  • Goudy Old Style
  • Minion
  • New Century Schoolbook
  • Palatino
  • Sabon
  • Stone Serif

Some good Sans Serif typefaces for headings:

  • Franklin Gothic
  • Gill Sans
  • Antique Olive
  • Syntax
  • Officina Sans
  • Frutiger
  • Optima
  • Stone Sans
  • Myriad

What about Times Roman and Helvetica (and its look-alike, Arial)? These are poor choices due to overuse, and they are not outstanding faces in any case. Times was designed for the narrow columns of a newspaper. Helvetica enjoys the dubious distinction of being used on many government forms, including the dreaded forms from the IRS.


[Sidebar #3]

Additional Pointers

Only a small part of the typographer’s art can be covered here. Many more details are explained and dissected in the books listed in Enlightening Reading.

Here are a few tips you may find especially useful.

  1. Text and even headlines generally prove less legible when set entirely in capitals, or in italic or bold. Minimize use of these settings.
  2. The “type style” function in a word processor or page layout program can provide a “fake” italic typeface by merely slanting the regular upright glyphs. Some Sans Serif faces do, in fact, form italic or oblique characters this way, but most typefaces have a separately designed italic face. Use it whenever available. (“Fake” italics or bold will probably not reproduce correctly on a high resolution image setter at the printer.)
  3. Small capitals can be “faked” as a style, but should be taken from the typeface itself whenever available.
  4. Avoid outlined or shadowed type–this is an abomination that arrived with desktop publishing.
  5. An orphan is the first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page or column; a widow is the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page or column. Both should be avoided, though orphans are less damaging to appearance. If absolutely necessary, widows may be tolerated if they are over half a line in length. Be especially careful to avoid widows and orphans between the bottom of a right hand page and the top of the following, left hand page, as you must turn the page to finish the paragraph.
  6. Avoid hyphens or lowercase letter ‘o’ for bullets. Professional page layout software gives you several options for bullets, or you can use symbols from the Zapf Dingbats typeface.
  7. Avoid gray boxes behind text. Avoid boxes, especially those with rounded corners. Avoid putting boxes inside boxes. Avoid borders around your pages. These elements need to be used with care. (If you must use a screen behind type, select a minimum of 15% and a maximum of 30%. Lower values often drop out during reproduction and higher values make the type unreadable.



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