Wednesday 27 May 2009

Guest Post: How Book Design Affects Readability

A couple of weeks ago I was talking on the phone with Maggie Dana (who comments here regularly as Mags), and she mentioned to me that as well as being a writer, she works as a book designer and typesetter. We talked about how good typesetting not only makes books so much more readable, but more desirable too, and more likely to be bought; and then our converstation moved on. When Scott Pack's name came up, I mentioned to Maggie that he'd sent me a copy of The Sonnets, which is published by Scott's imprint The Friday Project, and which was sitting on the desk right beside me at the time. I told her how I particularly liked its internal design, and felt that the typesetter had done a better-than-average job on it: the clever font-choice and careful spacing of the text on the page beautifully enhanced the measured flow of the prose. Maggie laughed, and told me to turn to the copyright page and there it was: "Typeset by Maggie Dana". After that I had to ask her to write me a piece about typesetting and here it is, for you to share.

Pinned to my notice board amid a jumble of typeface lists, dog-eared business cards, and photos of my grandchildren, is a sticky note that keeps me honest when I’m tempted to get too experimental or too fancy with a book design project. It says:

A typographer’s first obligation is to the reader.

This holds true for all printed media from newspapers to billboards, but nowhere is it as crucial as in a book. How many times have you picked one up, only to find yourself putting it back on the shelf and wondering why? Perhaps it was by your favourite author or had glowing reviews; maybe it was a bestseller with a gorgeous cover and a tantalising blurb on the back. But when you opened the book and began to read, you changed your mind.


More than likely it was the text design. Something about it got in the way of readability. It could’ve been an inappropriate font, not enough leading (space between the lines), or a visual distraction such as a page number halfway down each outside margin. There are numerous ways for the appearance of a book’s page to turn off a potential reader.

A book’s design (I’m talking interior page design here, not covers) has one major purpose and that is to make the words on the page end up in the reader’s mind as effortlessly and as seamlessly as possible. Doesn’t matter if the book is a novel, a textbook, a dictionary, or even a car repair manual, the principle is the same. If the reader is motivated to absorb the information but finds himself unable to do so, the design is not doing its job.

I recently read about a study conducted at the University of Michigan involving the complex interplay of effort, motivation, and cognitive crunching. A group of college students were given written instructions for a regular exercise routine. Half the students received their instructions printed in a plain, readable font; the other half’s instructions were in a decorative font that looked as if it had been written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush. It was unfamiliar and hard to read.

The findings were remarkable. The students whose instructions were printed in the simple, unadorned font, were much more open to the prospect of exercising. Apparently, their brains equated ease of readability with ease of doing push-ups and crunches. On the other hand, those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym. The reading had tired them out.

The instructions were identical; the only difference was the font, which boils down to this: a good designer will always use a font that’s appropriate for the task at hand. In the case of books, this means a serif font such as Garamond, Goudy, Sabon, or Times. A font with no serifs like Futura or Helvetica, while great for headlines and motorway signs, isn’t suitable for a book’s running text. It takes longer to read and it tires the eye. So will lines of type that are too close together or too far apart. Either way, you’ll find yourself reading the same line twice, or skipping one altogether.

It was my son Paul who really brought home to me the importance of good book design back when I first started in the business quite a few years ago. We were on the train, heading for New York where I had some appointments with publishers and he had a job interview. Paul, a freelance programmer who already had several programming languages under his belt, was adding yet another, and doing it in a major hurry. He showed me his textbook and said it was the best he’d ever read when it came to absorbing complex information. The design was crisp and clean, with an excellent choice of fonts and colours, plenty of white space, effective illustrations, and not too many bells and whistles such as icons, starbursts, and time bombs that seem to inhabit most computer manuals these days. Clearly, that book’s designer had done his or her job, and done it well, because my son, who had precisely three days to learn the new language not only landed that particular freelance gig, but several others as well.

So the next time you pick up a book, take a moment to examine the interior design and see if it appeals to you, if it makes reading the book a pleasure because, mostly, that’s what reading’s all about. Unless, of course, you’re trying to learn a new programming language in under three days!

Maggie Dana was born and raised in England, but has lived in Connecticut for many years. A book designer and typesetter, Maggie is also the author of six books for children. Her first novel for grownups, Beachcombing, will be published on 5 June, 2009, by Macmillan New Writing.


Lexi said...

What an interesting post. The impact of design is hugely underestimated by the public, who tend to say it doesn't matter all that much.

On YouWriteOn and Authonomy, I frequently commented on poor layout and formatting, because it's distracting to the reader, and got the impression the writers thought it a side issue not worth correcting.

(On a separate subject, what's with the vogue for headless women on book covers?)

green_knight said...

Interior design is often underrated - I mean, all you need it to choose a common font and run the damn thing, don't you? - and that has never been made clearer to me than picking up a stack of self-published novels recently, none of which were readable from a sheer technical point of view. I have, in most cases, no idea how bad the text was, because double-spaced and sans serif fonts and crude drawings all distracted from the content. On the other hand, there are the good books, the ones that make you swoon with their sheer elegance - maybe they're just little touches like a slightly uncommon font and beautiful drop caps, maybe - in nonfiction -they're more elaborate, but good design is always a thing of beauty.

Jan Jones said...

This a fabulous post. Thank you, Maggie for the interesting slant on 'interior design'.

Derek said...

I love typography (as you can probably tell from the name I gave my blog!).

Kathryn Magendie said...

Comprehensive and interesting post! I like the type in my book and wonder who did it - now I want to know a name!

Jamieson Wolf said...

What a lovely post, and you're bang on about typesetting being very important.

I usually get drawn in by a books cover, but then I pick it up to see if I can actually read the darn thing.

I have very poor eye sight, so books with teeny tiny print put me off, as well as books with not enough white space on the page.

I have turned away from many excellent books and novels because the type on the inside isn't well done. An example of this that comes to mind is The Stand by Stephen King where the print is sooooo small that I can only read a couple pages at a time.

The Friday Project are particularly skilled at this as they always produce beautiful books that are also readable.

Anne Rice's books (the hard covers specifically) are also well done in terms of type setting. There is always LOTS of white space for the words to get comfortable in.

Fabulous food for thought. Oh, and I LOVED The Sonnets.

Kristina said...

How interesting! First, what a fun coincidence about that book... Mags, you are indeed multitalented!

I'm partial to Garamond myself. I use it when typing up my manuscripts. It seems so elegant.

avril said...

Such an interesting post and Jamieson makes a really important point - my eye sight is OK but struggling a bit according to a recent diagnosis- its so important for me being both a writer and a reader to have good design, decent sized font and white space. i try to remeber this when bloggin too


Ellie said...

Very interesting viewpoint, and one that is often overlooked. Thanks.

Jane Smith said...

Kristina wrote, "...what a fun coincidence about that book... Mags, you are indeed multitalented!"I know--we were both knocked speechless for a while, and then we laughed a LOT. And yes, I love the book and still have it beside me, with its lovely, elegant writing AND design.

Thank you, Maggie, for this post. It discusses such an important point, which many people don't even think about.

(By the way, everyone, Maggie is lined up to contribute to my Trios series soon, which is going to be great.)

Patrick Nugent said...

This is a very interesting area. Speaking as a book designer of almost 40 years (mostly complex, illustrated non-fiction) I have seen many changes in typographical fashions: the hems have gone up and down many times, so to speak. However we designers have to be careful in trying to send editorial messages via typography, ie in using complex hierarchical structures of headings, which the reader is expected to hold in the head while navigating complex, usually, non-fiction material. I have learnt to keep type as simple as possible. Research was done some years back by Herbert Spencer, published in his book ‘This Visible Word’. In this it was found that while reading speed and comprehension is effected by typographical factors other elements came into play. The readers, when asked after they had read a passage of text, hadn’t picked up on very basic features such as whether type was ranged left or justified, or even whether it was it was serifed or sans serifed.
Beatrice Warde, the patron saint of typography, in her book of essays, ‘The Crystal Goblet’ stated that type in books should be regarded as the glass in a window, that is you should be able look though it to see the view without being aware of its presence. Unless the typographer is producing the equivalent of a stained glass window, where it is the glass that is the point, typographical flourishes and decoration should be used with extreme care.
I have often said that, in spite of the many thousands of typefaces available to the designer these days, I wouldn’t be unhappy if I was told that for the future I could only use Bembo family, as a serif, and Gill family as a sans for book interiors.

Patrick Nugent FSCD

Maggie Dana said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments. I'm so glad my article struck a cord with you and am happy to answer questions, if anyone has any. I'm a typography nut and can talk about fonts, white space, and true small caps (Derek!!!) all day.

By 'true' I mean a typeface that's specifically designed to be caps and small caps, no lowercase letters at all. Not all font collections come with a true caps/small caps typeface. Sadly, when they don't, some designers will use a faux cap/small cap setting that makes me nuts. And when I see something as egregious as bold italic caps/small caps, I go postal. Caps/small caps should only be displayed in roman, not italic or bold or any other variation.

See, I told you I was a font nut!

Maggie Dana said...


I like both Bembo and Gill, but Adobe's versions (which I own) have given me nothing but grief. Not enough kerning pairs and too little space after terminal punctuation, especially the period. I even talked to Adobe about it and got nowhere, so I stopped using both fonts.

I was told by another typesetter that the only way to solve these issues was with Fontographer, or by adjusting kerning pairs in my page layout program. I'm not willing to do either; I'll just use other fonts.

If you have any words of wisdom here, I'm all ears!

Jane Smith said...

Maggie, this piece has been linked to from the Bookseller's front page today (go and look right now!), so it's getting a LOT of hits.

I just love watching people obsess over things like this, and find the Bembo/Gill/true caps discussion fascinating. I think I can even follow part of it, although I'm not even going to attempt to participate in that bit of the conversation!

Patrick, if you're not careful I'll make you write something for my blog too: I love your Beatrice Warde quote, "type in books should be regarded as the glass in a window, that is you should be able look though it to see the view without being aware of its presence." That's just lovely, and so true.

Kara Ferguson said...

Lovely post. Thank you!

Patrick Nugent said...


I should have pointed out, I guess, that the versions of both Bembo and Gill I would be happy to use to the exclusion of all other typefaces are of the course the old Monotype cuts, which are still the finest. But then as I said, I've been around a very, very long time...

And Jane

I'd be happy to contribute to your blog. I have loads to say. You may end up regretting it


Kim Hruba said...

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a recent example of design gone well. In fact, I found it so reader friendly, I wonder if part of its success could be attributed to this. It certainly added something to my reading experience.

RDJ said...

Great post, and something I often think about.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have picked up a book, hated the font or how dense it all was, and put it right back down again.

Or really liked a font and the layout. A nice layout really stands out for me: the hardcover edition of Harlan Ellison's Slippage, which I bought over ten years ago, still stands out in my mind as being really well done; the hardcover edition of Stephen King's fifth and sixth Dark Tower books, as well (the rest I bought in paperback, so I don't know if the others are different); and others.

I don't really remember bad layouts, though, probably because I tend not to spend much time with them.

This is why I still do most of my book buying in actual brick and mortar book stores. I want to be able to pick up and book and look through it before I decide if it's an object I'm willing to spend ten or fifteen hours with.

Derek said...

Maggie, I think InDesign lets you choose between metrical and optical kerning.

Maggie Dana said...

Derek, ID is on my hard drive waiting for me to continue working with it. I'm still doing most of my stuff in Quark because that's what my current crop of clients wants me to use. But thanks for the heads-up. Good to know for the future.

Patrick ... I love those old Monotype cuts as well. As good as digital type can be, there's nothing like the old 'uns for sheer gorgeousness.

Paige Jeffrey said...

Not something I always think about when choosing a book, but it's so true! Thanks for the truly awesome post. :)

Nicola Morgan said...

We need people like you, Maggie! I wouldn't have a clue how to choose fonts but it's so obvious when someone gets it right - or wrong ...

Thank you!

Melinda Szymanik said...

I am the extremely grateful recipient of some fabulous design on my last picture book. Book designers are unsung heroes, as we don't consciously think of design when we find a book readable. Nor do we blame them when we dislike the book and put it back on the shelf. But design can make all the difference. Maggie and Patrick, the thrill you get discussing fonts just illustrates why you are so good at what you do.

Jane Smith said...

I'm not surprised that there's been such a positive reaction to this post: Maggie's such a good writer, and has written about such an important, and often overlooked subject.

And Patrick, why don't you email me? "HPRW at tesco dot net" should get through to me.

Alis said...

A fabulous and wonderfully informative post - thanks to both Jane and Maggi. I know I've put down books before now because of their ugly typesetting but I don't think I have truly appreciated how much of a difference good typesetting makes. I shall from now on!

Imogen said...

My graphic designer brother always says the best book (& for that matter magazine, website, prospectus, you name it) design is invisible - you don't even notice the text has been "designed" because the layout, typography etc do their job so well that you can simply sit back, read and enjoy.

Tangledally said...

A very interesting post indeed, and despite being a bit of a font-geek myself, I had never really considered the impact that it has on my reading.

I wonder how much of this wisdom is transferable to websites?

Bubblecow tweeted a link this morning that goes into this a little bit:

Theresa M. Moore said...

As an author and book designer I tend to use the most readable fonts, and lately I prefer Palatino Linotype and Comic Sans Serif. I never use 11 point for anything unless I am designing a file for upload to an ereader processing engine. I find that 10 point is sufficient. I also use 8 pt spaces between blocks of text to save space. I chose the straight block design like this because when I used to read books I found Times Roman hard to read, even with glasses. I am about telling the story, not really creating an art book. For my book covers, on the other hand, I try to tailor the art to fit what is inside. I even develop title calligraphy when necessary to convey what the book is about.

OH said...

Internal design is still one of the easy ways to differentiate a professional effort from most DIY print-on-demand works--someone just didn't quite enough homework to pull it off.

But my pet peeve is online literary magazines that have horrid design, both in terms of overall effect and readability. If you can appreciate elegance in language, then don't cheat the words--serve them appropriately.

Anonymous said...

Happy the author who can suggest a more readable font or different layout for a contents page, for instance, and be listened to and taken seriously. Having published 19 books with presses from Doubleday to Leapfrog, I've found that smaller presses tend to treat their authors better around all design issues. I've had very rewarding cover and design consultation with Leapfrog, Perseverance, University of Wisconsin Press, and Walker (before they were sold), and I still chuckle over my novelist friend who's worked with Ballantine and SMP, who gaped in disbelief, "You talked to the art director, and she listened?!"

Pete Masterson said...

A very good commentary on the need for readability as a major consideration for book design. This is a topic I've been preaching for many years and eventually led me to write Book Design and Production: A Guide for Authors and Publishers to help small- or self-publishers do a better job.

The one book that influenced me to better understand the science behind the process is Type & Layout: Are you Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes by Colin Wheildon. The latest version is published by an Australian publisher, but an earlier edition is also available as a used copy.

A note for the responder who complained about poor kerning in some fonts: often selecting "optical kerning" in Adobe InDesign (along with some modest adjustments to the default letter and word spacing) will solve 98% of the problems that occur with poor kerning tables, etc. That only leave a few instances where a touch of manual adjustment is required.

David Dittell said...


Wow, great post. Really got me thinking about just what it is that I've been reading, literally.

I think this especially plays a big part when you're looking comparatively -- which Sherlock Holmes anthology to get, or which of the two books on the subject you need -- and you need to make an instinctive decision almost immediately.

Steve Tiano said...

Good post. Maggie's captured the charge of the book designer, as I see it, pretty well: to make pages that convey the author’s words, and don't overshadow them.

That's a part of my stated creed for the 17 or so years I've done book design and layout work. The cover should properly invite the reader in; and the interior pages should lead the reader through the author's words. And the balance is to keep the reader's interest without distracting from the reading.

Maggie gets it.