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A Holistic Approach to Book Design

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To grab the target reader, your book design needs to be physically attractive and emotionally appealing. Jessi Taylor, a consulting designer for InterACT with Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design, explains why designers need to know about the book's audience as well as its content.
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Good book design is deceptively simple; it's all about consistency. When you peel back all the complexity of the process and look at a book that's designed well, you'll see a balanced blend of compelling language and corresponding visual design, each playing its part in harmony with the other to deliver a specific message to a specific audience.

Consistency sounds easy enough, right? While the concept is readily understandable, implementation is another thing entirely. Design isn't just about good looks. Design is a process.

In the art world, the term gestalt refers to many shapes being put together to form one cohesive whole. Book design is much the same. The visual style of a book is only one piece of the larger design puzzle. Before you get out your grids and color swatches, you need to figure out some important things. In general, you need to design your message and define your audience carefully before you determine the style of your book.

What's the Message?

More specifically, what type of message are you trying to deliver? Here are a few different types of content:

  • Narrative storytelling
  • Expository information
  • Persuasive argument

These three categories are not always exclusive. Often, one book will incorporate different types of writing, maybe even all of them, so how is a designer supposed to handle that situation? Organization is key here. Identify the type of content being communicated, and then you can determine the best way for it to be organized for your target audience.

For example, early in the design process for InterACT with Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design, I discussed with creative director Leslie Jensen-Inman and project manager Aarron Walter how the book's content needed to be organized. InterACT with Web Standards is almost exclusively expository information, which could become overwhelming if not divided properly. So we used frequent headings, subheadings, and side notes to break up large sections of dense information into smaller, more palatable sections. The smaller sections of information can be finished more quickly, giving the reader a sense of accomplishment after completing each section[md]like checking off an item on a lengthy to-do list. This design makes the book more enjoyable to read and less intimidating.

Narrative storytelling requires a completely different organization: Identifying stories within the content is key. The most important thing to remember when designing narrative content? Don't interrupt the story! This rule is simple enough to follow if your entire book consists of narrative writing. But if you're mixing a story into technical text (which is another good way to break up the monotony of dense material), you need to make sure that the story is kept intact.

At its best, a good story creates its own mental images, so mixing pictures with the content can be redundant. However, for expository writing or persuasive writing, an image can make all the difference between confusion and comprehension. Informative content, especially, can benefit from well-placed diagrams and tables that visually organize and summarize particularly difficult concepts. Images or diagrams can also add emphasis to an essential part of your message and reiterate key points.

Following are a couple of conceptual diagrams from InterACT with Web Standards that illustrate the differences between two models of project management. The traditional project management model shown in Figure 1 is fairly straightforward. However, the phased project management model in Figure 2 is more abstract, and it really benefits from using a diagram. Both images together create a clear contrast between the two different management models.

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