As I’m learning more about book design and one of its software tools, InDesign, I am struck by the focus people have on the niftiness of the tool over curiosity about the actual knowledge (principles) of book design. Book design (typesetting back in the days before desktop publishing software) has a multihundred-year history of its own, where best practices developed over time to create readable text on printed paper.
I am determined not to get stuck in worship of the tool (InDesign) over mastering the principles of good design for print, and also e-book, production. InDesign is a tool with lots and lots of features and internal tools to manipulate the look of text and illustrations on a page; but it’s almost neutral as to best practices for actual design. The default settings do tend to lean in the direction of how book’s are usually designed, but this is a skeletal structure. Many decisions still must be made by the designer as to how the book will actually look when it’s finished, and most importantly, how readable it will be.
I’ve been indexing books from traditional publishers for many years, and I’ve noticed how the layout of illustrations and text has affected readability. One of my pet peeves as an indexer has been bad heading style choices. If main headings and subheadings in the text are hard to distinguish (close to the same size, same font style, etc.), it can be very difficult to figure out where you are in the chapter’s story or argument hierarchy. Big problem for the indexer, but also for the reader trying to track what’s related to what and how.
Yes, readability is also about content: grammar, writing style, basic storytelling ability. Readers often take for granted is how much the book’s design plays into the smoothness of the reading experience. Especially in this time of self-publishing, many writers are taking shortcuts on all sorts of aspects of book production to save money, but in the end the quality suffers, and readers may end up avoiding books or not recommending them to others, sometimes without knowing consciously why they don’t like the book. Story may be good, but there are too many distracting proofreading errors, or story may be good, but the text font is hard to decipher and all the words are crowded onto the page with very little white space to give rest to the eyes.
I am determined to make sure I get the cumulative knowledge about book design so I can tailor the tool (InDesign) to the best practices I want to adopt. I’ve already changed at least one default line spacing setting as a result of reading the book design philosophy of an experienced designer, Stephen Tiano. I’m really excited about continuing my learning curve on both the principles and tools of book design, but the principles will always trump the tool. If you want to produce a professional looking book, dear writers, please do not neglect investment in professional design. First and foremost, give your text room to breathe. 🙂