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Designing a Book Layout: Basic Concepts

Lesson 11 from: Graphic Design Fundamentals

Timothy Samara

Designing a Book Layout: Basic Concepts

Lesson 11 from: Graphic Design Fundamentals

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

11. Designing a Book Layout: Basic Concepts

Lesson Info

Designing a Book Layout: Basic Concepts

So we're gonna be going through another project process. This time we're gonna be looking at something a little bit more complicated, and that is something editorial in nature. Works where you are dealing with a lot of text and a lot of images and therefore a lot of pages. So, this particular book that I worked on was a monograph for the modern sculptor, Fletcher Benton. Essentially, it was a retrospective of a number of his works being shown through photographs taken by his colleague, who is a distinguished photographer and also my employer at the time. So, I kind of had a double client situation involved. So the research that I initially undertook as I always do at the beginning of a project really was given to me. There wasn't really much that I had to know beyond what the artist himself, who I was able to meet with, could tell me. I had the photographic documentation given to me by my boss, my employer, who was also responsible for doing some of the writing. So, I had a really, rea...

lly deep understanding of what the work was about through direct conversation with the artist about the photographs and the approach that my client had taken in shooting the work itself, what he was after. And to a certain degree, where Mr. Benton kind of stood in the pantheon of geometric abstractionist sculptors. So, I didn't really spend a whole lot of time other than about two or three days reading the texts that were going to be included, which weren't all that extensive, and looking through hundreds and hundreds of photographs. The photographer had been shooting this work, as he was a friend of the sculptor's, for many, many years. And so, he had really pulled out his archives for us to go through. And one of the processes I was also involved in was helping to determine which photographs from this vast array might work as a best selection of sorts. Ultimately, now the photographer, who was the client, had the final say, and he had some very, very specific requirements, some requests in terms of what he wanted to show. So, these are examples of the sculptures, which are steel and in various kinds of surfaces, and they're kind of monumental in scale. They range from about car size to more or less room sized and so on. So, the initial creative process, coming up with ideas, was really about, well, trying to find some kind of linking element. Some idea that would kind of govern how I thought about arranging material. Really the ultimate goal, and the clients were very, very clear on this, was that the photography was intended to be the dominant feature of the book. And in that regard, displaying the sculptor's work in a clear way and in a dynamic way that was also somewhat narrative was, of course, of critical concern. So, the geometry involved in the sculpture, as well as his philosophies of using geometric form and the kind of fulfillment it gave him and the reasons why, led me to determine that the square was going to be a guiding force. They had actually determined beforehand that the book would be published in a square format. And the square seemed, in addition, intuitively useful there as a repetition of the format. So that images in general would be shown in a square. They were not to be cropped at all since the photographer also considered those images to be works of art unto themselves. So, they needed to be shown in their entirety. So that created a set of limitations, which is often and always the case with any graphic design project, no matter how simple it is. There are always limitations. Sometimes those limitations are very, very concrete things. The type has to be this big in order to be read by the audience who are of a particular age, or this invitation has to fold and unfold in a particular way so that you read the information in the correct order. And sometimes those limitations are kind of arbitrary. They come to you, they're set by the client in some way. I don't like this, or I'm really interested in that. Especially when you're working with other artists, there are invariably concerns that they're going to have that pertain to the way that their work is displayed. So, I always look at limitations not as a hindrance or some kind of confinement, in terms of not being able to do what I want, but as a kind of a challenge. Is that they automatically impose a certain kind of framework of thinking about how things are going to happen that is almost like editing it in advance. You sort of know that a certain kind of thing is likely to happen. So in these first sketches, of which I made very, very few, I was very clear about introducing an incredibly strict geometric order through the use of a grid. And you can see in these variations that I'm looking at not only some kinds of presentation that were likely to happen, that is full single page bleed images of photographs that had been shot with the 2 1/4 square format camera, but also situations and then sometimes in juxtaposition with another square format against a white field. But other situations where I wondered whether or not there was the possibility of straddling the gutter between the pages in order to create more of a totality between left and right. So that sometimes the square format of the book would be very, very pronounced, that you'd be really conscious of it. And that other times that that geometry would kind of disappear a little bit. So there'd be a little bit of tension. And whenever I'm sketching, and especially for this project, I was really interested in those variations in terms of being able to create some kind of movement or rhythm, a certain kind of pacing through the sequence of the material whatever it turned out to be. So I was looking at variations of how small images could get within that space and seem comfortable, how much text might accompany them, if they're going to be interacting together within the page layout. And these are some additional ones. There were a few images, very very few, that had been shot as verticals and a couple that were horizontals. So within this vast array of square format images, there were going to be a couple of odd ones out that my layouts and the language of the composition would have to address in some way. So, I looked at another situation with a very, very large scale image crossing the gutter from left page to right page in combination with text. The vertical bleeding from top to bottom to really emphasize its verticality as a format in contrast to the square of the space and the squares of the other image. I also began to play around with ideas for what I might think about doing with typography. For instance, trying to maintain a kind of square shape to paragraphs or to columns of text. To create new squares of space by carving them out with the shapes of the text elements themselves. Looking at scale changes, changes in darkness or lightness, so something small and bold and punchy. Again, something maybe a little bit larger, a little bit more fluid, a little bit lighter, so that there would be also a kind of a textural interplay among the elements. These are additional ones. What would happen if there were several images shown simultaneously within the spread, more than two, and what kinds of movement would that be. Would they all line up in one place? For example, as the text does in that study, or would they be sort of jumping around and creating these kind of contours of negative shapes that are kind of scooting in and out and around. And there are different kinds of levels of activity in each of these kinds of approach. Something like this, even with a generous amount of white space or negative space is very, very static. It's very sort of rigidly structured in terms of keeping an alignment between the tops of all the columns of the text and attempting to have the foot end of the columns also meet up with each other to really enforce the kind of the geometric band or plane that it creates in the space. Interestingly, kind of creating one shape that also crosses the gutter which divides the two square sides from each other. Whereas something like this becomes a little bit more dimensional, it's a little bit more fluid, somewhat spontaneous. Those different kinds of movement, those different kinds of compositional idea are all potentially relevant and useful in any kind of a situation. But it's very true that just the composition itself, the way that things are positioned and sized relative to each other in a space, where things are dark and where things are light, high or low, leftward leaning or rightward leaning creates a certain kind of a mood. There's a certain kind of activity that arises from different kinds of composition and, some kinds may be more appropriate or relevant as a feeling for different kinds of text. If you were working with a book whose subject was very solemn or authoritative or something that was spiritual, you might look at organizing the text and elements more or less low on the page and sort of emphasizing horizontal relationships in order to create a sense of rest, a sense of weight towards the bottom. If you're interested in, or needed to communicate about a certain kind of more confrontational energy, something a little bit more harried, a little bit more frenetic, more up and down motion or movement among the elements might be more desirable in that case. So I'll just back up because that's not really interesting yet. So, I had thought that all these different kinds of possibilities might be useful and that I would want to be able to accommodate them. And in order to do that I would need to define kind of a structure, an armature, a set of guidelines to kind of rein things in. So that I could control the proportions between shapes created by images shapes, created by text and shapes created by space around them in such a way that they would seem related to each other. And at the same time, I needed to be very very flexible because a lot of these sketches are sort of hinting at a variety of different kinds of dimensions of space between things. So, the way that I would have to set up guidelines and to create a grid in order to sort of give everything a point of reference in the layouts, would have to be a kind of a small increment of space. And so that's what that is. This is a grid, this is a one kind of grid, it's called a modular grid and it's made up of two kind of intersecting parts. And the first is the column. Here, a great number of columns that are actually very narrow which provide a lot of anchoring points for aligning objects or creating different kinds of measurements in terms of image width or image position or text width across the page. And they're intersected by these horizontal bands which are called rows. And together, as they cross they create this little nugget of space which is called the module. And the module is like the little atomic building block. Everything is made out of combinations of these little blocks, so you can have an image that's really this small. Or you could have an image that is the size of two modules wide and too deep, or three modules wide and five deep or five modules wide and 10 deep and so on. And when you're working with a grid, basically, the guidelines are there to give you a way to put things page after page after page after page after page where you actually don't really need to think so much about where you're putting them. There are a lot of options and that's one of the reasons why the measure of the module is so small. So that as with the greater number of columns and the greater number of rows, there are more possibilities for not only where things can be placed but also how much space can exist between them and how little space or how large or how small things can get. And so, basically the idea of the grid is that this framework of guidelines creates rules for you, limitations of sorts and it creates a system. And so, whether it's text or image, the stuff can be only as wide or as deep as some combination of these little squares. These little spaces that separate the modules are called gutters, either column gutters or row gutters and they're there to separate, keep separation between text and image or image and image or an image and its caption when those two things have to travel close to each other. So that the measure of that space is also something that is considered in setting up the grid based on what you're trying to accomplish in terms of layouts in general. So, I had tested out a bunch of different possibilities and looking at different sizes of images and jumping up and down and two columns of text and three columns of text and maybe two wide ones and a narrow one and the client was not happy, it's too much. We wanna feel the square. We want a very classical, very authoritative and restrained presentation. We don't want the typography to fight with the images as a kind of a design element, which is usually not the kind of thing that I like to hear, because I happen to really enjoy very active typography and to be able to use it in a very painterly, that sort of image based way. But again it's not about me. So, this is always the issue with designing is that you have to step out of yourself and make sure that you have your priorities kind of set. The project is something that you're making through your expertise on behalf of someone else. Designing is not a self-directed sort of endeavor, it's something that you're a conduit, you're a medium of sorts. So, I said okay, and then so I simplified things and it took out half of the columns and half of the rows. So, what this means is that I would actually have fewer possibilities for where text or an image could start because image or text, a column, paragraph, a picture can only start at the left-hand edge of a column wherever that happens to be and its width is determined by the right-hand edge of some other column. And therefore, the depths are determined by where text or image starts at the top of a row and how far it extends down to the bottom edge of another row and those are your only options. Yes. Basic question, is this sort of standard template that you use or do you draw this? I draw that, or-- So this is your unique grid? Yes, the page layout software has tools that allow you to create a grid of guides on a master page, so that you can do it but you can always go back and alter that grid. Even the spaces here, the space between the format edge and the margin of the structural area were what's often called the body. And the grid often changes as you're working, because the best grid, I mean you can pick a grid kind of arbitrarily, I had really picked the previous one and added the air basically dividing the page into half-inch increments more or less and then subtracting out the gutters between, so that I could get a lot of possibilities 'cause I didn't want to be limited by how few possibilities something like this might contain. There's still a lot of possibilities. I mean if you think about an object or you think about kind of permutations or combinatorics to get all mathy on us, is that each location is a possible starting point for something. So if you multiply that and we're looking at the grid diagram for a single page and this structure would repeat directly across the central gutter of the book as the right-hand page. So the grid that you're using on the Left page and the grid that you're using on the right page are the same, as each other. Generally, there's always a rule to be broken. There are still many possibilities. So it's a one, two, three, four, five, six times six, that's 36 places where something can start. Times one, times two, times three, times four, times five, times six, times seven, times eight, times nine times 10 times, like 36 different possible proportions for that thing depending on how you're combining and then the modules to create areas zones for image or text times however many elements you have times whether or not you're rotating the text times the second page. I did the math once for a grid that was made up of three columns and five rows and it came out to something like 22, different possibilities for layout using four type elements. A headline, a subhead, certain volume of text and a call-out pull quote. Just on that grid, just with that information, no changes in type size, no changes in type style, no images, no trickery, just that. So, whenever somebody tells you and people may tell you this because it happens that a grid is somehow limiting the possibilities of your design potential, the first thing that you should do is beat them over the head with a stick and then tell them to read a book, preferably mine. Because theoretically, with just that simple a grid, you could design 22,000 projects if that's even possible in a lifetime and never hit the same layout twice. And then if you then begin to multiply that by, well, you've got 260 pages in the book and then there's going to be three different kinds of information that show up. It's endless. The grid gives you consistency, it gives you rules to follow so you're not completely reinventing the wheel every time you come to a piece of information and so that everything holds together as a totality. But at the same time, it's built for flexibility. It's built to accommodate change, because information is never the same from page to page or from spread to spread. Sometimes you have a lot of images, sometimes you have one image, sometimes you have a short paragraph of text, sometimes you have four or five columns of text, 1500 words. Sometimes you have all image no text, sometimes the reverse. Sometimes you have a sidebar, sometimes you have diagrams and images and then they have captions. So the information, it is what it is and the grid has to be developed around serving the needs of that content, accommodating it so that whatever it is and how much or how little it all looks like it belongs to each other, like it was designed by the same person thinking about it the same way, and is kind of expressing the same idea throughout even though it changes. So, I went in removing half of the, in removing half of the columns, I created essentially a symmetrical configuration which is that there's a central axis that divides three columns from another three also top to bottom so I could get a relatively small image if I needed to, I could get a bigger one and a bigger one if I want to get a tight to the edge, to the margins. Plus of course we could, excuse me, always bleed the entire page. If I needed to travel with an image across the gutter to the next page to another set of columns, I could do that. So it was still pretty flexible. But because it had this kind of central quality to it, I began to think about the text in a very kind of classical way and that is mostly kind of, sort of a two-column sort of manuscript, still maintaining a kind of a square formation. And so, I ended up adjusting the proportions of the columns and how deep the margins were in order to create two sort of primary channels where text could essentially be centered and still at the same time express a kind of shape of the square between kind of titling or subtitling and the block of text. As we moved along the clients got clearer and clearer about how quiet and sort of how classically sort of exhibition catalog like they wanted the layouts to be. So, I ended up not really pursuing many of those sort of initial more fluid kinds of layouts because there was a concern that I had to address. At the same time, I also had to deal with the fact that there were going to be some large sequences of text for multiple pages for essays, and there might be an opportunity in there to either shift a block of text up on one page and down on another or to shift them one column left to right or to show text next to an image. So, there were still kinds of possibilities circulating but we really were concentrating for the most part on the selection of the images, which ones were color, which ones were black and white, how large they were going to be and in what order for the most part. You had another question. Yeah, so as a photographer, this is really helpful to me because part of what I'm most intimidated by in creating a book of my own work is how to lay it out. So now you're, like a light bulb is sort of going off. That's good. Yeah, so I'm wondering if you can kind of even slow or walk me through this a little more. So you're creating a grid with your clients and you have the images already. Yes. And so you're putting them on there and you're showing them this is my idea. Right. And they're saying no, no, this is too much and you're showing them where on this grid the text will go so then you're making it bigger or wider, simpler maybe. It becomes simpler. It becomes simpler. Fewer actual text elements or columns occupying the page, fewer instances of multiple elements like image and text existing together. Basically, a more or less kind of central placement which you'll see shortly for the text columns which will, when we get there I'll talk about what that does. And just sort of really just constantly reinforcing the sort of the solidity and the sort of the central focus of that square so you're kind of like coming from outer to enter, you zoom in, you zoom out and it's really just the square is changing size as you're looking at images in different configurations. And also using the same grid throughout, we're giving a sense of continuity visually. Yes, mm-mmh. Aah. Even if this product had proceeded down some other road, using this grid in which the elements were moving around that would be a different compositional idea. It would create a totally different feeling about the work or about whatever the subject matter was and that might be perfectly fine and it would still be, it would still have the same degree of continuity. It's the proportional relationship because every image and text block is built out of combinations of the same proportional nugget. Unit, nugget. Yeah, okay. So, after all is said and done, because the photographs are really the focus of things, I devised a series of individual kinds of page layouts for photography only, kind of a family. These are four of I think six or seven, six or eight different layouts that would create a very very specific rhythm and always reinforcing the juxtaposition of square against square for the most part, except where some things changed. So, this was sort of the basic kind of a setup which could also be flipped, that is a blank page or text page on the left and image full-bleed on the right which could also be image full-bleed on the left, text on the right. The situation where two images that were equal in size would confront each other, directly across the gutter with no movement up or down. And you'll notice here that I've actually cheated. I've cheated the grid which, it's okay, it's okay to do especially given that the kind of the formal logic was so rigid, was so strict. When we began to look at the actual images in layouts following the grid to the mark, it seemed that the smaller images were just, they just felt kind of lost in the space. The outer square the format just seemed to expand and the space between them became very, very large. So the two images being juxtaposed, felt like they were not really talking to each other at all, like they were starting to kind of separate and swim outwards. So, in being able to kind of move the dimension outward into kind of the central halfway point of the outermost row or column is that I could get a larger size, still respect the square format, and it would still seem more or less proportionally related without really sacrificing sort of rigor on a kind of the philosophical level. But anytime, the grid, this is the thing is that the grid, it's a guideline. It's kind of a basic idea, but at the end, ultimately you have to look with your eyes and make decisions based on what you're seeing. And when something looks a little off because the grid has put it there, then screw it. Go off the grid. Sometimes there are situations where it just looks better, it feels better. You have a sense of it being more right when it's not on. And so, you just, you do what you gotta do. There is another situation then of course and these are the kind of the three basic ones where a full-bleed image on one page would confront also this smaller image size. And in last where a series of images could be presented together at a smaller size. Still with this square, I had initially, and the reason for that was because the photographer had documented many of the projects from multiple angles that is in rotation, in the round. Where there were multiple pieces in a particular installation that were related to each other that he wanted to be able to show side-by-side, they were part of the similar kind of a narrative. So, this particular configuration also was used in this kind of halfsy halfsy way. Sometimes it would be just the two squares on one page with a full bleed image. Sometimes the two squares with one of those, sometimes the four squares, sometimes as the opening to a section or to a particular project and sometimes not. So, it actually even within again, within this kind of limited range of possibilities which is providing a very very sort of deep and kind of decisive clarity to the organization of things, there's still a lot of variation. So that variation is really gonna happen, would really happen in the page flip that as you turn from page to page is that spaces and objects are going to expand and contract. You're gonna zoom in and out, you're going to see different kinds of tension in different combinations. And just that is a lot of stuff. It's a lot going on compositionally already but then when you also consider the fact that what you're really looking at are these sculptures that which are made up of chunks of steel that are built of angles and semicircles and rings and wiggly zigzag things is that the quieter and the more simple and the less varied the presentation becomes, the more the work becomes your focus, not the layout of the objects. This is usually a much greater consideration when you're dealing with artwork for exhibition catalogs, for monographs and so on. Because you sort of have to get out of the way and let the work be the subject, not how cool the layouts are. So, these are the sort of options and this is sort of I'm talking about in terms of variation. This is the book map just for the photographs. So, generally where you're seeing a left hand white page is where the description, the sort of introductory information about that, that work is going to go and then there's going to be a sequence of images related to that work in some kind of combination. So, you can see that as you travel, it's almost kind of like looking at a film storyboard. And a book is kind of like a film. Because you traverse it from beginning to end usually. I guess you can open in the middle but once you start engaging the sequence, is that your experience becomes refreshed in a very specific way over time, and it unfolds as you go through it. So you encounter these different kinds of contrasts from one spread to the next. And so, we use it as essentially a plan. When we were doing this, I first did it from a purely formal standpoint. I ordered things in the way that I thought the squares ought to work in terms of the changes in position, changes in size which double squares to single double squares and which and so on, just on an almost purely mathematical basis. In fact, the first time I ordered it I just cycled through each variation. I'd what, eight? So I said, okay the order of the images will be, A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C and then that didn't work out so well, 'cause that kind of planning without the benefit of really seeing the images didn't really get me anywhere. I just like to think about things that way. Did the photographer decide which images the order of the actual image is? Yes, in combination with my client the writer, and the photographer. The photographer and the sculptor. Sculptor. Yeah, yeah. The photographer who is really my client was also one of the writers, so it was like a triple whammy of clientness all at once. They talked about, the sculptor and the photographer talked about which images in general, created kind of an edited selection from the archive for each project and then my client, the photographer and myself went through those images and looked at them together. We put them all out on the floor and ordered them in different ways and thought about, well, these images start out in color and then we'd really see this one big. So let's move this kind of configuration over here instead or put it this way. And so we want to build from smaller to larger first, but just for this particular project. And then we would we would solve each project in that way and then we would place the images into layouts at that size and take a kind of a look at sort of what was happening. And every time we looked at it, something changed. Because we would look at it, print it out in, at actual size so we could really feel, get a sense for how big things really were and what the spaces were. And we would flip through it end to end and whenever we stopped somewhere, like oh, what? Something would stand out as not being quite right. So we'd rip the pages out, go back a few and stick it in somewhere else and then start again from the beginning and see what's really going on? So we went through that process probably 10 or 15 times. It's very involved, it's a couple of hundred pages. The text occurs primarily at the beginning in a series of essays. There is some text that occurs every now and then interspersed. So in this particular book, the text and the images are quite separate from each other in terms of sequencing. What I wanted to accomplish with the typography in terms of getting the text and the images to be in the same place, I had to fight for. I thought it was important to be able to confront, to feel that relationship where text and image might exist in the same location. Otherwise, for me the text seemed entirely too separate because it was, the book was ordered and kind of conceived that way. And really, the only text that would be accompanying the images would be on its own separate page at the beginning of a project sequence.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with RSVP

Syllabus - Graphic Design Fundamentals.pdf

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Ad+Poster-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Book+Web--Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Color-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Form+Image-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Identity-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Intro-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Layout-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Typography-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf

Ratings and Reviews


This is more about all of your courses - It would be really nice for instructors to answer questions during break times or even after the class. There a lot a fabulous questions that I see that never get answered. I would like to go back even the next day and see a short note for at least some of those questions. Just an idea to help out this wonderful format that you have going. I am sure to make use of the promote question when I see an interesting one.


I LOVED this class! I learned so much and since I had the foresight to purchase it, I can go back for a refresher anytime I want. Plus, the downloads are spectacular! Almost a book's worth and so helpful! Thank you Timothy, you are great teacher!

a Creativelive Student

This was an outstanding course, would love to see a more in depth typography course from this guy. I'm a proffesional photographer with a formal education in design, I hardly ever use it, so I forget things, this was great both as a review, and to pinpoint things I didn't know or thought I knew. thanks once again! well done!!

Student Work