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What does a book designer actually do?

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

I have designed hundreds of books, and am passionate about the power of elegant design and a clear visual hierarchy to transform the reading experience. Years of my life have been spent arranging Word documents and digital images into lovely tactile objects we can hold in our hands, that are sent across the world to find their readers. It exciting, for me, but I often get a blank face and a puzzled look if I tell someone I design books, and they say, 'But what do you actually do?'...

The role of the book designer

The book designer is the link between the author and the audience, and has three specific aims:

1. To help the author achieve their vision of what they want their book to look like

2. To help the publisher acheive their goal of creating a book that will sell and make money (increase perceived value so it can be sold at a higher price)

3. To help the reader choose the right book for them, and understand the text and images inside it, to enjoy the reading experience

At this exact moment thousands of people across the globe are writing. Pouring out their passions, experience, narratives and advice into computers or notebooks. It's a long and arduous process, which can require years of intense work and commitment to complete. When the author is finished however, the story goes nowhere and can languish in a laptop or drawer forever, unless it becomes a blog or a book. But with over a million ebooks published every year on Kindle Direct, how can any be found?

This is the job of the book designer! The designer adds meaning to the text through the way it is presented, providing visual clues to the content and tone of the words, and helps the reader find the book.

How does a book designer create a book?

Before design begins, certain decisions will usually be made by the publisher: the page size, the number of pages (which affect the price the book can be sold for) and the type of binding (hardback or paperback). Self-publishers have to choose this themselves and a book designer can advise.

Step 1: The book design brief

Once production methods have been decided, the designer is briefed, with information on the type of book, the genre, the intended audience and any competitor books in the market already. If the book is linked to an existing brand, an event, a movie or a TV show this will be made clear. Although usually emailed, it's important for designer and publisher to discuss the brief to help clarify the ideal outcome and share ideas.

Step 2: The book design research

Armed with some basic information on the book, the designer will explore visuals used in this genre, what colours, fonts and images have been used to communicate to this audience in the past? Research will also include the audience, the setting, themes and any other visual references in the text which might be relevant.

Step 3: The book design experimentation

Let the fun begin! With a head full of visual inspiration the book designer begins to pull together images, fonts, colour palettes or patterns to create the right mood/tone for the book. Sometimes this is easy, other times its really hard! The first idea may not be the best so generating several different options is important.

Step 4: First visuals and feedback

Show people, get feedback. Does it look like what it is? Refine, send PDFs to publisher or author. Wait...

Step 5: Further visuals and feedback

Refine, send PDFs again. Wait... Repeat the process several times! While you are waiting, get on with all the other books you are working on simultaneously. Keep a close eye on deadlines. Hope the client picks the best one!

So those are the practical steps. Its also an emotional journey! As one of the first people in the world to read the author's words it can be quite moving (some books have made me cry at my desk!) and the responsibility to do the job well can feel overwhelming. I've worked on books about death, loss, divorce, childlessness, depression... but also joy, love, success and peace. Tears can come from any of these (maybe its just me.) I find its best to hold those feelings to one side and just get started. To concentrate on turning this text into a beautiful object, one paragraph at a time. When the process goes well it feels like magic and I find it extremely satisfying.

Books have always been my thing, even as a child. It amazes me that I have now made books for queens and palaces, pop stars, priests and TV presenters. After twenty years of designing books I still get a thrill with each blank page, and now teach other designers how to make books too.

If you'd like to find out more, why not join me for a short book design course?

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