Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Book Layout & Design Ideas | Webinar Recap

Hit the Books with Dan Milnor is a monthly webinar about all things book-making and self-publishing. In this webinar, we explore the foundations of good book design using examples of page layouts and spreads from Dan’s own collection. If you missed our latest live webinar, don’t worry! We’ve got the entire thing recorded below.

August: Book Layout & Design Ideas

  • How your work dictates page design
  • The recommended number of images per spread
  • The key to balance and harmony in layout design
  • The importance of consistency in image size and borders
  • How to use typography
  • How and when to use text, including captions and page numbers
  • Which format, book size, and number of pages works best for your project
  • Things to avoid

Watch the Webinar

Top 10 Questions from Our Audience

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of white or black backgrounds? 

I get this question a lot and it’s a good one. When I first started making books, I thought everything I made should have black backgrounds, but I had no real justification other than I thought the darker pages looked cool.

The background color will be dictated by the work itself and by the overall design. When I first started making books, I was photographing both long-term documentary projects and commercial portraiture. These are two very different subjects. When I started making books of portraits with black pages, something didn’t feel quite right. The pages felt heavier and more serious than I wanted. I realized very quickly that the feel of the portraiture was better suited to white backgrounds. The images were lighter, brighter, more upbeat in nature, and even humorous. The documentary work did feel right with the darker pages because the content was black and white and needed something heavier to match the mood.

2. If I’m making a book of photography do I always need captions?

The short answer: no. When you add captions, you are adding relevant information for the viewer to obtain, but you are also adding elements that compete with the actual imagery. I encounter a lot of people who say “Well, I know I have to do captions,” but the truth is you don’t. There are no “caption police” enforcing captions in Photo Books. But you can also get creative with how you add captions. For example, if you feel you truly need captions, you can always create an index at the back of the book. That way, those who want detailed information will have access, while those who want to just intake the visuals can have their peace.

3. Is it always better to make a larger book as opposed to making something small?

Great question! The answer is “no.” I’m often approached by photographers who ask “What is the largest book I can get, and what is the page limit?” Most of the time these situations don’t end well because the answer is 11×13 and either 240 pages or 440 pages depending on the paper type. Very few people have the work to support such a beast. And, because books of this size are expensive, people tend to not hit “print.” My advice is to start small, but also think about utilizing more than one trim size.

4. How do I create a strong book cover?

Ah, yes, the infamous cover. My advice: leave the cover for last. I will often have a cover idea in mind and might even mock it up first, but most of the time I end up changing the cover by the time the book is finished. My first idea usually isn’t good enough in the long run. Remember that visual information is ingested 60,000 times faster than written information. It’s good to mock up several different covers. Test them on friends or those you feel would be a good judge.

5. What are some basic guidelines for typography?

Don’t use default fonts and default font placement. Make sure you choose a font for specific reasons that enhance the work. Consider legibility when it comes to font size. As a general rule, limit your design to 2-3 font types for your entire publication. There are exceptions to all of these rules, but this will give you a good starting point.

6. What about using text and page numbers?

Personally, I rarely use page numbers, but most of the work I’m printing doesn’t really require it. However, if you are indexing or creating a book that people can enjoy front-to-back, back-to-front, or skipping from chapter to chapter, then page numbers would be critical.

As for text, think simple, concise, and as critical as the images themselves. One easy way to better understand the use of text is to look at other publications. One of the wonderful things about book design is that there are plenty of creative ways to break the rules. Each generation produces a few books that break all the rules. My example is “Cyclops” by Albert Watson.

7. Are there general rules to overall page design that might help me get started?

Yes! K.I.S.S. or “Keep it simple, stupid.” This was a rule I was taught in photography school. Keep it simple. Instead of creating a spread with eight images per page, try starting with one image per page. Think about consistency. If you are using a white border on your images, stay with that look and feel for the entire book. If your layout has a full-page image on the right and copy on the left, try to utilize versions of that one spread for the entire book. Again, there are so many ways to break these rules. If you are just starting out and having trouble, limit your options and work within those boundaries.

8. How many images per spread should I use?

There is no right or wrong answer to this, only what you need to get your story or message across. I will say, however, that books with really busy layouts are almost impossible to consume. Just because you’ve shot a motor drive sequence of an elephant while on safari doesn’t mean the viewer needs to see every single image. Cliché alert…less is more. If your images are good, let them breathe. Give them space. Let the viewer consume them one at a time.

9. Could the rules of composition be applied to book design?

This is a great question and I believe the answer is “absolutely.” Looking at a designed spread is very much like looking at a photograph. Does it feel right? Does it feel balanced? If it’s off-balance, does that add or subtract from the overall feel? Are your spreads consistent and do they ease the viewer’s interaction with the work? It’s all a natural progression: you start your book process by editing, sequencing, then designing.

10. I’m struggling with portrait orientation books with images from the 3:2 ratio. How do I work this out?

Everyone struggles with this! My favorite publications are portrait orientation, but the vast majority of images I make are landscape orientation. How do the two blend together? First, look at magazines. Go to a local newsstand and see how professional magazine designers handle this situation. Find ideas you like and morph them into your own creations. Choosing portrait formats will help you with things like image size, borders, running images across the gutter, and utilizing bleeds. It’s the ultimate puzzle challenge.

Stay tuned for our next webinar on October 23rd!




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