Dressing a Book for Success

October 2001
by Gunnar Swanson

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One truism of graphic design is that you can’t not communicate. What you wear (or your naked body), how you speak (or your silence), the way you move (or stay still)… every action or inaction tells people something about you. And what they learn affects how they regard everything you say. Although a book’s visual persona may not be as complex as a person’s, the way it looks will reflect, reinforce, or run counter to its subject and writing style.

There is no one simple set of rules for a book to “dress for success.” Simple advice for graphic design is like simple advice for writing–often simply wrong. The problem with one-size-fits-all guidance–”Always write in short, punchy sentences” or “Your thesis statement should be your first sentence, and the main and subordinate clauses should each list three items”–is that when it doesn’t fit, there’s no other size to try on.

It should be obvious by now that I’m not about to offer you a neat formula for designing a book or even for what you should ask of a designer who is working on your book. In this article and in a follow-up piece (when I’ll talk about ergonomics and book design), I will try to offer a framework for thinking about the details of book design. In future articles, we’ll look at those details in light of aesthetic, communicative, and functional considerations.

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