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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Q and A with a Book Designer

In order to kick off our discussion of design and art in nonfiction, I asked some questions of Jon Glick, who has designed the books I’ve worked on with my packaging partner John Glenn. Here goes — feel free to send in more questions for Jon, and he is looking for art for me to post, showing the stages of how a book design changes and takes shape.

How did you get started being a book designer?

I originally went to art school to be a printmaker. I loved the medium, and I loved that prints, because they were multiples, could be available to a wider range of people. Then one day I went with my future wife to visit a friend who designed on a Mac. I was amazed by what he could do with his machine. It was a way to bring the things I loved about art into an even more democratic medium. Shortly after that I began working at a packager of visual books. 

What kinds of books have you worked on?

For most of my career I have worked on what you would call coffee table books. It is only in recent years that I have been able to start working on books for kids. Having a 9 and an 11-year old makes it very gratifying to make books for this age- range. I have my very own focus group, and i love when I can hand them something I’ve done that they can really enjoy.

What does a designer do that is different from the author or illustrator?

The crux of my work is taking what the author has written and giving it form. I work off of the foundation the author has built. What comes to me is a word document, and maybe a collection of illustrations. I read the text and try to suss out what the core is, and conceptualize what it should actually look like, and how it should reveal itself to the reader. I suppose a big part of my job is interpretation. The visual element is also key. whether the illustrations are produced for the project, gathered by and art researcher, or if I am left to my own devices, in the end I make many decisions about what gets shown, how it gets shown, what gets emphasized, what gets dropped, what is missing…


How have programs like InDesign changed what you do?


The design begins with some basic decisions, all made based on what the story is we [me, the editors, writers, publishing folk, it’s always a collaborative process] are trying to tell. Fonts, colors, shapes, grids, I come up with a set of rules for how things will be handled, and then spread by spread I stretch these rules as much or as little as is necessary. I need to first determine how much text needs to go on each spread in order to fit the book to the determined extent, and also how the text and art should be paced to make for the most satisfying read. Some books want to just be clean and open. Some want to be cluttered and dense. As the designer, this is all in my hands. You experience a book spread by spread, I want each spread to have a balance, a shape, a flow, and a reward for the reader. Each spread is a puzzle.

What tools do you have available to you change, or even create, art (I am thinking of photoshopping, adding shadows, creating backgrounds, tints — things like that).

There are a bunch of tools built into the basic design programs, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop. But the fun in design is often in finding your own distinct way of using those tools. Photoshop is an amazing tool, you can take a piece of art really far. It is also fun to create your own set of tools. For one series of books I am doing, I have found myself burning, stewing, and cooking papers over the stove to get the right kinds of stains for my pages. 

We have talked on the site about how the size of a book, the trim, changes how a reader experiences it. Speaker as a designer and father of school-age sons, what is your sense about how the physical space of a book influences how a reader thinks of it?

The size of a book is often out of the designer’s hands. I can have a say, but ultimately is is a budgetary or marketing decision. I think each project calls for it’s own scale. Some books are large in order to show the artwork at its best, sometimes it’s best to have a smaller trim which is more intimate and easier to read.

Can you point to a book — yours, or someone else’s — that you think is particularly well designed? What is an example of good design, bad design?

One set of books that I really love, and they are very simple, are the Dr. Seuss books. They are working with a very limited palate, have very simple text treatments, but they are just fantastic. I love anything designed by Paul Rand too. 

How can we train our eyes to recognize good design, what are the kinds of things we should be aware of?

Does the look fit the story, do the pages flow from one page to the next. Do the pages offer up the story and images in a way that invites you in. If so, then the design is working. If the pages are overwrought, distracting, have too many things trying too hard, then it’s most likely not working as a design.