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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Opening Up

What Design Does in NonFiction

I am working with the editors of the Horn Book on a book about literature for young readers — aimed at parents, teachers, librarians (the gatekeepers who select, buy, and worry about the books kids read). One of the editors asked me for suggestions for a nonfiction spread to use as an example, to illustrate good NF design. At first I thought of Nic Bishop, but we are already heavy on science images. And so I went to my shelves to look at my own haphazard library of NF to see what I really liked, and why. The more I looked, the more clear the answer became: excellence in NF design comes down to one word: perfection.

In fiction, a designer needs to pick a good typeface and book size. She needs to match the space between the lines and the size of the words to the expected readership. She needs to work with an artist to come up with a knock out cover. But outside of picture books, she has less to do than in great NF. Because there, every piece of every page must be thought through: what is the flow of image and text? When there are not that many images — we don’t control the past, we cannot invent cameras before they existed, or paint picture that were never painted — she has to control the reading experience in other clever ways: subheads, backgrounding printing of existing images, images used in sizes that fool the eye (as a filmstrip across the top of a spread; for example); or by using white space — wide margins that make evern text pages seem open, approachable, airy — not dense.

Now, as in picturebooks, all of this design requires the engaged collaboration of the author. The author has to write the subheads, feel the beats and breaks and the chapters and where there is a natural pause — or a great line that would draw the reader’s eye as a head. The author, indeed, has to find the images and know where there is another one if needed. Author and designer need, in a sense, to read each other’s minds. And that brings me to a stunning example of perfect design working with text in photo-illustrated NF: the chapter openers in Betsy’s Lennon. Typically a chapter has a full bleed photo on a left hand page and the textblock on the right. In Lennon every image bleeds across the spread, which means that sometimes the type must be white to register on the black of the photo. By the right hand pages, the photos fade — they don’t overwhelm. But every opening is as much of a breakthrough as the Beatles were. The design narrates the subject as much as the words do, without calling attention to itself — serving the author, yet going beyond anything the author could state. It forms your reading experience silently, yet spectacularly. It is, in a word, perfect.