Research point – Similarities in layout

‘Pick out the similarities in the layout of a range of novels, textbooks, newspaper or other print or digital products. Do these similarities suggest a set of common conventions, such as the size of gutters and margins, the use of columns or the treatment of page numbers, footnotes or images? Try and summarise these so that you can begin to define a newspaper or other printed product by its distinctive conventions. You may want to extend this enquiry historically or culturally. Have these conventions always been in place and do they apply globally? Document your thoughts in your learning log.’

I’ve chosen to focus on book layout. One of the earliest kinds of ‘book’ comes from ancient Sumeria – The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest-known story of its kind. It was written on clay tablets sometime before the 18th century B.C. which is so ancient, I can’t really comprehend it! Some of the earliest known bound books are thought to be early versions of The Bible. However although centuries later Guttenberg usually gets the credit for printing copies of the bible, the invention of moveable type does seem to pre-date Guttenberg by hundreds of years – first originating in China.

As I began looking at book design, I began to notice just how much vocabulary there is associated with different parts of text and its function…its actually quite surprising.

I’ve chosen just to summarise the main points which are:

Recto/Verso Recto (right hand side), Verso (left hand side)

Flyleaf Empty pages at the front or back

Leaf Page of the book

Frontispiece Illustration opposite main title page

Vignette Small decoration within the book

Plate A picture within the book (often printed on different quality paper than the main text)

Imprint Name and address of publisher, printed at the start of a book

Front Matter The content before the main part of the book starts, including title, author, copyright etc and maybe a preface/forward, acknowledgments and for non fiction, perhaps a table of contents.

Back Matter Information after the main content, including maybe an afterward/postscript, references, glossary index and so on.

As I understand it, most conventions in book design are to aid the reader, so that we are able to read freely without interruption or discomfort. Some of this applies to reading text in general: readable point size, variation in stroke with, leading and the number of characters per line are all important. It was thought that serif typefaces are easier to read, whether this is an historical bias is hard to say…certainly most of us are very comfortable reading sans serif on screen, and in some magazines.

Tschichold’s Golden Section Canon


I’m going to look at my own books to see what I can observe first hand, I chose 4 novels


And 2 non-fiction books


Obviously I was expecting a greater similarity between the novels…Here are my notesimg_3263

The Age of Miracles had running heads (Author name left, Chapter heading right), drop caps, with roughly the same sized margins and gutter, but with a larger margin at the bottom. Not shown here, but to create a larger pause than a standard paragraph, the text breaks for about three lines. This is the only novel that uses both line indents, and line breaks (but not of course in combination; the convention is to use one or the other not both) The text itself is quite light, with generous leading – its inviting to read.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in contrast feels ‘cheap’. It doesn’t have a fly leaf, and the text is crammed in, as you can see the margins aren’t very generous.


The Land of Decoration, as with The Age of Miracles, this has even margins and gutter, except for the bottom margin which is deeper.


Pretty Monsters. This is the ‘prettiest’ book; its a little more quirky, as the gutter is larger than the left/right/top margins (though thats hard to spot in this photo) and it has lovely touches, such as this vine vignette…


And the odd page of illustration too (I noted the page numbers are absent for this spread – I think this is traditional to exclude them)


Graphic Communication Handbook – as you can see this has very generous left/right margins, and the page numbers are at the top. On other pages, when text is set inside a box, the box extends further towards the margin.img_3254

Graphic Design Rules – you might expect some reference books on graphic design to be a bit more experimental, and this is a good example, as its the only text that isn’t justified. Also the body text doesn’t align at a baseline; only the page numbers. (The large numbers are different; they refer to each graphic design ‘rule’)


Observations Novels are usually justified serif text with a similar width margin and gutter (I measured approx 12mm/24 gutter though some are larger) with the bottom margin being larger (approx 20-25mm) I think traditionally all these measurements are in fractions of an inch but I was busy with my ruler so I didn’t think about that! Sorry. There are variations as to the positioning of the page number, but its usually below the boys text, and running heads are optional (as a reader I prefer them) Point size and leading varies, but not wildly. Some books had indented paragraphs, others line breaks.

It seems more acceptable to use sans serif typography in reference books – both of mine were sans serif. There seems to be more variation in layout, but I suspect a gutter of less than 24mm is unusual. However, I’m aware I’m measuring what I can see, so of course the actual gutter must be larger to allow for binding.

Although this was a very anoraky exercise, I’ve found it interesting both from a design point of view and as a reader.




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