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My fiancee and I were recently looking for new art projects for our art therapy work with the autistic. Since we had found a plastic mummy kit in the thrift store for educating kids in the religion, mythology, and embalming processes that ensured ancient Egyptians a safe passage to the next life, we decided to have our students build and decorate a cardboard sarcophagus (essentially a mummy case).

Along with our art projects for the autistic, we like to provide visual aids and background information to educate/interest the members, their aides, and their parents. In that light, I dug around in our stash of thrift store print books and found a beautiful book about Cleopatra to share along with the little plastic mummy kit.

And that is what I want to share with you, because the print book is gorgeous, and it reflects qualities and techniques you won’t see in an ebook.

As I always say when addressing design issues in these PIE Blog articles, if you like a design, be able to articulate why it works. There’s no better way to learn design (which I consider a lifelong process). So taking my own advice, here is a description of the book about Cleopatra and my analysis of why its design is superb.

The Overall Print-Book Format

This is a perfect-bound book designed by the National Geographic Society as a companion to an exhibit on Cleopatra. It is 8” x 10”, printed on a dull, bright-white paper stock.

Unlike many other books, Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt has French flaps partially covering (and partially revealing) a full-bleed, gold Egyptian pattern on the inside front and back book covers. The gold coloration (metallic printing ink) along with the French flaps and the thick paper (probably 100# white gloss text) adds an air of opulence to the book. Clearly this is an appropriate tone, given the wealth and power Cleopatra commanded. (Again, as I always say in the PIE Blog articles, when you design anything, make sure the form reflects or supports the tone and content of the print book or any other printed product.)

Although the text paper is a bright, blue-white, dull stock, which makes reading easier, the designer has also gloss varnished the images. This is particularly effective in creating contrast (i.e., making the photos “pop”).

The backgrounds of many of the pages are black, with full-color images of Egyptian coins and statuary and captions set in reverse type in a simple, easy-to-read-at-any size, sans serif type. These pages are often facing other pages with white backgrounds and black text for captions. This shift from black to white to black sets up a nice visual rhythm. So the print book is comfortable (the book’s size and format–as well as its light weight–plus the qualities of the paper stock) and interesting to read. It would still be so even if I couldn’t read the language, simply because it is attractive and easy on the eyes.

Achieving a Visual Rhythm

All of the design niceties I have mentioned pertain more to the design of a page or page spread (and the readability of the type) than to the overall print book design.

However, what sets this book above most others is that the designer approached the organization of the book (as well as the “look” of the page spreads) as a design challenge. Between the two covers (and their opulent French flaps and gold-patterned printing), thought has gone into crafting a design grid that allows for the reader’s immediate recognition of what she/he is reading. This the designer achieved by using only a limited number of different page grids.

The chapter dividers include a large, all-caps treatment, sans-serif type that has been letter-spaced (spread out slightly). These are one- or a-few-word titles surrounded by a thin rule, above which is the chapter number spelled out (i.e., “CHAPTER FOUR”), again in all caps but in a contrasting serif typeface. The type on each divider-page spread is white, reversed out of the richly colored background photo. Even with the type’s thin letterforms, the all-cap headlines are graceful but powerful (perhaps a little like Cleopatra herself). Finally, there is a white border (about 3/4”) all the way around the double-page photo.

Over the course of the multiple chapters, these divider pages set up a rhythm, an expectation in the mind of the reader, which allows her/him to group the pages of the book into digestible chunks. Moreover, this visual “look” is also carried consistently through the four-page chapter introductions. These have one large column of text on each page, placed toward the center of the book with a “scholar’s margin” on the outside left and right.

Consistent with the divider pages, these chapter intros have a white border running around the perimeter of the double-page spread. In this case a dark brownish-red rule (the same thickness as the white rules on the divider pages) surrounds the text columns, crossing over from the left page to the right.

In line with the letter-spaced type on the divider pages, the headlines on the intro pages are also spread out slightly. They are set in the same sans-serif type as headlines on the divider pages, and the body copy is set in the same serif face as the all-caps chapter numbers on the divider pages.

The wide columns of body copy in the intros have extra leading (space between lines), which makes reading them easier. In addition, setting the heads in thin, letter-spaced type while also spreading out the leading between lines of type adds to the sense of luxury and opulence in the book. This is fully consistent with the character of the book’s subject, Cleopatra.

To begin the initial paragraph in each chapter introduction, there is also a drop-capital letter, in gray, extending five lines deep.

To highlight the headlines (both main heads and subheads), the designer printed these in the same brownish red color, which goes nicely with the rich gold and black tones throughout the print book. This brown is also used for the large pull-quotes, which are set in italics and nestled into mortises cut out of the single text column on these intro pages. (These quotations also extend into the scholars’ margins.)

Maintaining the Visual Rhythm

The long and short of this is that the designer has set up a visual rhythm. This fosters the reader’s expectation of what is to come and shows how each element relates to everything else.

Good visual rhythm works best when it has a counterpoint every so often, something to contrast what could otherwise become visually monotonous. In this case, there are the pages following the introductions that include a catalog of images (everything from coins to silhouettes of small statues).

There’s a lot of varnished gold ink on these pages, which, as noted before, alternate between having a white or black background. Occasionally, there are also “text” pages reversed out of a black background along with a silhouetted full-color image. These have three-line drop caps, printed in red, as well as a thin vertical line (in red ink) running the length of the text block between the two narrow columns (for consistency with the thin rules on the divider pages and intro pages).

Of course, the interior of the print book is sandwiched between front matter (table of contents and such) and back matter (index and such), followed by the interior back cover page with its opulent gold pattern slightly covered by a French flap.

All of this is like a frame, presenting the lush imagery inside the book as well as the content of the text. A frame should never detract from the painting it showcases, but a structured scaffolding, if you will, of thoughtful design, can make reading a print book a more fluid and enjoyable experience.

In this case, the designer knew how to use the elements of design to highlight and showcase the substance of the book.

What We Can Learn

Here are some quick thoughts:

  1. Good design breaks an otherwise undifferentiated mass of content (photos and words) into manageable chunks of information, which can be seen as related to one another in a particular way and a particular order of importance.
  2. Good design (as evidenced in the designer’s use of color, typeface, column grids, etc.) should reflect the tone and content of the book.
  3. Good design should structure the content without calling attention to itself. The frame is not more important than the picture.
  4. Readability is the prime goal. Every element of design should guide the reader through the reading experience. If the reader gets tired or loses interest, you’ve lost your audience.

The post Book Printing: A Captivating Print Book About Cleopatra appeared first on Printing Industry Blog.

* This article was originally published here
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