Layout Contest tutorial part 2: Designing the page

In my previous entry, I explained my initial steps for my book designs. I settled on type and some style sheets. I also mentioned sketching a page template. That’s what this entry’s all about.

I always have a mind’s eye view of my designs. I do my best to capture that imagined vision, but it isn’t always easy.

For Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands, I wanted to capture a gritty, horrific look and feel. And, I also wanted a medieval vibe. There are a number of ways to do both. Games Workshop does it to various effect in many of its Warhammer books (including the Black Industries cum Fantasy Flight Games versions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay).

For this project, I had a slightly different vision. I wanted the book to combine old typography with modern day grunge effects. I envisioned grungy scrollwork that’s been the rage the last couple years. Think stuff that looks like tatoos. Barbed scrollwork, maybe splatters of blood. But, I also wanted a more modern, “layered” look. It might still be some distressed boxes. The idea was how Keith presents his work. It has a very strong historical fantasy element. But, he also mixes it up with some modern elements. In the comic book dialog, for example, the medieval guys swear with modern words. I love that effect. It may seem anachronistic, but it works.

But, I face a challenge. Doing that kind of illustration is damn hard and tedious. I’m no illustrator, but I can use Adobe Illustrator with good results. So, I needed models. I started web searching. I was particularly interested in terms like “scrollwork” and “eastern european” and some others. I finally discovered a few inspiring pages from Serbian manuscripts and, oddly enough, the modern-day vestments of an Australian priest.

Inspiration from Serbian Manuscripts, a priest's vestments, and some lineart scrollwork.

Those helped me bring an imagined vision into some concrete terms, but I still had plenty of work ahead.

Choosing page and text sizes

For starters, I had to decide on a page size and text area. As always, I turned to my handy Bringhurst. The Elements of Tyopgraphic Style has some genius information about page size ratios, choosing text blocks, and choosing other page elements like folios, magins and so on.

I wanted to have a 2-column layout, because I never seem to make them work well. I wanted another stab at it (not to mention it’s much more like a medieval manuscript). But, I also didn’t want letter size. I’m just tired of letter size. So, I settled on one of my go-to sizes, half-legal. It’s a broad page size (7 inches x 8.5 inches). A nice, squat thing with plenty of horizontal space. From there, I had to choose a text block size and location. Bringhurst’s many ratios and ideas about “chords” of rectangles helped.

I confess I get wrapped up in the esoterric stuff with these ratios. It’s amusing to me. But, in truth, I fudge here and there. I just like to play around. Here’s my pencil sketches of page design:

My pencil sketches showing page size and text block ratios and measurements, plus some initial scrollwork ideas.

Here you can see a couple things. I sketched out the basic page (top left) and worked through the measurements (in picas — I always use picas, mainly because I'm used to them from way back). The star-pattern looking thing on the bottom left is mostly nonsense — me aping Bringhurst's stuff to learn. But, it did remind me that the page is divided evenly into thirds of 14 picas. Double that (and add a gutter) and – VOILA! – a "meaningful" column width.

Even more intersting is the stuff on the right side. That's me sketching out those initial scrollwork ideas, as well as some "hanging" illustrations with magin captions. That should make for interesting options in layout, but there really aren't any captions. Hmmm. Well, an idea for stuff later on then.

Next, I have to take all these sketches into digital form. Since I know I'm doing the scrollwork (by far the trickiest part) in Adobe Illustrator, I started there. I created a 2-page spread (just a landscape legal page), and set guides for all my magins and text block sizes. I used some gray boxes to represent text and some other elements. That way, I knew the confines of my scrollwork and other elements so I could do a very, very rough digital sketch for the shape. Like so:

The page takes shape in Illustrator. Note the crudely drawn scrollwork border overlapping with the precisely drawn version.

Here, you can see my clumsy first sketch (just drawn with me dragging the mouse on the pencil or brush tool). And, the crisper, better looking version of me making it work in the pen tool, which is my secret weapon in illustrator. I did a similar process to this when I designed folios for Nine Worlds.

The page started taking shape. But, I knew I had a problem. So far, I couldn’t figure out how to give the page design that layered, more modern shape I was trying to capture. So, I just started drawing more rectangles, though not entirely without purpose. I was thinking about where chapter headings, even guide words could go. Here’s the result:

The final page prototype. Note the angled bars top left and horizontal bars top right. I placed the inspiration art to test illustration locations on the template.
The final page prototype. Note the angled bars top left and horizontal bars top right. I placed the inspiration art to test illustration locations on the template.

The page finally takes shape. From vision to form. But, there’s still a lot of work to do, not least of all the scroll work. And, of course, pagination of the text itself. Both of those will take a lot of time to complete.

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