Understanding Book Elements: Margins and Page Layout
By Shawn, CreateSpace Graphic Arts Specialist
One of the first things any artist does when making a piece of art is find a canvas. For book designers, this is typically done when a trim size is selected. From there, a designer must define the margins of the book. Inside the margins, all of the different design elements we have talked about in previous articles are then placed, ultimately leading to the creation of a book. But these margins and how the book is set up are not done simply on a whim. There are careful calculations and ingredients that tell a designer where the content for a book needs to go: page size, font size, the genre of book being designed, baking soda, water...okay, maybe not the last two.
But a basic set of principles helps a designer focus his or her efforts on the interior of a book. These principles are called the Canons of Page Construction. Much like other design elements, the roots are based on centuries of skilled craftsmen honing these basic principles until we arrive at what we see today.
While many different theories create the canons, all are built around mathematical principles. And for those of you out there who, like me, may have fallen asleep during algebra class, it might not make sense at first.
Early mathematicians and artists found that there was a kind of optimal ratio to the size of different organic objects in nature. Through several hundred years and many, many candles, they eventually settled on what is referred to as the Golden Ratio.
It is theorized that this 1 to 1.618 ratio and its relationship between two objects is the most pleasing to the human eye. This principle is how humans define "beauty" in other people. To this end, Leonardo da Vinci is famous for his study of the human body, and it was initially thought he used this concept to create the Mona Lisa; however, this fact was never independently proven.
However accurate, these theories have been almost universally accepted throughout the world since they were developed. The influences of this discovery and its effects on design overall could be its own article. Your TV, post cards, architecture, etc. all follow the base theory of the Golden Ratio.
But book publishers and printers, much like myself, didn't really care for complex math. I would venture to guess they also preferred sleep over algebra class, because they wanted to work with easier ratios when making books. They theorized that a ratio of 1 to 1.5 or 2 to 3 would actually create the most pleasing page. This thought took off with like-minded printers everywhere, and now we have been left with the basic book trim sizes in use today.
Are we still awake? Good, because if you've survived my math lecture, then you've gotten to the juicy part where I tell you that these ratios should make your page design and layout much easier. This base ratio should help you set up your text area in your book.
Which one fits for your book depends on the type of book you're trying to design. For the following example, I'm going to focus on a novel, memoir or another text-driven book. If you're a children's author, writing a technical manual or any other image-driven book, you can probably sit this one out, as the rest of this article may not completely apply to you.
No matter the type of book, the biggest rule to understand is that your margins usually have limits by the printer. Many book printers have recommended minimum margins based on their own individual production processes (view the submission requirements to format your margins to CreateSpace's specifications).
For instance, if you have 300 pages in your book, your printer might say the minimum gutter, or inside margin, for your book can be no closer than 0.5 inches to the inside edge of the page. This recommendation probably comes from several hundred test books printed to ensure quality and no loss of information. It's a safe-zone calculated to ensure the same quality can be assured at any point. If you set the gutter margin too close, you risk text "falling" into the gutter and becoming unreadable. So always consult your printer's suggested margins prior to establishing your document layout. It will save you valuable time as you prepare your file for print.
Let's continue to use our example book. You first need to know an estimate of the final page count of your manuscript to begin your design. There are several calculators available online that you can find by conducting a search. Some are better than others, so be diligent and test each thoroughly before basing your project off its measurements. And remember that these are only estimates. These are tools to help you get a general idea of how many pages will be in your book. Most calculators do not take into account blank pages before chapters, frontmatter or backmatter in their estimates.
Let's say you have done your calculations and found that you'll have roughly a 300-page book, and you've chosen a 6 x 9-inch trim size. We established the recommended gutter margin from your printer is 0.5 inches. That leaves about 5.25 inches (horizontally) of "usable" space. Your printer also says that any text must be at least 0.25 inches away from the outside edge of the page. Now you are left with 5 inches (horizontally) to work with.
Now let's say that you have a header and footer in your book. I advise writers to have at least 0.25 inches between the bottom of the header and the top of the text. The same goes for the footer, just in the opposite direction. This would use up 0.5 inches at the top and bottom of your book, with your header and footer falling somewhere in that area. This means that you have the text area in the book would be 5 x 8 inches.
8 / 5 = 1.6 (Look familiar?)
This ends up being .01 inches away from the actual ratio of the book - not noticeable to most people reading it.
But while this is a basic example and would technically pass a printer's specifications, it's not very flashy; in fact, it can look pretty crowded. So what if we adhered strictly to the 1 to 1.5 ratio? With our current example, you would end up with a smaller text area of 4.75 x 7.25 inches. This negative space provides a better frame for your text and gives "breathing room" to the other elements on the page. Overall, a reader may find this more pleasing over the course or your novel. Sure, small books, even technical manuals, can push the limits of what these margins can hold and still be successful, but in our example, I estimate a reader trying to carrying this over 300 pages would start to run out of gas around page 100.
And here is the obligatory paragraph telling you that most rules are made to be broken (except the aforementioned limits set by the printer). Many, many designers have set major trends by breaking rules. But as the old art school adage goes, "you cannot break the rules until you know them." This article is humbly submitted only to get you thinking about the relationships that margins can play in your book and where these relationships come from, not to give you a hard-and-fast rule about margins. You can take the principles applied here and attach them to any project, small or large.
Just remember that much like any art, there is a very organic relationship between what is put to page and what is appealing to those seeing it. Keep that in mind as you are working on your book.
Shawn is a member of the CreateSpace Art Services team. He is an expert in graphic design and the technology that drives it.
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