Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tiffany, Laozi and Picasso can help you make better books

“Negative space” may sound like a “worm hole,” “alternate universe” or another strange phenomenon encountered by the crew of a star ship. Fortunately, you don’t have to understand astrophysics to understand negative space, and why books need it.

In graphic design a “thing” such as a piece of text or a photograph is considered to be “positive space,” and everything else on the page (or screen) is negative space. Because most book pages are white, negative space is sometimes called “white space.” Even if your page is gray, beige, black or turquoise, any space where nothing else is, is considered to be white.

Negative space is not nothing. Negative space is important and has many purposes.

Negative space can seem extravagant and imply wealth and high class. Printed ads for luxury brands often have lots of negative space. Tiffany has used extensive negative space for many years. [below]


Negative space can help to establish a mood. Just as a billionaire’s estate may have hundreds of acres of “nothing,” a page or ad with abundant negative space can seem luxurious and elegant, while a page with tiny margins can seem as cramped as a slum apartment where 20 people fight for space to sleep and sit.

Another term for negative space or white space is “air,” and a new art director at an ad agency might be told by his boss, “Larry, we need more air around the graphic of the lawn mower.”

When you start a new design, whether it’s a book cover, an interior page, a tiny postage stamp or a mammoth billboard, all you have is white space—a blank slate (tabula rasa in Latin).

On a book page or cover, white space includes the tiny indents at the beginnings of paragraphs, the spaces between lines of text, margins, borders around photographs, blank areas between sections or chapters and even just patches of nothingness that a designer decides to provide.

Newbie designers and D-I-Y publishers tend to pack nearly every square micron with text and graphic images: “I paid for the entire cover, and damn it, I’m going to use it.” That’s not a good idea. Attractive covers and interior pages often use lots of negative space where there is nothing but the background color. In art (and life), “nothingness” can be something—something very important.



Chinese philosopher Laozi is credited with writing the following more than 2500 years ago:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space within it is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house, but the empty space within it is the essence of the house.

Sadly, both amateur and professional publishers seem to strive to save pages, dollars (and maybe also trees) and the result is often awful.

Authors Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen advise: “Beginners often make the mistake of forgetting to account for space. Too much space, and visuals and type get lost or don't talk to each other. Not enough space, and they start to fight with each other.”

White space provides “visual breathing room for the eye” and also provides contrast that highlights the positive space. Painters—and the people who frame their work—have understood this for centuries. Amateur book formatters should spend some time walking around an art gallery or even viewing the websites of companies that sell art prints.



[above] For example, Pablo Picasso created “Petite Fleurs” with ample white space around the image, and even the hands and forearms are mere outlines around white space to further emphasize the color of the flowers held in the hands. The folks at Art.com
 provide additional white space in the matte that surrounds the print in a frame. 

At the right/above, I show how the same-size artwork would look if Picasso and the framer removed the air supply. The lithographic print with ample air draws me in. The airless print pushes me away. Eyes—like noses—need air.

Just as the appearance of a picture is improved by having a matte within its frame, your text needs adequate white space surrounding it. Eyes—like noses—need air.

One of my basic rules of thumb is that the a book’s outside margins must be large enough to comfortably fit human thumbs without covering up any text or illustration. It’s really annoying to have to constantly re-position pages while reading through a book.




The sample books that Infinity Publishing and DiggyPOD distribute to impress potential author/customers have barely enough margin room for a child’s pinky—let alone an adult’s thumb. Some magazines, including Bloomberg Business Week, are guilty of the same sin.

Paper is one of the least expensive parts of publishing, and if a book requires 10 or 20 more pages to be more attractive and more comfortable to read, it’s a worthwhile investment.

While paper is not expensive, it’s not free, so keep printing costs in mind while evaluating suppliers. Each page from Lightning Source or CreateSpace costs the same, but other companies have wacky price schedules.


With Infinity Publishing, a reader pays a buck more for a book with 129 pages than one with 128 pages and the author pays 54 cents more. Page number 129 is printed on a very expensive piece of paper.


Xlibris also has an inflated and weird “delta” between page ranges. A 107-page paperback book will sell for $15.99 and the hardcover will sell for $24.99. If you add just one page more, the price goes up $4 or $5. The difference in the manufacturing cost is tiny, and can’t possibly justify the difference in cover price.


The price for a paperback with 398 pages is $19.99 (just like the 108-page book), but, at 400 pages the retail price jumps four bucks to $23.99, and that price holds all the way to 800 pages.


Xlibris gives away 400 pages for “free,” but charges four or five bucks for one page!


Xlibris books are printed by Lightning Source, so the price per additional page is $.013 (or maybe even less if they get a discount).

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I'll have more to say about page design soon. This post is adapted from my upcoming Typography for Independent Publishers.

2 comments:

  1. Fine, but can Laozi help me make better egg rolls?

    ReplyDelete