The spec design

page grid



What is a spec design?

A spec design is preparing the book’s page look ‘n feel. It’s also a preparation for the handover to the typesetter. It’s a great method to keep your book in extent and create a consistent flow of text and imagery throughout your book.



There’s a lot of publishing professionals who don’t work with spec designs. Sometimes the manuscript is given directly to a typesetter. This can be a bad move depending on the typesetter you using. Some typesetters are trained designers, and some are not. Research the suppliers you work with. Ensure they have the qualification and experience to do the work you paying them for.

Side thought…

Book publishing is like a relay race. If the first person starts out bad, it affects each and every person further down in the race. And it’s usually the last person in the race who suffers the most (or gets the most praise if the job goes well!). So be considerate of your team members as you run the publishing race together! Responsibility and accountability is an important aspect in business. The responsibility of the designer is to ensure the text on the page looks good and reads well. The typesetter ensures that they keep to the design style and text is sitting on the page correctly. Typesetters have a very good eye for how text should fall on a page, and have a lot of knowledge and technical know-how in book publishing. Each have their role to play. And it’s really magical to see a book come together and be a part of the process.


‘Dummy’ text

This is extracted text from the manuscript. In publishing we call it ‘dummy’ text. The editor supplies the designer with dummy text in order to make up the spec design. Ensure you extract all possible text features, eg. body text, headings, box features, chapter openers, part page openers, contents page, and end matter like the glossary, index page text. Remember, we creating a shortened visual of what the book will look like before typesetting takes place. 

The dummy text is styled or tagged as body txt, body 1st para, body indent, and HeadA, HeadB (see style sheet image below). The editor and designer use the same style sheets. So by the time the spec design is complete, the typesetter is using these style sheets for styling the full manuscript. Book design involves alot of thinking and planning ahead. Only once you do it – will you understand it


Style sheets

Style sheets make life simpler in book and magazine design. It keeps text consistent throughout. Have a look at the kind of style sheet names we use in book design. Below is a list of paragraph and character style sheet names.

chara styles para styles

The names need to make sense to the editor, the designer, and the setter, who will be using this to style the manuscript.

The paragraph style is the main style sheet. The character style lies within the paragraph style. So before you make character styles, you need to know how things will look on a page. Learn how to setup style sheets, and it will be your next best friend in book design.









For more info on style sheets visit:


After the spec design is signed off

Once the spec is designed and signed off, the designer collects all the style sheets into an RTF file for the editor to start styling the manuscript. The editor is using the same style names the designer used. By using RTF format, Indesign picks up the formatting and styles the text according to the RTF and Indesign document. Sometimes the manuscript changes during setting, and the setter has to accommodate for this. If these affect any design features – it’s usually taken back to the designer to provide a suggestion on how best to fix.


The spec design will look like the book except it’s a much MUCH shortened version of the final book. It will give the author a good idea of how text and images will run on the page.

Have you or do you know of designers who use this method? Most importantly, was this helpful? Do you understand the concept of what and why we use spec designs?

Feedback is improvement 😉

9 thoughts on “The spec design

  1. As a designer use styles for everything, but do not know a single editor (good though they are) who would a. know to ask for an rtf, or b. has sent me a properly formatted text document!

    • Thanks for the comment! Perhaps its a matter of it being the designer’s responsibility to educate editors we work with. Bearing in mind we all have our own ways of working – it may still be worthwhile to try if its going to improve the workflow. RTF files is simply a file format you save to and work within to keep style formatting consistent. Nothing much more to it. It does simplify the process between editor and designer and typesetter. This was discovered through various workshops with editors, stylers, designers and typesetters. Something very valuable I learnt. But yes, hard to get those who are used to working a certain way to use it… unless you SHOW them how it can help them work smarter – not harder 😉

      • It is true indeed that we should educate them, but often people are simply unwilling to change the comfortable way they already work simply to be more efficient. Sad, but true.

      • It is sad. And comfort zones are very dangerous areas to remain in. But I’m curious… how do you know how to style the text? Or do you mostly deal with fiction books like novels? If you designing text for a non-fiction or college educational book, then doesn’t it become complicated to style?

      • I design primarily ‘coffee-table books’ i.e. trade illustrated titles… see for examples… it depends on the client’s brief as well as my design sense on how the text should appear… use both standard styles in InDesign as well as nested (which makes catalogs and textbooks easier to format) depending on content.

      • Those are lovely books to design! And thank you for sharing! So for books like that, styling/using RTF files etc. wouldn’t be as necessary as it would on school or higher educational books? School books requires a certain look and flow and it can become complicated with all the different text features. I used these methods when I worked at a publishing house because I worked mainly on educational books. And if we didn’t research into using these methods, then designing and setting these would have been a nightmare. Perhaps it’s safe to say the method you use in designing pages, depends largely on the type of book you designing. There’s no one way of doing things… as they say, there’s many ways to skin a cat! 😉

      • True, there are indeed many ways to skin a cat! Even with these books although there are large paragraphs of text, there are still over 30K words in most, captions, and so on. Styles help a lot, no matter what the book, and more so for educational and catalogs. Keep an eye on the website, not all my work is on, more is on the wordpress one

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s