My ball and chain

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My ball and chain

it gives me comfort;

makes me feel safe.

At times its heavy;

weighs me down.

But I drag it along

because I need it.

My ball and chain

brings false sense of happiness; false security.

This we do not see,

until we’ve created our own happiness.

Our own security.

That DAMN ball and chain…

I still need it.

I don’t want to need it.

How can I do without it? …Oh how.

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 😉

The book grid

A4 grid

What is a book grid?

It’s the PRE prep work before the actual work… if that even makes sense. The grid establishes things like what the baseline height will be, how many columns to use, the page size setup and which typeface would look good together. It’s a page spread/s – see example above – on what some of these terms look like.

Body text

First step towards a grid setup is to choose your typeface and size of your body text. Typeface is the font family you’d like to use throughout the book. And body text is the main running text throughout the book. Choosing fonts takes a good working knowledge of which font styles work best with each other. I never use more than 3 typefaces in a book. More than that, and the book will start to look unprofessional and messy. But, this is dependent on the style of book you publishing, and the market you designing for. So do your research!

Side note: Kerning is the space between characters/letters. Leading is the space between lines of text.


Columns is a vital part of a grid setup. You can have a 3, 4 or even 6 column grid (see image above). Again, you’ll need to know the basic structure of the book. The heavier the text or box features in a book, the more columns you may have. This allows for design flexibility – especially within tight page extents. The lighter your text in your book – the less columns you may have. The grid allows for a consistent flow of text throughout the book and gives a good indication of how many words per line you can manage. A very important aspect if you want your book to stay within its page extent.


Headings usually (not always) are sans-serif, and body text is serif. But this all depends on the kind of book you publishing and whether it’s an online or printed format. ‘They’ say sans-serif reads better online compared to printed material. Heading size work in conjunction with the body leading size. Each component in book design is wired together in some manner. Nothing in book design works in isolation. It’s a connected bunch of wires working together to makeup one entity in the end.

Footer and Running heads

A header or footer is text or graphics that is usually printed at the top or bottom of every page. A header is printed in the top margin; a footer is printed in the bottom margin. That’s the basic explanation. Some of these can get quite creative, like having your headers running down the side of your page. For something like this, you’ll need to work closely with your printer or check visibility is clear on an electronic device. Nothing irritates a reader more than not being able to read the text. Especially page numbers! They are important in a book for many practical reasons including as a reference source.


Lastly, the baseline is the lines on which your body text sits (see image above). The baseline grid is a formula which uses the body text leading size. This is why its important to get your body text approved first. This is also why it’s important to get the foundation of your design grid right. Like building a house – if the foundation is wrong, the house will eventually fall apart. So lay your foundation down correctly, and the job will look good and run smoother 😉

Feedback is fuel for improvement! so feel free to comment or ask questions.

Next, I’ll talk about the spec design.

The spec handover

Snapshot from Google of book layouts

Snapshot from Google of book layouts

This marks the beginning of the book design process for a designer. It starts with a meeting to discuss the book with the editor, publisher, creative director and designer. Usually, the author is not part of these discussions. Here we discuss what the book is about, and what editorial has in mind for the book. Below are a few points which are given to the designer by the editor. As you’ll see it’s quite a lengthy meeting and a lot of preparation goes into this by the editor. A good editor will ensure that the brief has covered all of the following:

Spec design brief

A spec design is a shortened versioned of what the text pages of the book will look like. It’s planning out how text, colour, images and boxes will run throughout the book before it’s typeset. This makes typesetting a lot easier and provides a consistent flow of text/images throughout the book. A lot like product branding and a lot not! 😉

handover post image

This is the information you give to the designer:

Title of the book.

Colours that will be used in book: CMYK or Black and White or any Pantone Colours.

Size of the book. I always prefer it in millimetres – width and height.

Page/Book Extent: the amount of pages in the book which makes up the spine size. This info stipulates how thick or thin the book will be.  It also tells the designer how wide to design the gutter. The gutter is the middle of the book or the fold area. Thick books need more ‘breathing space’ so that text doesn’t end up running into the spine/gutter area, thereby making it hard for the reader to read.

Dummy text. This is provided as a word doc. It’s basically all the features, texts, main heads, chapter texts, part page texts (if any) extracted out of the manuscript by the editor. This is styled (tagged) according to style sheets like the body text, Head A to B, C, or D, feature texts, chapter text, content page texts – everything that could possibly be in the book which needs to be designed. This gives the designer an indication of how to design the heading hierarchy in the book. Which heads or subheads need to be larger than others. [show eg.] NB. The designer doesn’t know the book as well as the author/editor, so the more guidance you provide the designer, the better design you will get.

Preferred typeface (font family). The editor can suggest typefaces if they are knowledgeable on the subject. I wouldn’t use more than 3 typefaces in a book. Remember to leave some room for the book designer to add their expertise as well. After all, it’s why you hiring them in the first place, so ensure they have the knowledge and proven experience do to the job right.

Indicate how many levels of heading. Head A – the main heading, Head B – second main heading, or Head C which is a third level heading.

Longest and shortest headings. To establish how large the font size of headings should be. Remember, this all affect book extent, and what affects extent – affects budget!

Boxes or special features. This plays a huge role in the setup of a printed book. If there are a lot of boxes, then design the margins with more space to accommodate boxes. If there are no or little boxes, then the page design can be a bit more simple and cleaner looking. If the extents are heavy as in school text books, then try to work the boxes into the body text rather than separate them. Novels or literature books, have a less complicated page layout. It doesn’t require lots of different box features or headings. So in this case, there’s more room to ‘play’ with space.

Will the book be translated into other languages? In South Africa we have 11 different languages. Some publishers cater for all 11! Translations tricky because if a book is designed in English, it will not accumulate the same amount of space in another language. For example, an English heading that takes up one line of text will not consume the same amount of space in Afrikaans or Italian. So in this case, the designer needs to design 3 specs. One for English as the generic (or main) spec. Have it checked and signed off first, and then make up the other language spec from the English generic. This process can be complicated if it’s not approached correctly from the beginning. Using an experienced book designer can save you a lot of headache!

Footers (page numbers/folio’s) and Running Heads. Establish where you would like this to occur – top or bottom of pages or both.

Other book references the designer could use. Perhaps other books you admire or feel your book would work well with a few adjustments. References are always welcomed with designers as sometimes the visual explains better than the verbal.

Is this a first edition or not. First editions are usually special editions and designers need information such as this. If it’s a second edition, then sometimes this is based on the first edition design with only slight changes. In this case, provide the designer with the open design files – it could save time. Time saved is money saved.

Contents, Chapter Opener and /or Part page texts. Specify which page the chapter page will open on – left or right page. Or if this doesn’t really matter. Things like, will it always fall on a right-hand page? This is designed as Master Pages by the designer.

Lastly, the scheduleDeadlines. The designer needs to know what your book schedule is. We start with looking at the last stage – ie. the print date. We work back from that date. We then create 1st proof, 2nd proof until we reach a final circulation date. If dates are missed in the schedule, then accommodation from either the editor or designer needs to be made or you will miss your print date. And if you miss that, well… be sure to get your ass-kicked by your publisher.

Drop me a comment in the comments below if you have any questions.

Next, I’ll be talking in more detail about the book grid, so stay in touch!

An intro to what I learnt in traditional publishing

Cover art from various sources created by various designers. Myself included.

Cover art from various sources created by various designers. Myself included.


Traditional publishing taught me many things. Discipline, patience and lots and lots of rules I never knew existed. I like to think of them as guidelines, rather than rules. This is what I learnt as a designer in the 8 years I was in publishing.

In traditional publishing we start with the inside of a book. This is mainly because the inside process takes a lot longer to complete than a cover design.

But before all the fun design stuff begins, there is editorial and financial processes which take place. The author has to be commissioned, the editorial team organised, and the financial costs thought through. Questions like, how much will this cost the company to make? How much sales could the book make? This is taken to a commissioning meeting. Here they decide whether the book could be published. The printers are booked in advance, as well as the typesetter and editorial team.

That’s about the gist of the editorial side. A book does not just happen. It’s a thought out process done by teams of people before it reaches the hands of a designer.

Depending on deadlines and how urgent the book is, sometimes the designer gets handed a book which is not completely written yet or not even on final writing stage. When we start design on books that are still in writing, it usually leads to a frustrating experience. This is due to the fact that if the writing process of the book has not yet been completed, it can cause changes to editorial, then to design, which eventually leads to extra financial costs. So its best to submit a final and approved manuscript, before the design. Or it will result in revisiting a stage in the publishing process, wasting valuable time and money.

Well thats the intro! Let’s get started…