COVER DESIGN TIPS Part 4 of 4: Procrastination and chitter chatter


I’ve been procrastinating on this last post for cover design tips and what I’ve learnt in publishing.

Originally I was suppose to write about the client brief and deadlines. Then I realised that I’ve already spoken about ‘briefing a designer’… Hmmm, a recap and detour is needed!

But as far as deadlines are concerned, there’s nothing much you can say about them except that they are there for a reason, and they will be here to stay no matter what industry you’re in. The sooner you start seeing it as your friend – rather than your enemy – the less you’ll despise it. There’s two reasons why someone hate deadlines: 1) they miss them all the time, and 2) they not being set realistically. Other ailments are bad communication and bad management. These are factors that make deadlines seem like a black hole and unreachable. Set reachable and more frequent deadlines.

Why I found this last post on what I’ve learnt in publishing hard is quite simple actually. Everyone appreciates the truth, right? And the truth is I’m afraid to end this phase of my design blog posts because what I’ve learnt in publishing is what I know today. And since I’ve written about that already… what happens next?

What’s next will be what I’m learning and discovering now. I’ll be doing my very best to teach you what I know and what I’m learning, new people I’ve come across, interviews with other book designers, new learnings in book design, and business events I’ve attended. I’ll share with you my learnings and views of these events to help fuel the work and life we lead.

Something I’ve been facing particularly this week is that freelancing is not easy. Duh! We all know this and people warn you about this. But neither is working for a boss. What’s difficult is how we view our work. Our skill. Our belief in ourselves is what will make or break us. People will throw their opinions at you whether you want it or not. You need to ignore what’s poisonous or absorb what’s good for you.

I’m grateful for this post. This post is a retrospective. A lesson I’ve learnt while working with agile methodologies..


So here’s a quick recap of all the posts I’ve written on things I’ve learnt in traditional publishing:

Intro to what I’ve learnt in traditonal publishing

The spec handover

The book grid

The spec design

Typefaces and fonts

Thoughts and tips on feedback, criticism, typesetting and the book plan

The book cover

Cover artwork

Cover design tips: Part 1 of 4

Cover design tips: Part 2 of 4 – Typography

Cover design tips: Part 3 of 4 – Colour


Hope you enjoyed and learnt something from these posts. Even if it was just one thing.

But as all good things, sometimes they need to end so that you are forced to start afresh. I plan to do just that with my next posts.

Stay curious. Stay tuned.



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.

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…