Fonts, Color, Page Decor: The Visual Impact of Book Design

I talk a lot about cover designs and what works and doesn’t work for me, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about all of the other elements that can give a book a real visual impact. There are so many little things (and big things) that can go into the design of a book and some work really well for me while others distract me from the reading experience. I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on favorite and not-so-favorite uses of these features in recent (and even not-so-recent) books.

Jackets and Covers

I talk about covers all the time, but one thing I love about hardcover books is when the book designer chooses to make use of both the boards and the jacket to give the book more visual punch. I don’t buy a whole lot of hardcover books, and when I do, I tend to take the jacket off because, for me, it’s tough to hold on to while reading. So when there are little surprises underneath the jacket, I get really excited.

The Age of Miracles is one of my favorite recent examples: 

It’s a fairly unassuming cover, but all of those little circles on the title are actually perforations. So what you’re seeing is the board underneath. It looks really neat because you can see the very bright orange and yellow peaking out, and there’s a texture to the jacket with the perforations.

But the real fun part is the board itself:

I love the silhouette of the girl. It’s a complete surprise, especially after seeing the jacket itself. This is one of those books where not having the jacket on the outside maybe even enhances the visual impact.

Another one of my favorite covers — and this is a hard cover without a jacket — is Katie Williams’s The Space Between Trees.

Sure it doesn’t look all that special. It’s a bunch of dark trees and a girl running in the background. But the trees are actually cut out of the board. It’s not an image but really a piece of art you can poke your fingers through:

I grabbed this image from a reader on Goodreads. The intricacy and the fine detailing of the cut out trees are unexpected and worth spending time studying. It’s not fragile either — the cutouts are pretty sturdy so you don’t have to worry too much about breaking any of the branches as you obsessively run your fingers over them (that can’t just be me). Again, it adds an element to the design that makes it stand out just a little bit more.

Colored Font

I feel like this category might make me sound old, but I really dislike colored font in books. I find it challenging to read and distracting unless it’s used carefully and purposefully. One that stands out in my mind as a particularly challenging reading experience was Anna Dressed in Blood. The font inside is a rusty red and the pages themselves are not bright white, but a little more cream colored. Although it looked neat and certainly fit with the book itself, I couldn’t read straight. I kept finding myself unable to focus because it was hard to read the red-on-cream font. As I look through a lot of other reviews, though, I’ve noticed others have loved this effect because it’s different and adds to the atmospheric element of the story.

I haven’t read the Shiver series by Maggie Stiefvater in a finished format, but in the galley for the final entry in the series, Forever, there’s another instance of red font (though the paper is whiter than it is for the Blake title):

I’m sure there are other examples in other colored fonts, but I’ll be okay in being old and saying I prefer black font because it is the easiest and least distracting to read.

Font Style

Continuing the theme of font selection, I put my foot down very solidly on the fact I prefer my books to have a serif font. I’m not particularly choosey on which serif font is used, but I have a hard time reading sans serif on a print format. I blogged about this way back when STACKED was a baby, but I’ve noticed it’s still popping up once in a while. The most recent example I can think of is SD Crockett’s After the Snow and for me, the font detracted entirely from the reading. The book required me to pay attention to a dialect, which is in and of itself challenging, but adding the sans serif font in the mix made it even harder.

It’s challenging to read because there’s not a visual line connecting the letters to one another as there is in a serif font. I find there’s too much space between the letters and in this particular case, the letters themselves are so thin, they’re difficult to focus on.

Chapter Designs

I love the little touches that go into the pages themselves, and this usually happens on chapter openings. Which, of course, makes sense since that’s where there tends to be more space for designing elements.

Here are two of my recent favorites. The first one is from a galley of Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock. I haven’t had the chance to see the finished version of it, but knowing that images are always enhanced when they make it to the final stage, I bet the design looks even better than it does here:

The design is so simple and yet adds a lot to the visual aspect of the book. It brings the entire page together. Bonus points for fitting with the elements present on the cover.

A few of the chapters inside Courtney Summers’s This is Not a Test offer us a nice double-page blood splatter. It’s minimal enough not to impact the already-strong and stark visual impact of having the chapters start so low on the page (rather than mid-page) and the fact it falls in the gutter of the pages makes it stand out even more. There’s another great visual element in this book, but because it’s a spoiler, I won’t post an image of it.

Deckle Edges

My least favorite of all the design choices in book production: the deckle edge. If you’re unfamiliar with what the deckle edge is, think about older books, where the pages are all unevenly cut. It’s meant to look fancier, I think, but the uneven cut on the pages makes flipping through them challenging (and let’s not even talk about how it’s impossible to hold the book open fully because the shorter cuts won’t stay open).

I think I might fall into a minority on this opinion, though. If you head over to Asheley’s blog, you can see she loves the French flap look (and has some good examples of recent books getting that treatment). Spend a little time looking at some of the other design elements she hits on, too, because they’re different than the things I look at — since I’m a huge contemporary reader, for example, maps never cross my mind as an interesting aspect of a book’s design. But I could see how they’re crucial for fantasy readers to grasp a sense of place in the new worlds they enter.

I think part of what interests me so much in book design is that with ebooks, you can often see the same elements (like the chapter designs) but some elements are simply not going to be a part of the digital reading experience (like the jacket and cover pieces). I’ve read a lot about how designers are thinking about this much more now and working to make ebooks as much an art form as they do physical books. But for me, there’s somewhat of a disconnect, as the ereading experience feels more like a passive studying of elements, whereas holding the physical book and admiring the artistry in the design is much more active.

What are some of your favorite book design elements? What aren’t you a fan of? I’d love to hear more examples of good looking design elements, too, that fit in any of these categories.

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  1. says

    I love the deckle edges. Books with those usually have sturdier, better feeling paper. It also makes page turning easier.

    Love that cover on The Space Between Trees! Will have to look at it in the store so can see it in person. I noticed that Legend has different font colors (I believe) for June and Day's chapters.

    My least favorite element is the trend for the matte finish on book covers. I always remove whatever stickers the stores put on the books, but the matte finish always comes off. I love the overall design of the Lorien Legacy hardcovers- Power of Six had a nice embossed cover, and designed printed on the edges of the pages.

    Another least favorite feature is that publishers haven't figured out how to get some things to work in their ebooks. I read a lot of historical fiction and history, and I've encountered several books where the maps and genealogy charts seem to be a huge file size, which takes so long to load on my Nook Color that I think it's frozen up. And they aren't sized/formatted so you can read them in entirely.

    • says

      I feel the opposite on the deckle edge. They feel flimsy to me and make the pages harder to turn. Like I said though, I think I'm a minority on this one!

      And the same with matte finish. I like how it feels different than a glossy finish, actually. I don't think I've ever had problems with it coming off, but I could see that being an issue with library copies. And I'm going to have to look at the Lorien Legacy hardcovers. I've only ever seen the galley copy.

      I can imagine looking at a genealogical chart or map on an ereader could be frustrating all together with the flipping back and forth, too. It can't be as easy as a paged book is.

  2. says

    One of the nicest designs in terms of books I found, was The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, the one that looked like Moleskine: look here: and

    When you talk about chapter design, I though it Lauren Myracle's Shine. This also has a tree branch in the corner of every chapter and a black and white photo before every new day.

    When you talked about The Space between the Trees I immediately thought of the UK hardcover (first) editions of the Chaos Walking books. They have a see-through cover, and then on the hard cover you have the title . I can't take a photo, because my copies are at school, though.

    I have a hardcover edition of How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford. I can't check it at the moment either, but if memory serves me right, this edition has a pinkish colored font, and it's actually really really nice.

    • says

      I LOVE that cover for the Nelson book. The design is great and it is just like moleskein.

      I don't remember the design on Myracle's book, but it has been a while since I've looked at it. I love those little elements though because it makes the book that much more, you know?

      I went and flipped through my copy of How To Say Goodbye in Robot. Mine isn't pink, but it has pink fonts when the characters are talking back and forth and it has pink page dividers which look nice. Also? It has sans serif font!

  3. says

    Great post — I've been speculating that a lot of the lovely book design lately is intended to provide "value" to the hardcover edition, compared to ebooks and perhaps POD and digital printed paperbacks.

    I love gorgeous books, but much cover design is lost on me because I tend to read hardcovers from the library, where texture and embossing (not to mention board design) are obscured by the library jacket.

    • says

      I agree with your comment about how sometimes those design elements, especially on covers, are lost with library processing. The cover of the Katie Williams book, in the library edition I read, was protected with a film on both sides that sort of took away the effect (obviously, I went and looked at a real edition then because how could I not?).

      The design elements definitely add just a touch of value, at least sentimentally, for me. I love good design and those books that have it are ones I remember a little more, even if it's simply because they were well thought out.

  4. says

    I agree with disliking sans serif fonts in text. The worst I read recently is Marie Lu's Legend. Loved the book, but half was silver serif and the other half was gold sans serif. It denoted which narrator was speaking and matched the cover but was super hard to read. (Oh, and speaking of Stiefvater, Shiver was printed in blue and Linger in green.)

    I love, love, love matte finish. It feels so lovely beneath my fingers. I also love finding surprises beneath the book jacket. I like the little half-jackets Chip Kidd is so fond of, but they're easy to lose.

    I don't really feel anything about deckle edging. But I talked to a friend who was super surprised it was a luxury effect. She thought it was how they cut books when they were doing it on the cheap since it was so uneven.

    Probably the prettiest book I've read lately was Sacre Blue by Christopher Moore.

    • says

      I thought I remembered the other books in the Stiefvater series having color font, but I didn't have them handy to double check. And I think silver and gold font might drive me crazier than red font (SO hard to read).

      When I found out back in the day that deckle edge was a luxury, it surprised me. The first book I remember getting with that treatment was "East of Eden," when Oprah made it her book club pick. Since it was produced en masse, I thought the deckle edging was simply a part of the process of doing it quickly. To find out otherwise was surprising because to me, it looks cheap.

      I haven't looked at the Moore book, but it's sitting in a pile in my room so I should.

  5. says

    I am really bothered by the colored print trend for a number of reasons, but mostly because some reading disabilities are impacted by color, so the accessibility issue is a big one for me.

    I do disagree that ebook design is more passive. It is usually is kind of "meh" in its present form, but there's so much potential for awesome digital design, especially with HTML5 becoming the standard. The disappointing thing is that publishers don't seem to be taking the care with ebook design that they could (there's one in particular that's very guilty of that)–I've looked at the code behind a lot of ebooks and I can tell it's often not hand-crafted, which is too bad because good ebook coding could really help the ebook experience.

    FWIW, I thought This is Not a Test had some of the nicest book design I've seen in awhile–especially on a reasonably-priced paperback. It seems like oftentimes hardbacks get all the love, and paperbacks deserve some TLC too. :)

    • says

      YES! The accessibility issue is, I think, a big deal. And that's where I think there is a good side to ereading in that you could likely change the colored font to something more standard.

      There is potential for good design in ebooks, but for me, it's never going to be the same. I'm not a fan of ereading for a number of reasons, and I feel like the more design elements implemented into ebooks, the less it will feel like reading and the more it'll feel like web browsing. That's my own prejudice, though. I could see how people who are fans of ebooks — like you — would see it as a huge advancement and huge perk.

      And YES I agree. This is Not a Test has one of the best book designs going. The cover looks (and feels) great, and the touches inside are a huge bonus (I love how the final page looks because it makes the words/message behind them even more powerful and drives home the story just a little further).

  6. says

    Love the designs of the hardbacks, especially The Space Between The Trees. Thank you for the definition of deckle edge. I've a book with uneven edges, I thought maybe the publisher had sent me a bad copy, freebie for review it made sense they might keep the nicer ones back. My boyfriend had a look and said he thought maybe it was meant to be like that but I couldn't believe it. It's different, but I'm not a fan either.

  7. says

    For the first grouping, I know I Hunt Killers had a super creepy cover underneath the dust jacket. *hunts for a picture* AHA: I know there are more, but I'm not sure about any off the top of my head. I had no clue that The Age of Miracles was like that underneath, but that's awesome.

    I actually like the colored font, but I've always been a fan of small font too, so…*shrug*

    I do, however agree about sans serif fonts. While I don't have any difficulty reading it, I think it looks simply awful. No thank you.

    In general, I really love the chapter detailing bits, though it can be done in an awful cheesy way, like in Angel Eyes by Shannon Dittemore, which had a little halo at the beginning of each chapter and between sections in the chapter. Nightshade had fully black pages that followed the phases of the moon between each section. That was pretty cool. The black pages are very visually arresting.

    Deckle Edges are obnoxious. The ONLY time I think they're cool is if the book is an old one. Deckle edge on my copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the 1940s with a note from the author urging you to buy war bonds on the back? Cool. Deckle edge on a modern book just because it 'looks fancy'? Unnecessary entirely.

    Only slightly related maybe, I just feel the need to complain about how some publishers try to make books longer by using larger fonts and margins. I find that so annoying. An example: Divergent.

    • says

      Oh, just remembered! Zombies vs. Unicorns had a cool jacket/board thing going too. The whole board looks like the part you see through the cut out figures and the top. The cover isn't the full height of the book and has a transparent zombie and unicorn.

      Another: The edition of Luna by Julia Anne Peters that I have is plain orange with a butterfly in the corner. The butterfly is actually cut out and the title appears on the paper within the book. This a cool concept, however the cover isn't solid enough. Mine has actually ripped (well, it was used, so it already was, but whatever). Neat idea, but the cutout should have been further from the edge.

  8. says

    I think covers that don't match the story inside are THE most distracting element ever. The hardcover of Shatter Me is a great example. I kept flipping to the picture on the front and going, "THAT'S supposed to be Juliette? That's not how I picture her at all. And there wasn't one dress like that in the entire book!"

    On the other hand, it's so much fun to reach the scene in the book that's on the cover and then match the descriptions to the picture. I don't know why, but those moments give me so much pleasure.

  9. says

    I'm not a fan of the deckled edge, either.

    I love it when a book comes together across all of its visual and physical mediums – texture, chapter titles, illustration, type choice, etc. Production design is the best thing about having a physical book, so when it's seamless throughout, it makes for a lovely reading experience.

  10. says

    I love multicolored fonts… I first fell in love with them when I read the Neverending Story by Michael Ende, which came in a restful green and a deep scarlet. I don't like the reprint as much because they chose a vivid red and a too-springtime green…much harder on the eyes.

    I also love how Ende had each chapter begin with the next letter in the alphabet, and the chapter started with a full-page illumination of that letter, foreshadowing what was to come. Brilliant.

    Font shown here (along with a fascinating case for unusual fonts and colors)… scroll to the bottom:

    And here's another printing with different colors

    And the illuminated start to the last chapter, the letter Z, can be seen here (sadly, in B&W…should be red and green):

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