Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Design

Game Design, Book Design: A Tale of Woe

Last week I was very excited because at long last, the video game I backed on Kickstarter in 2013 was finally coming out. The game in question? Armikrog, the “spiritual successor to The Neverhood.”

cover image for ArmikrogThe Neverhood is a point-and-click adventure game that came out in the mid-90s, and is possibly still my favorite video game of all time (or at least my favorite puzzle adventure game). What made it delightful included not just clever puzzles, but a gorgeous, well-conceived world built entirely out of clay, with Doug TenNapel’s weirdo visual design. Also, Terry S. Taylor’s brilliant soundtrack to the game was the first (!) thing that I ever bought off the internet back in middle school. So. Needless to say, Armikrog had some emotional capital tied to it for me.

neverhoodLike The Neverhood, Armikrog is a point-and-click claymation adventure game. The old creative team came together to make it; however, unlike before when they were backed by Dreamworks Interactive and had a big ol’ budget, this time they used Kickstarter for their funding. And they had a great Kickstarter, raising the better part of a million dollars. They got some A++ voice acting talent in addition to the old crew. Tragically, though, they neglected a vital part of the team, it would seem: QA. QA, or Quality Assurance, are the fine folks who do their very best to break your game so that you can uncover any bugs the developers missed. The released version of the game didn’t run on some systems (fixed pretty quickly with a patch, but still) and was generally riddled with bugs. A disappointment, to say the least. I’ll try playing it again after another patch or two come out.

You might be saying at this point, hey, what does all of this have to do with book design?

Let’s talk about a pair of related design concepts, User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI). These are basically a way of talking about how your user interacts with your game, book, or website (UI), and how they feel doing it (UX). In the case of Armikrog, I felt frustrated, and not in the good “this puzzle is hard” way, but the bad “I am not sure if this is a bug or a puzzle” way. For example, one of the UI problems in Armikrog was a cursor that never changes to indicate if you can interact with an object or not. This contributed to me not being able to tell when I couldn’t do something (e.g. push a button) because it wasn’t connected or powered or whatnot, and when I couldn’t do something because it just wasn’t something I could interact with. There are multiple UI ways that my user experience of “not sure if puzzle or bug” could have been improved. But rather than dwelling too much on that, I’d like to look at how UI and UX apply to books.

Examples of bad experiences readers (users) could have when reading a book:

  1. Hard to read the words
  2. Annoying to physically interact with the book
  3. Feeling of irritation for no easily discernible reason
  4. “Not sure if typo or intentional choice”

Let’s break those down a tad and connect them to some “UI” reasoning.

  1. If it’s hard to read the words, there could be a variety of reasons. A poor font choice can make reading painful. Words on top of an image that do not contrast well enough will be hard to read. Words in a color/background that “resonates” wrong, i.e. makes you feel like your eyeballs are buzzing, will surely be painful to read.
  2. Another way that reading might become difficult is if the margins are too small.
    diagram of a reader's spread of a book
    A small outer margin will mean your thumbs get in the way of the words when you hold the book. If the gutter margins are too small, then you’d have to open the book to the point of cracking the spine just to read the words. If the trim size of the book is awkward, making it hard to hold, your readers will want to quickly put the book down.
  3. If you are reading a book and feeling annoyed, but aren’t sure why, it may be a visual design problem. Particularly in books with pictures, if the designer’s done a bad job, you may see margins that are different on the recto and verso pages, pictures that are poorly aligned, imbalanced, or a number of other visual design sins.
  4. If the book you’re trying to read is riddled with typos (especially ones that are the correctly spelled wrong word), then you’ll feel like I did trying to play Armikrog: annoyed, and occasionally unsure if you’re looking at a typo or an intentional choice on the part of the author.


TL;DR: If you’re making a game or a book, you need to think about UI/UX. If you’re making a book, hire a book designer. If you’re making a game, app, or website, hire a UI/UX designer.

What is Book Design?

It has been a week. I have survived this week, this week of making my own boundaries and schedule (which is really hard and deserves its own post at a later time).

Wash plays with dinosaurs on the Serenity

This week, which I shall call “this week.”

So when I’m not a) doing Goddard homework, b) writing otherwise, or c) trying to glue the bits of my life together in a coherent collage, I’m doing design. Book design, usually, but sometimes business cards or other print design. I’ll also be working towards web design, but that will come with time.

But what is this “design” of which people so eagerly speak, and how does it apply to books? It’s hard to define, but I’ll take a few stabs at it:

  • Design is a series of choices made about the shape of the work.
  • Design answers questions like “how will the reader interact with the book?” and “what is the essence of the work and how can I make that into a nice tactile/visual object?”
  • Design is what you’re judging when you judge a book by its cover (and we all do it, proverbs be damned).
  • Good design is invisible; bad design is obvious.


Right, pontification, lovely, but what does it really look like to make design choices surrounding a book?

Pick up a book. Any book will do, but for now let’s look at a paperback. The first thing I pulled off my shelf was Grant Morrison’s Supergods. The cover of the book already has many design choices going on. It’s black with a large dotted line cutout of a Batman mask, almost like a do-it yourself project in an activity book of a previous era, except it’s labeled “fig 1” in small text. Other elements on the cover are the title, the author, the phrase “national bestseller,” and a quote from Entertainment Weekly telling us that the book is “fascinating” and that it’s “an analysis of what superheroes…can tell us about ourselves and our culture.” Nice of Entertainment Weekly to have written such a succinct description of the book. It makes it seem more legit than if it was Grant Morrison saying those things, or his mom or something.

So here’s a visual, for those of you following along at home:

cover of US trade paperback edition of Grant Morrison's Supergods

Some of the design choices that went into just this front cover include:

  • Choice of image
  • What information goes on the cover
  • Placement of information on the cover
  • Specifically, how to deal with the title and author. This book gives the title and author equal weight. You know those thrillers in the drug store that have “DEAN KOONTZ” or “CLIVE CUSSLER” in huge letters with the title in little teeny letters? Those books people buy because they follow the author. You probably couldn’t get away with designing an edition of the Inferno with a huge metallic raised-letter “DANTE ALIGHIERI,” although I am now tempted to try. Heheh.
  • What font all the words are in. For Supergods, Morrison’s designer chose not to have everything in “comic lettering” font, but rather chose a simple, easy-to-read sans serif font, although he does maintain all caps like you would see in a comic book speech bubble. The font is bold and condensed for the title and author, bold and not-condensed for the “national bestseller” bit, and light on the bottom in the yellow strip (which makes it suddenly readable).
  • Color. Supergods has black, white, and yellow in very bold unshaded swaths. To recap: Book about Superheroes is Batman color. Good job. If it was mildly ecru and salmon, we’d have a problem, or else this book would be all about Aquaman, and sales would plummet.

Also, for this title alone on a simple Google Image search, I found four other designs which one presumes have been published. If you want Design Looking practice, take a look and see if you can figure out what design choices were made.

I must warn you all of something now. A dire warning. If you study design, you will suddenly notice things. They will not be good things. Remember how good design is invisible and bad design is obvious? Suddenly you’ll notice all the bad design choices. Like how sometimes movie posters get stupidly repetitive.

poster for Silver Linings Playbookidentity-thief-movie-poster-2013-1020753947

                              …And how Trajan is the movie font.

It’s like learning filmmaking, and then watching crap sitcoms and noticing how like half the time the camera focuses on the background instead of the character.

Which is to say, I’m sorry. Everything is ruined forever.


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