A Case For Graphical Elements and Ornaments in Ebooks

LB coverI finished up two big projects yesterday. Not just word count big (100k and 160k), but big in the sense that the authors are NYT best sellers and award winners, and so their ebooks better look GOOD. (Granted, making an ebook look better than offerings being released by the BPHs isn’t hard. They’ve set the bar pretty low.) I also pulled double-duty as art director, and did the ebook covers and interior graphics.

CG Cover(To all you cover designers out there, a big salute. That shit is hard!)

This leads me to today’s topic, which involves a big fat WHY? Why spend so much time designing interiors and creating graphics and ornaments when the words are the star of the show and who cares what it looks like anyway, right? (And yes, I do admit that in the past I have gotten carried away just because I really like the fancy bits and love playing with Paint.net, but I’m over that now. Honest.)

LB 1It boils down to the fact that humans are visual creatures. We tend to pass judgment based on appearances. There is a reason mass market paperbacks are considered pulpy and cheap while the exact same text in hardcover is considered important. Trade paperbacks fall in between and tend to be better designed and much better looking than mass market editions. “I’m important, but reasonably priced.” The packaging sends a powerful message to the reader and influences their reading experience before they even begin to read.

CG 2I pay attention to my reading experiences with ebooks, trying to pinpoint exactly what influences me and why. Here is a short list:

  • Covers lose their impact and influence after I buy the book. While the covers display on my Paperwhite and Kindle Fire, when I actually open the book the cover becomes a non-issue just because it’s not handy in the way a print book cover is.
  • Well-designed and visually interesting title pages and section beginnings shut off my inner-editor.
  • Good design increases my confidence in the prose. It also makes me more forgiving. If I find a typo my tendency is to just pass it off as a mistake instead of thinking the writer and/or producer is a slob who can’t be trusted.
  • Ornaments and illustrations give me a little lift. If I’m in a bad mood, it’s harder to enjoy a story.
  • Good design and graphical elements make an ebook stand out from the pack and hence, make it more memorable. I’m more likely to remember the author’s name and book title.

LB 2Does all this mean that every ebook requires graphical elements and ornaments? No. If the producer pays proper attention to overall layout–use of white/negative space, paragraph indents, first line treatments, navigation and front/back matter–they can create a professional looking and reader-pleasing ebook. My suggestion, examine better quality mass market paperbacks. Study those that appeal to you and emulate their design. The less-is-more camp can generate a beautiful product.CG 1

In fact a book I did recently had minimal design elements (visible elements, anyway). For this project the writer wanted it very simple, sleek and clean. I used only one simple ornament on each chapter head just to add some visual interest and make the chapter titles stand out from the text.

CD 1

I wish I'd done this cover. Derek Murphy is the star here.

I wish I’d done this cover. Derek Murphy is the star here.

As always, go for functionality first.

  • Test your graphics at different sizes because you don’t know what size screen the reader will be using.
  • Don’t be afraid of color. Colors render beautifully on tablets and other color readers. Sometimes just a spot or a dot of brightness can take an ebook from blah to wowza!
  • Test your colors to see how well they render in grayscale. (In Paint.net I can view the images in black and white and that gives me a good idea how they will render on a non-color ereader.)
  • Fonts are a wonderful design element. You can find hundreds to use for free at such sites as dafont.com and fontsquirrel.com.*
  • For good ideas, study expensive hardcovers. A lot of skill and artistry go into their design. Examine the balance and tone of the design elements and how the most effective designs enhance the reading experience.

So go forth and experiment. If you come up with something very cool, send me a link so I can see what you’ve done.

* I am so NOT a fan of embedded fonts in ebooks. They add a lot of bloat to the file size for what I consider very little benefit. Plus, they don’t always render properly, especially on older ereaders. If you do want to embed fonts, do your research, read and heed the font developer’s licensing agreement, and test test test to make sure it works.