Understanding the Picture Book Design Process

When you hire a graphic designer for your book, the more information you have going in the better off you will be. I always appreciate when clients come to me well-informed and are able to ask me intelligent, thought-out questions about the process and my work. That being said, I do want to clarify something before we start.

Doing it Yourself vs Hiring a Professional

If you are not a graphic designer, I would not advise you to lay out the book yourself. So many things can go wrong – the color can be off, the images will get cropped in the wrong places, the text will print in a different font than you intended, the wrong file gets printed, the pictures print blurry, the text is hard to read – and that’s just the beginning. That list doesn’t even start to mention the design aspects you may miss if you do it yourself, like matching the font style to the illustrations, making sure the text is legible and fun, ensuring the text is broken up nicely and that the page turns are natural. If you have experience with graphic design, by all means, do it yourself. But if you don’t, and someone told you that it’ll be fine if you lay it out with Microsoft Paint or Publisher, don’t believe them. Hiring a professional will go a long way in making sure the quality of your finished product matches that of large publishers.

Step One: Art Direction

The first part of the design process is a specialty that not everyone offers. Art direction means overseeing the illustration process and giving feedback to the illustrator on drafts and sketches. Most authors do this themselves, but having someone artistic who is not emotionally connected to the book (as the author and illustrator often are) can be really helpful in making sure your book is objectively good, not just good because it’s your baby, and isn’t she gorgeous??? 

If your designer provides the art direction, usually they will communicate with the illustrator directly, or through you (the author), or the publisher (if one is involved). The designer should be involved with the entire process, from storyboard to black and white sketches to final color. Their input can be invaluable and will only improve your book. If you decide to have the designer become involved, take a step back and allow the designer to take the lead in this area. As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the soup, or in this case, too many opinions will drive an illustrator to distraction.

Step Two: Laying Out The Book

Once the illustrations are finished and with the designer, they will start designing the book for you. Usually, they will take a page or two and mock it up with different fonts for you to choose from that they feel are appropriate for the feel of the book. Remember to speak up if you have questions or concerns – even though you may drive the designer crazy, it’s your book and you should be happy with the end result. As a service provider, it is the designer’s job to make your vision into reality (in a more professional way than it exists in your head, hopefully).

The font should ideally match the tone of the book and be laid out in a clear and easy-to-read way. Try to avoid novelty fonts that come on every computer (Papyrus, Comic Sans, Kristen, Vivaldi, Times New Roman, Bradley Hand – the list goes on). There are classic fonts you can use that will look more professional and read better. Or there are other novelty fonts that will be fun and interesting to look at but not one that everyone immediately recognizes. Try to avoid having fonts overlap parts of the illustration in a way that might cover up something important or make it hard to read. You can always go back to the illustrator and ask them to move something or adjust something as well.

Once you decide on the font, they will lay out the rest of the book for you. Here are some things to look for when you get the completed PDF for approval:

  • Typos – many times, mistakes can slip in during the layout phase, so check carefully, even if your book has already been extensively edited.
  • Image overlap – make sure that the text doesn’t overlap the image in odd ways. I’ve seen layouts with text overlapping the line of a wall, obscuring some letters, on a blanket, where wrinkles make the text hard to read, and smushed into a tiny place when there are other places to put it.
  • Font choice – does the font match the overall tone of the book?
  • Extras – is there any place where some words can be emphasized to make the text more exciting to read? Are there any blocks of text that would benefit from better line breaks? Is there any place where a slight layout change will make it more fun to look at? 
  • Images – are all the images in the right place? Is each image on its proper page? Does it match the appropriate text?

Step Three: Designing the Cover

Once the insides are (mostly) designed, you will move on to the cover. The cover is arguably the most important part of the design of your book. If you can’t afford a designer for the whole book, try to at least hire someone to do your cover design. It is the first thing potential readers notice and eight times out of ten, it is the entire reason that someone will stop and take a look at your book. We’ll discuss more cover design soon, but keep in mind that you need your cover to jump out at someone from a tiny thumbnail image that they see while scrolling through hundreds of search results. So this is not the time to be shy or afraid to be bold, either with image, text, or color. Make sure your cover not only represents your book but is something that you can be proud of.

Final Steps

After the cover and interiors are designed, corrected, and approved, the designer should send you the files set up according to the printer’s specifications and save them as high res PDF files. Depending on the arrangement you made with the designer, you could also receive the native InDesign files, ebook files, and images for use in social media campaigns and marketing.

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FREE DOWNLOADThe Author's Guide to Working with Illustrators

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