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In Design

By Greg Devitt

Have you hugged a textbook designer lately?

On 16, Aug 2012 | In Design | By Greg Devitt

Have you hugged a textbook designer lately?

Probably not.

Don’t feel bad. Textbook design rarely, if ever, takes centre stage in the world of graphic design. Yet most of us benefit from this particular design discipline. There has been—quietly toiling in the background—a textbook designer from your first primer on the ABC’s to your years learning the extreme minutia of advanced microeconomics.

Textbook design—like all graphic design—is not simply the act of making something visually attractive. The graphic design of a textbook is fundamentally about creating a visual system for the organization and straightforward digestion of large chunks of information. If the book is well-authored and well-edited there will be a pedagogical structure that must be honoured to encourage efficiency and ease of learning on the part of the student. Essentially a textbook designer is creating a user interface for a complex, albeit structured, abundance of information.

UI design and usability is most often studied in the context of the digital realm rather than the realm of pulped up trees, but there are a number of principles that cross this divide into textbook design. More important, textbooks are increasingly being repurposed into digital format. Consistent design across mediums, with effective usability, should be considered. This is where heuristic evaluation, a common staple of the UI designer, can be reframed slightly to meet the needs of the educational publishing designer.

Usability heuristics are a set of rules or principles laid out to guide a designer along the path of user interface excellence. One of the most common set of user interface heuristics was created by Jakob Nielson in the early 1990s. Some of these heuristics deal specifically with dynamic feedback available in the digital medium. These we can ignore since paper books rarely talk back. However, other principles are very relevant. With that in mind, let’s “repurpose” Nielson’s set of ten heuristics for user interface design into Greg’s Five Heuristics for Textbook Design.

  1. Consistency and Standards - Users should not have to wonder whether different colours, icons, or boxes mean the same thing. Create a set of conventions and follow them.
  2. Error prevention - Careful design, which prevents a problem from occurring, is the goal of the designer. Eliminate error-prone conditions such as an overabundance of visual information, inappropriate hierarchy of form or colour, or a glut of typefaces. Also be mindful that all elements must be accurately reproduced on the commercial printing press as well as on the screen.
  3. Recognition rather than recall - Minimize the reader’s memory load by making objects and options visible and obvious. The reader should not have to remember information from one part of the book to another. Instructions for use of the textbook should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  4. Efficiency of use - Accelerators may often speed up the interaction for the reader such that the textbook can cater to both inexperienced and experienced readers. Accelerators can include physical properties such as tabs. They also include visual design properties. Designers should make strong connections through colour, typography, iconography, and shape between related pieces of information to encourage efficient navigation for the reader. One caveat, be careful not to rely too heavily on colour alone for navigation. Some readers may experience a form of colour blindness. Also, if the textbook is digitally repurposed some digital tablets may not show colour at all.
  5. Aesthetic and minimalist design - Design elements should not contain information that is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility. Grid-based design offers a rational system for layout and unites both design elements and whitespace into a coherent cadence.

There’s more to be sure, but these five heuristics work together to form the basis of visual design for textbooks. Every textbook designer hopes to enhance and simplify the learning process for every student who crosses the pages of their design.

So if you run across a textbook designer in your travels today perhaps give a nod of appreciation, or even a hug. (For the record, a cup of rare, fair-trade coffee is like a hug to me…I have big personal space.)

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  1. thank you! Most of the work I do is for privately published personal and family histories, but the principle is the same: it’s about organizing information, providing visual cues as to what type of information people are looking at, and underwriting a consistent and coherent structure throughout the book. When we do our jobs well, no one notices – and that’s how it should be! [she says modestly.]

  2. I’d love to land a textbook design project! I just flipped through my nephew’s books for this year. My one complaint about most of them is that while they are plenty colorful, they are dreadfully organized. I’d love to see school books laid out with a DK Publishing or NatGeo Magazine feel to them. Do they all have to be so…texty?

    • Greg Devitt

      Ha, no they don’t have to be so “texty”, necessarily. It really depends on the level of the text, the subject, etc. You have to remember that textbooks should be designed for students but ultimately have to appeal to whoever is adopting the text (school board, teacher, prof). That adds some complexity to the design (and sales) process. I feel the textbook should be designed primarily for the user but I don’t think that always happens. It’s unfortunate to see textbooks designed poorly. Sometimes it’s the designer’s fault and sometimes the content itself is problematic.

      BTW, I love your web site. Nice work!

  3. I can not thank you adequately for the posts on your web site. I know you’d put a lot of time and effort into them and hope you know how much I appreciate it. I hope I’ll do exactly the same for someone else at some point.