The Gassy Gnoll: Why Layout Matters

This Gassy Gnoll is aware he has a few soap boxes he occasionally harps on. In my reviews, two of my biggest pet peeves are gross spelling/grammatical errors and poor layout. Most of the time word processor spell checkers get the majority of any spelling problems now and grammatical issues seem to be happening less often in products I’ve been reviewing lately.

But layout issues happen over and over again. I know I sometimes harp a bit about poor layout and design in my reviews, but have yet to define why I feel it is as important as the content.

The Gassy Gnoll in all his gassy glory!

And before you ask why I am spouting off about this topic, let me give you some background about myself. I have a degree in technical journalism and several years of technical documentation experience. I have done content creation and book layout for a number of technical publications as well as for my own work for Moebius Adventures over the last 20 years. And though I’ve only published two game books, I’ve been a gamer since I was 12 and have read and used more game books than I can count over the last three decades. So not only do I have a stake in good layout as a publisher, but I also have an appreciation for good layout as a consumer.

Gelett Burgess was an artist and art critic through the late 19th and early 20th century and has a famous quote about art. “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Ultimately, even though I have some experience with book layouts, I think layout is very subjective. You won’t hurt my feelings if you disagree with me, but I did want to make my point of view more clear.

So here’s my list of the top 10 things to consider when doing layout for a RPG book (or any book for that matter).

  1. Good layout is invisible. Bad layout stands out like a sore thumb.
  2. Once you have a good layout, don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have a good reason.
  3. That said, consistency within a book is necessary. Consistency between books is optional.
  4. A layout is more than making a document two-column and tossing in the occasional picture.
  5. Graphical elements aren’t always pictures.
  6. White space is your friend and your enemy.
  7. Chapters deserve sections. Sections deserve headings.
  8. Lists deserve some time and effort.
  9. Layout can add or contribute as much character to a book as a font or art choice can.
  10. Never forget your audience.

That said, these days you don’t need to be Paizo or Wizards of the Coast to produce a great layout with available tools. Sure, the big boys may have more artists, layout specialists, and writers available than smaller publishers – but it’s about doing what you can with what you have and learning as you go. There are open source publishing solutions and graphical repositories small or self- publishers can use to put together their own books. And the only way you get better at a particular skill is with experience.

Nothing is ever perfect. You can obsess over content and layout for years and never be happy with it. But at some point you have to kick the project out the door and start on the next one or you’ll never get anywhere. So there’s a balance somewhere you need to achieve as a publisher.

I know some of the items on the list are cryptic, so let me offer a little overview of each. And if you want to learn more, I’d encourage you to leave me a comment below so I can focus on any particular areas of interest in future articles.

Good layout is invisible. Bad layout stands out like a sore thumb.

I like seeing books where I don’t think about the layout at all. Raging Swan Press books are like that. I know what to expect – every book starts with a black cover with white text and ends with a black cover with white text, with multiple two-column pages within that utilize white space, headings, and art work well.

Occasionally I am blown away by layout, as with some of the Open Design products like Tales of the Old Margreve which used a full color cover and interior art from great artists and an amazing layout artist to create a book with character that is also functional. And recently I saw Jade’s beautifully created Adventure Creation Handbook from rpgGM.com that manages to use simple, black and white, probably public domain graphical elements, fonts, headings, a two-column arrangement, and breakout boxes all by herself without a staff to help.

And then there are cases where I see large areas of white space, bad page breaks, poor organization, and more that distracts me from the content to the point where I lose focus. When that happens, the book seems incomplete and unfinished, which really isn’t the impression you want to give potential customers. Content can be the saving grace, but if you have to jump a bunch of hurdles to get to it, it becomes less valuable and more tedious than anything else.

Once you have a good layout, don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have a good reason.

Again, I’ll bring up Raging Swan Press here. Every book looks the same. The format and layout works. Why reinvent things?

Open Design on the other hand has varied their design from book to book when it suits them. For example
Tales of the Old Margreve doesn’t have the same look and feel as the Complete Advanced Feats book.

And that brings me to…

Consistency within a book is necessary. Consistency between books is optional.

There’s the quote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” from Ralph Waldo Emerson in his book Self-Reliance. But I think there’s a place for consistency.

Each book should have a unifying layout – whether it uses a page background and borders, a one, two, or three-column layout, how art is used, etc. But shake it up between books if you want to. Raging Swan has a lot of consistency, but I’m often blown away by the variety Open Design shows between books. Each book has a distinct character of its own that adds flavor and style to the content.

A layout is more than making a document two-column and tossing in the occasional picture.

Occasionally I see publishers who probably use Microsoft Word or Writer for Open Office to layout their products. And that works to a point. You end up with a book interior that looks more like an company memo or technical document than a RPG book meant to inspire gamers to have fun. Sure, content is king. But style points don’t hurt.

Quite a bit can be done by simply picking the right fonts and mocking up a few different pages to see how things look. Yes, all books boil down to text and pictures, but with a bit of color (yes, black and gray count as color), you can add a graphical element to the top or bottom of the page – perhaps even identifying odd and even pages with elements on the sides.

And don’t forget page numbers. Sure, some books are only a handful of pages – but if you’re trying to tell a player to look at page X in a particular book and there are no page numbers, you’re making it more difficult than it really needs to be. It’s not as though a page number takes up that much room on a page after all.

Which leads me to…

Graphical elements aren’t always pictures.

Chapter icons. Lines. Boxes. Artistic numbers. Lists. Page backgrounds. Tables. Shading… The list is endless.

Look up resources online for page layout – be inspired. Don’t go crazy, but definitely stretch the bounds of the boring report format to make a book more interesting to your target audience.

Check out this list of page layout and design terms and see if anything strikes your fancy.

White space is your friend and your enemy.

A good layout uses white space to its advantage to better define important elements on a page. For example, a chapter heading should have more space around it than a section heading. Artwork, if it bleeds into columns, needs to include space so text is readable around it. Tables need space between columns and rows so the text is readable and not jumbled together. The same holds true with indented text, space between columns, space after headings, and so on.

A bad layout leaves a gap in a page that draws the eye like a black hole. It’s a distraction. A big chunk of white space on a page means that the layout needs to be adjusted or that you have space for another element. Perhaps a picture or a box illuminating something in the text. But giant gaps need to be filled with something.

Chapters deserve sections. Sections deserve headings.

I’ve alluded to this in a few places. But recently I’ve seen large books that hint at chapter breaks in the table of contents, but don’t actually show chapter numbers or headings in any distinct way. These divisions break a book into manageable chunks of information – player details vs. GM details; history vs. present day; playable races vs. monstrous NPCs; etc.

And if you don’t have a table of contents – why not? Indices are a whole other ball of wax, but a TOC sets the stage for the entire book. Organization lends itself to easier consumption of information.

Lists deserve some time and effort.

Here’s another pet peeve. I love lists when they’re done well and find that they’re impossible to avoid in RPG books. You end up with lists of skills, abilities, items, and all manner of things. But when there’s no way to identify where one item in the list begins and ends, a list is nearly impossible to read. A wall of text isn’t fun to look at anywhere.

So use a heading. Or bold the title of the item. And use white space between items and lists to show where items start and stop.

Layout can add or contribute as much character to a book as a font or art choice can.

Open Design does this beautifully. Using simple elements such as borders, fonts, and page backgrounds, each book automatically has a slightly different look and feel from the others. And using small repeated elements (such as a small winged dragon in Book of Drakes or a particular heading style in Streets of Zobeck) each layout has a life of its own that contributes to the overall look and feel of a particular project.

Never forget your audience.

Ultimately this is the key to any good layout. Every book is meant for a reader. And in the case of RPG materials, every book is destined for the hands and eyes of a gamer. Though the book can do everything it can to inspire the reader to use it, it’s up to the reader to do that at the gaming table. So is the content important? Absolutely.

But if you look at each book as more than a collection of words – the layout can enhance the experience in more ways than I can count whether you’re writing about an adventure, setting, or rules.

—————————————-

I know not everyone is going to agree with my design choices. Layout is an art, and art can be interpreted myriad ways. So take what you want and ignore the rest. Just know that I think layout is important and wanted to help you understand how I look at it.

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5 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Why Layout Matters

  • Thanks Fitz. This is a great reminder for all publishers. Layout does matter — a bad layout can confuse a reader, no matter how well-written the information. Your list matches almost point-for-point the checklist I go down when I’m laying out a new book.

    Thanks also for your mention of The Adventure Creation Handbook. I’ve been blown away by the number of people who’ve commented on how beautiful the book is. So that people can see what you’re talking about with “breakout boxes” and graphic elements, I’ve posted a sample chapter people can download and look at.

    I do have an advantage over other one-person companies: I’m a designer by training. All the illustrations I used (including the cover) are from Dover clip-art collections; I’m a much better designer than I am illustrator. I’m hoping to make enough from this book to hire a cover artist for my next one.
    Jade recently posted…When it’s Your Turn to Play: How to go from being a GM to a playerMy Profile

    • Fitz

      @Jade – I didn’t realize you were a designer by training – and that explains a lot. 🙂 Even so, you have done a great job by using simple techniques that other folks should definitely take a look at. So thanks for offering the sample chapter for folks to peruse!

  • Fitz

    A commenter on Reddit (astatine) pointed out that I forgot to mention having a good index as a requirement for a good layout.

    Honestly, I think an index is critical for books of 50 or more pages, but less so for smaller works. Why? If you have a solid table of contents, it should get you reader most of the way to the information they need quickly. And if you’re viewing the file as a PDF, you typically have search capabilities built into whatever tool it is you’re using to view the file. But if you have a longer book that’s a soft- or hard-cover, an index is a must-have for me.

    An index, especially in a book that includes rules, can mean the difference between quickly looking up a rule for clarification or having to page through a book for 5-10 minutes to find what you’re looking for.

    So it’s definitely something to consider in addition to the other items I discussed above.
    Fitz recently posted…The Gassy Gnoll: Why Layout MattersMy Profile

  • Thank you for taking the time to write these suggestions. I don’t publish anything for sale, but I do occasionally release free adventures on my blog, and I’d like them to be as readable as possible. I know that the layout is basically absent right now and I don’t plan to spend a TON of time on it, but I might invest a little more time now in an effort to make my adventures more usable.
    OnlineDM recently posted…GenCon 2011 Day 0: WillCallFail and bursting out of the gamer closetMy Profile

    • Fitz

      @OnlineDM – You bet. And I think with a little time and effort, any book can be made a bit better (and nothing’s ever perfect – just do your best). I wish you the best of luck with your adventures!

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