How do I become a book designer?

It happens while you are making other plans . . .

I thought I was preparing for a career as a writer.

In high school, I discovered I enjoy being around printing presses and photography. When I was a senior, instead of taking AP courses at the community college, I used the opportunity to study graphic design and learn how to run a small offset printing press. In college, while studying for my BA in English, I looked for jobs in print shops, copy shops, and with publishers (where I could find them).

My job titles: copy shop manager, print shop gopher, bindery worker, word processor, typesetter, production artist, computer specialist, graphic designer, prepress expert . . . It wasn’t until I was well into my 40s that I looked around at my workload and my prospects and decided that my job title was finally Book Designer.

I don’t think my trajectory is uncommon. It is like that of book designer David Bullen.

Spontaneous generation?

Book designers are often born from pivotal situations:

  • An intern or assistant with visual and verbal sense communicates well and sparks ideas with the managing editor: a book designer is born.
  • A group of artists or activists decide to make a zine and turn to the person in their group with computer skills and a flair for color or illustration: a publication designer is born.
  • A writer or editor with a strong ideas learns InDesign or hires an assistant with skills: an art director is born.

Check out the origin story for Peter Mendelsund.

Your mission is to make such a pivotal situation more likely.

Choice, chance, and location, location, location

In my story, geography was key.

I lived at the epicenter of the personal computer revolution. My first job after graduation was at a publishing company at the cutting edge of technology. We had an Apple Lisa computer in our art department. Typesetting and graphic design were the first industries to flourish on microcomputers (as any computer that fit on or under a desk was called back then). I was one of the first that had that expertise, and my expertise was in demand.

I lived in metropolitan areas that were home to publishing companies. By living the Bay Area and Seattle, I had opportunities to expand my skills working for a variety of small publishers and a newspapers. In college I interned at a major publisher in San Francisco. I joined a vibrant professional organization, Bookbuilders West, that inspired me and helped me network. I took extension classes from local institutions in book design and calligraphy. My book design prospects would have been even better had I moved to New York City.

I was fortunate that my path led me to right place and right time to meet my best publishing clients. But, I had made many good choices that lead me to those chances. I suggest you do the same.


Book design is a very small subset of graphic design. You will possibly be designing other types of materials and that are mundane (not books, not literary, not scholarly). Students like to design covers for Moby Dick or other literary titles. Try Medically Unexplained Illness: Gender and Psychosocial Issues.

Graphic design and much of book design is not art. A few talented people work with dream teams that allow the designer to rule and have budgets to help them achieve extraordinary results. What they design is art, but don’t beat yourself up too much because that art rests on extraordinary support.

Book design is both cover and interior design. I am a bit nerdy and like the challenge of complex interiors where the job is to develop systems and hierarchies. In today’s world of interior design, you may be surprised how much of interior design has grown to be like programming and web design.

I’ve found my work life made of letters very satisfying. Book design is a “deep” discipline. By that, I mean there is history, tradition, methods, practices, multiple audiences and forms, and continual changes in methods. While some aspects might be described as monotonous, there is plenty of drama, and lots of room for meaning.

So, how to become a book designer?

Start where you are and build your experience and skills. If you can get paid at the same time, great! There are schools that teach all the aspects of book design, or you can choose to study only what you need. Continue adding to your experience and moving toward opportunities to build a portfolio.

  • Refine and practice your visual skills (typography, illustration, display of graphic information). Look deeply at books.
  • Learn about the business and practices of publishing.
  • Learn the how to use the tools and materials.
  • Build portfolio of designs that show you can do the kind work you are seeking.

Here is some great advice from a book designer who has contemporary experience:

Today, you can practice by producing your own book. Print-on-demand technology makes it possible to build a portfolio and learn at the same time. Undertaking your own book project will teach you so much!

And this.

Most of what you do as a book designer is please your clients. I intentionally use the plural “clients.”

Unless you are self-publishing zines or chapbooks, each book is built by a team.

The most important skills you have may not be your exquisite sense of color, or style, or efficient way of executing alterations. Showing up, understanding what your client wants, guessing what your client wants when they don’t know how to tell you, and balancing the desires of various stakeholders must be part of your way of working.

Book design is relationships. Book people make great colleagues.

More questions? Let me know.

Author: VJB/Scribe

Book designer, project manager, publishing coach. Author of Bookbuilder's Almanac, the swatchbook for digital publishing design.

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