Book design: making food good

This is the second in a series of posts about the projects I“ve been doing as part of my Masters in Information Design at the University of Reading.

Book design was the second project we had and perhaps the one I most dreaded. Only one term in and feel­ing my lack of design exper­i­ence very keenly, the thought of design­ing a whole book was intimidating.

Heck, it turned out I didn’t even know what books really looked like. It had entirely escaped my notice, for instance, that there are usually quite a few pages before you get to the first proper page. I had no idea what perfect-binding was. Frankly, at this point I hadn’t even worked out the basics of InDesign. In short, I was pretty sunk.

My early attempts were pretty piti­ful. So much so that I’m too embar­rassed to show them to you! To give the design­ers among you a clue, I’ll just throw the words ‘Minion Pro’, ‘1 cm margins’ and ‘jpegs’ out there. Ahem.

However, while I initially struggled with the design and I’m aware of how lucky I was to have two years to work on the final version (boy did it need the time), this was also the main project we did some proper usab­il­ity work on.

The usability project

A very suspect aubergine

Now, as you’ll know, usab­il­ity is a bit of a pet topic for me. It refers to the prin­ciple that before you make any kind of finished product that’s meant to do a job, or inter­act with people in a useful way, you’re supposed to test it. And iron out the bugs. And test it again. And iron out the bugs. And so on, and so on.

It involves identi­fy­ing your audi­ence (which frankly you should have already done when you came up with the idea), and then letting them lose on your system — whether that’s a whole website, a web tool, a humble diagram, and yes, even books.

For my ‘book’ I’d had the idea that I wanted to illus­trate it rather than use photo­graphs (more fool me). So for my usab­il­ity test­ing, I decided to invest­ig­ate the recog­nis­ab­il­ity of illus­tra­tions vs. photos. I drew some rather suspect vector images of vari­ous food­stuffs, prin­ted them anda corres­pond­ing set of photo­graphs out, and ventured out into Hyde Park one blustery summer day.

In what wasn’t ever going to be the most robust test, I sat people down one after the other with a stop­watch and showed them either an image or a photo­graph. When they recog­nised it, I stopped the stop­watch. Sometimes I had to stop the stop­watch because the papers blew away. Nevermind.

I found that illus­tra­tions had a much lower recog­ni­tion rate than photo­graphs. And while this could merely have been testi­mony to my poor draw­ing skills, it was enough to make me ditch the draw­ings — and hope­fully make a better book at the end of it all!

The moral of the story is: design­ers are often wrong. So make sure you test their ideas. Please.

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Corinne Pritchard

Information Designer at Simply Understand
I believe design and design­ers can and should make the world a better place. I love design­ing things that help people under­stand complex ideas.

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