Page design basics and beyond

edited February 2013 in Story Games
I know nothing about pdf/page design, fonts or how to make pages pretty. I have lots of projects I am working on but I would love to take one of my finished projects and make it pretty. Can you folks give me any direction with how to start making my games creations pretty? I have been looking at World of Dungeons and drooling a lot lately. How would a tiny mortal like me make something look half as good as John does? Cheers.

ps- mind you I can't draw to save my life but there must be some freeware stuff out there that I can get started with for pretty page making. I do have access to CS6 Indesign at work but know nothing about it, never used it, and I am not even sure that's what I want to use and should a noob like me even start there?


  • I'd love advice on this as well.
  • edited February 2013
    PagePlus by Serif is free (Clinton R Nixon recommended it in the back of Donjon). At Hex Games we've used it to great effect. The newest version has a 5-page limit on documents, so you'll want to find an older version of it. Right now I've been running Serif Page Plus SE 1.0 and just did a 100 page book with it last week.
  • Keep in mind that this is part art and part craft - both takes time and dedication to learn.

    Its not about learning how to use the software - there are plenty tutorials that show you that.

    A good read that introduces into most topics is the vignelli canon (pdf).
  • edited February 2013
    The best advice I got was: read Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style. It's a little expensive, but superb, and there's no substitute.

    If you've got access to Indesign, use it. It's no harder to learn than freeware stuff and it's much, much better.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a graphic designer. Listen to people who are graphic designers before you listen to me.)
  • I'd also like info on this topic. I'm getting a guy I know in my local copy bureau to lay out my games in InDesign, but noodling around on the Internet the other day I found that Adobe has a shareware version. I've downloaded it onto my laptop but haven't yet had time to study it.
  • Have you searched for podcasts on the subject? I've listened to a few while I draw; easiest form of multi-tasking! Here's one I just found:
  • I quite enjoyed The Complete Manual of Typography by James Felici.
  • edited February 2013
    Do lots and lots of design, starting right now. Whenever you have a fun idea for something, design a cover image or character sheet mock-up for it. Make CD covers for bands that don't exist. Steal ideas from other design stuff you like and try to recreate it as best you can. Experiment with crazy ideas. Rinse and repeat. Sure, maybe read a book or two about design, but there's no real substitute for practice. Just start doing it every day or at least every week and don't look back.
  • P.S. It's the same if you want to learn to design or play games, really. Just do it a lot; all the time, if possible. And pay attention and learn from what you experience.
  • Tool-wise, I've had decent success with Apple's Pages, which is cheap if you're running a Mac, and OmniGraffle, which is a bit more expensive and more designed as a flowchart maker than an actual graphic design program. I've done some work professionally, and Pages works fine for relatively simple designs, but it lacks the power of InDesign. If you need to do anything complex, you'll hit the wall pretty fast. For basic book-charsheet layout or as a learning tool, Pages isn't a bad choice. You could do worse than start with a simpler program and work your way up as you get a better sense of design principles and your own personal style.

  • edited February 2013
    Yeah, this question comes up a lot in our community. It's a tough one. It's like asking, "How can I learn to build a house?" It's a big topic. There are a thousand techniques and dozens of tools.

    Jonathan's advice is really good. That's how I did it. For software, I started with PageMaker, moved to Quark, and use InDesign now. Bringhurst's book is essential. Check out the graphic design section at your library or local bookstore. Grab anything that excites you.

    There are TONS of great, free tutorial videos online, on YouTube and elsewhere. I would have loved that resource when I was starting out.
  • There are several steps you should go through. It will take tons of iterations to get any good, but maybe it still helps.

    Observation: fetch rpg layouts that inspire you. Keep to the simple ones at first.

    Analysis: try to figure out what is good about the layouts. How does the text flow? Are the headlines readable? What kind of illustrations are used? How do the edges (raglines) of the text look like (something I messed up in my own project).

    Design: take a piece of paper. Draw boxes to show where the headlines, texts and illustrations will go. Try coming up with a nice grid (eg. 3 columns and 6 rows, each with a bit of gutter, so it has enough air to breathe). If you managed to understand what worked for other games, you might have an easy job to come up with your own solution.

    Implementation: this one is pretty tough if you never worked with software. Tutorials are the only help that will show up, or else you could try to find a graphic designer friend to show you the basics. In InDesign I consider the basics: understanding master pages, working with paragraph and character styles (for sake of consistency) and learning to create flowing text boxes. (They have a red plus sign that will add another text box, so all the text that didn't fit into the first box, will flow into the second box. Repeat until you have no more text to set.)

    Anyway. This isn't going to be easy, but it is very rewarding to create something!
  • edited February 2013
    I really liked "The Non-Designer's Design Book" by Robin Williams. It was good for what I needed: I didn't want to become a design/layout professional, I just wanted to find out about the basic rules of how to make text look better.

    Also, practice before you lay out something you write. Here's one thing I did that (looking back) proved to be a useful exercise. When I found a series of interesting articles on the internet, I'd copy-paste them into LibreOffice Writer (the word processing component of a free, open-source office program suite) document (without any styling, as plain text). I'd then format them however I wanted and convert the document to a PDF for later offline reading or printing. I'd play with fonts, alignment, font weight, borders etc. It also taught me how to efficiently edit/create text styles and set up styles hierarchy which is extremely useful for organising content of larger documents.

    Professional people who do layout will probably hang themselves (or me) after mentioning using a word processing program for layout, but for my very simple purposes it just worked. If you intend to go deeper though, you're probably better off learning a professional tool. Scribus is an open-source alternative to Indesign, but I never used either so can't provide any comparison.
  • We actually used "The Non-Designer's Design Book" as our main text book in my first design class.
  • Wow! Thanks for all this great info. Time to get to work! :) Thanks.
  • edited February 2013
    I learned a ton from Bringhurst and I'd rather eat a gun than look at that Robin Williams book again, horrible.

    You won't go wrong by looking back to page design in the golden age of offset printing - here's the Linotype Manual of Typography, full of good advice and inspiring layouts:
  • edited February 2013
    One thing to remember: page layout is actually two broad skills. Only one of them is "design". The other is just the technique of getting the damn software (or board and knife, or whatever) to do what is in your head. Both of these matter. Interestingly, if you start from zero in both skills, the first few levels of "design" are a total bitch while the first few levels of "technique" are really easy. This will invert as you progress, which you won't notice until you hit the point where the design you want simply can't be done with the the techniques you have.
  • What do you all think about text width? Several columns vs. a wide block of text, for example. Is there some accepted wisdom on this topic, or some guidelines for why you would choose one over another?

    It seems particularly important now that a lot of things are getting landscape layout for on-screen reading.
  • edited February 2013
    A row should be between 55 to 65 characters long (including spaces) for maximum readability. Beside that, there are heaps of tiny things that you can do to make it look nice but it's easier to show with pictures than talk about it with words. :)
  • edited February 2013
    The best advice I got was: read Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style. It's a little expensive, but superb, and there's no substitute.

    If you've got access to Indesign, use it. It's no harder to learn than freeware stuff and it's much, much better.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a graphic designer. Listen to people who are graphic designers before you listen to me.)
    I am an Art Director for a fortune 500 company after being a designer and then a senior designer ever since leaving art school in '04, and it does not matter who gives good advice and this ... is good advice.

    The only thing I can recommend is make sure and view it on a variety of sources. An average size monitor, a tablet if you can (that is what I read all of mine on,) and finally ... print it out!
  • Paul_T: So there are some things in design that have relatively fixed answers based on how the human brain and eyes work, plus longstanding human traditions that go back hundreds of years. The display of a serif typeface in blocks of text is definitely one of them. Check out the classics and follow their example unless you have a really good reason not to. Many other things are flexible and subjective, but a lot of things about typesetting are much less so.
  • Excellent!
  • Also: on design books, this really is one of those things where you can often judge a book by its cover (and interior). If a design book has crappy design, I mean, what does that tell you?
  • . If a design book has crappy design, I mean, what does that tell you?
    viz: Robin Williams

    OK, I'm done
  • On that topic, Bringhurst is the most beautiful book.

    (Paul_T: Bringhurst has the answer to your question in it: it's the one Rickard gives, I think. It's one of the many practical questions, which I could never find an answer to, until I read that book.)
  • Jonathan Walton and Graham have great advice.

    This skillset is not a quick learn. It's an ongoing process. I've been laying out my own books for a couple years now, and am still learning and perspiring whenever I sit down in front of inDesign. I don't know if that goes away at some point or not.

    The nice thing is that learning by doing is very helpful for lots of it.

    My opinion is that it's better to learn how to make a page accessible than to make a page look fancy. There are much worse things than a flat page laid out in Times New Roman with titles in Impact.

    Learn about setting good margins (and if you want to use columns, learn about minimum line lengths & good gutters). Learn how to use Master Pages. Learn how to use Paragraph Styles (so that you never format text manually, you instead click a button based on the role that text plays in your document, and Styles formats it accordingly). From there, it'll be a quick jump to mastering all the other styles (Character Styles, Object Styles, etc). Learn about page breaks and good pagination. Learn what "orphans and widows" are, and all the little tweaks you can do to avoid them. Learn to get annoyed by over-hyphenated documents, and then start toggling inDesign's Hyphenation settings (I turn hyphenation off in my documents altogether, and then re-allow on a case-by-case basis). And then to start thinking about page balance and spread balance.

    That's the stuff I think it's usual to learn how to interact with first, in that order: Margins, setting good line lengths, Masters, Styles, Page/Line Breaks, Hyphenation, balance.

    I'd learn to navigate those things before I worried about things like borders, art, funky fonts, elaborate layout grids, etc. When you start diving into font selection, read an article or two about how to pair fonts.

    Whenever you're in inDesign and repeating a task more than once, know that there's probably a way to automate it. Try googling for that information.
  • edited February 2013
    Thank you so much, everyone. What a great thread. I just made a quick trip to my local independent mega-bookstore and picked up Bringhurst. It looks like 4.0 is the latest edition.
  • I hate lots of "gathering your inspiration" type exercises, but this one I really dig:

    You have a project, you want to do layout on it.
    Go to Barnes & Noble or Chapters.
    Go to the section containing books of your genre/influence/etc.
    Study their covers. Flip through them. Notice qualities about them.
    Take a stack over to the reading area.
    Sort them into the ones you like looking at and the ones you don't.
    Figure out what the genre looks like, in terms of fonts and embellishments and justification and back-cover imagery, etc.
  • Can anyone recommend any rpgs in pdf form that are particularly well put together from a graphic design perspective?
  • Dreamofpeace, look at anything John Harper touches.
  • edited February 2013
    Examples are hard because it really depends on what your project looks like. Recommending a 300+ page tome is not as helpful if what you're trying to put together is a 4-page PDF. Likewise, the other way around. The things you do for shorter projects (carefully craft every page) are much harder when you're talking about more than 10,000 words, where a lot of the pages are going to -- by necessity -- look very similar. Also, some games have a lot of descriptive text (like a traditional setting book) and others are all rules with very little description (a lot of indie games). Also, some of it is taste. I really like the German game Engel, which I think has brilliant design work (as you can tell from how the Planarch Codex looks), but other folks aren't as thrilled by it. Monsterhearts looks pretty sharp for a do-it-yourself game; Joe should be proud, not sweaty. Dog Eat Dog was very clean and readable.

    In general, though, I would encourage folks to look beyond RPG books as much as possible. Most of the design work in RPGs is garish and repetitive at best (metallics! crystals! ornamental borders! terribly ornate heading fonts! bunches of colors thrown together! oodles of text not broken up very well!) and terrible at worst. There are many other kinds of books out there that could serve as better models for future roleplaying products, both for traditional and non-traditional audiences: art books, instruction manuals, coffee table books, travel guides, comics, design books, architecture books, nature books, and even normal fiction or things that aren't books at all (like board games).
  • Monsterhearts looks pretty sharp for a do-it-yourself game; Joe should be proud, not sweaty.
    There's space for both. I feel proud and also anxious. I look at it now and I see the things that I've learned over the past eleven months. The areas where I could improve are glaring. I think that the healthy thing to do with that recognition is to apply it forward, such that every effort benefits from the sweaty anxiety of its predecessors.
  • I think you're definitely carrying 1 forward, Joe.
  • edited February 2013
    Note that I think most commercial roleplaying games has really sloppy typography.
    Can anyone recommend any rpgs in pdf form that are particularly well put together from a graphic design perspective?
    Misspent Youth. Hands down. You can really tell that it's made by someone who got heaps of experience of making all kinds of books and tabloids. The text do have a little trouble with margins, where I would have left more air to the edges to make it more readable.
  • Jason, this Linotype manual is fantastic. Thanks for the link!
  • edited February 2013 is something that is worth reading if you're interesting in the basics of typography.

    I wouldn't recommend using Indesign without any kind of proper introduction to the program (and typography). Indesign has a high threshold to overcome but once you've done that, the work seems to go on its own. Having someone to help you over that threshold is a much quicker way than trying to teach yourself through books.
  • edited February 2013
    Curiously, the question "Which RPGs have good layout?" never seems to get good results. Often, you'll get recommendations of RPGs with noticeable or showy layout, which isn't really what you want. (That is a general comment, rather than a reaction to the recommendations above.)

    I am with Jonathan. Look at other sources of inspiration: my favourites are cookbooks, museum guides and (especially) old books.
  • (The Bringhurst book is absolutely delightful; I am staying up too late reading it. An excerpt:

    "A man who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep, Frederic Goudy liked to say. If this wisdom needs updating, it is chiefly to add that a woman who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep as well.")
  • Having someone to help you over that threshold is a much quicker way than trying to teach yourself through books.
    Adam Jury has attempted to be that someone, sort of. Doesn't look like he still does it, though.
  • Thanks everyone for your suggestions. So suppose you have a specific project in mind, like say writing a space marine parody rpg for this contest:, which actually I'm trying to do. Suppose I've come up with and playtested a set of rules I'm happy with. How would you go about thinking how to do the graphic design? And I imagine the thought process would be different if it were a zombie rpg instead.

    I suppose this just means I should start reading the Bringhurst book? :-)

    Best Wishes, Manu
  • Also, how would y'all assess the graphic design of this (free) rpg, Warrior, Rogue, and Mage:

    It's at if the link broke.

    Best Wishes, Manu
  • I think it looks very good, but it does expose a personal pet peeve of mine. On pages 8,9,10, and 14 you have a single line or two at the bottom of the first column and then it continues at the top of the second column. Would love to see a little white space at the bottom of the first column to force a new paragraph to start at the top of the second column. Paragraphs represent complete objects and I hate to see them broken up or have to do that little extra parsing unless necessary.
  • edited February 2013
    I think my typographer friends would have some strong objections to that layout. The body font uses some sort of "fantasy" typeface, which isn't easy to read. The spacing between heading and body text is inconsistent. As zircher points out, there are widows and orphans. It could benefit from using a grid to align the elements on the page.

    (Usual disclaimer applies: I am not a graphic designer and you should listen to someone that is.)
  • So who would offer some insight? I'd send out review copies of

    It has been both criticized and praised, but I really messed up the typography. Balanced rag lines and such. Whisper me your email address, and I'll shoot you a copy.
  • edited February 2013
    @Dreamofpeace: There are tons of other things to say but here are four pages (pdf, 1 Mb) on the way. EDIT: all the typefaces are to narrow. I forgot to mention that.

    If anyone is interested, here's the Indesign preflight (rar, 4 Mb) for the document.

    I haven't proofread anything so take it for what it is.
  • @Rickard: just to be clear, I'm not the author of that game; but your comments were very valuable to me in figuring out how to think about design in an rpg. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, I'm very grateful for your help!
  • I'm not the author either, but I also really enjoyed that 4-page commentary. Thank you! Very illustrative.
  • As far as RPGs with effective design, I'm going to go ahead and say HoL, because someone has to. For that matter, kill puppies for satan.
  • In case you want to have a look at my game (from either a graphic design or game design viewpoint) just download it. It's free for a while now.
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