Book Design Case Study

Setting a dialog of letters and lectures to paper and ink

Project Brief

The client approached us with an (almost) completed and edited manuscript. It comprised a collection of religious speeches delivered by the editor’s father in decades past paired with contemporary responses by the editor written in the form of letters to his father.

Intermixed with this dialog are many quotes, bits of family memorabilia, tables of data, footnotes, and the occasional patch of Hebrew. The result is a dense, technically complex text we took as a pleasant challenge to normalize, typeset, and package.

Manuscript and Preprocessing

Content exported from Microsoft Word is notoriously and hilariously full of cruft and quirks. These become agonizing to remedy later in the process, so Frankie used a command line tool called pandoc to normalize the manuscript. The result is a well-formed, standardized document with unified, coherent styles and properly marked-up footnotes, images, etc. This normalized file is much easier to work with.

Converting the word .docx file looks like this:

$ pandoc —-standalone source.docx -t markdown -o --wrap=none --extract-media=media/

Pandoc creates a plain text version of the book in Markdown format as well as a folder of images from the book. The ‘extract-media’ option means images in the original document are renamed sequentially and the image links in the markdown file have been updated to match.

Many of the source images needed attention before they could be printed. We went through the images one by one and made adjustments, straightened, cropped out frames in photos of photos, and generally balanced them for printing in grayscale.

Back to the text. In order for InDesign to read the Markdown file, Frankie converted it to InCopy format for me. What a guy.

$ pandoc —-standalone -f markdown -t icml -o output.icml

This creates a new file, output.icml, which he renamed and sent along for interior design.

Interior Design

Our client intended to print with IngramSpark and CreateSpace, for trade paper and hardcover versions of the book, and had settled on a trim size of 6″x9″.

As the book in concept was intended primarily to be a family heirloom and historical document, we wanted to focus on the reader’s experience, providing both places for a reader’s eyes to rest and lots of visual cues to help make content types easy to decode.


Alegreya and Alegreya Sans connect typographic style to the time of the writing in subtle way.

The multiple content types in the manuscript paired with the usual constraints of space and printing costs were our greatest challenge with the interior design.

The front matter contains tables, photos, a large family tree diagram, and multiple levels of subheads. It took almost as much time to wrangle the first 54 pages as it did the remaining 275!

The main body of the book are rabbinical sermons, but each is bookended with pull quotes and notes, opening with numbered and named chapters, and nearly 300 footnotes appearing on almost every page.

Cover Design

As I began to make sense of the interior content types, Frankie took the lead on the cover design. In his research for this project the patterns and tassels of tallits caught his eye, as did the zoomy fractal shape of the shofar. We read a bit about the knot tying advice in the Talmud and sketched out up a few ideas. Below are the concepts that resulted from those sketches.

The client liked the rich texture of the second mockup, and loved the idea of including a shofar. Based on that feedback, he revised the concept.

The book is available in paperback and hardcover from Amazon. You can learn more about the editor and pick up and pretty darned good challah recipe on his website,

In publishing my first book, I was fortunate to have Janine on my team. As an art major and architect, I know just enough about graphics to be dangerous. Fortunately, Janine knows much, much more. With talent, a discerning eye, and a whole lot of patience, she provided the excellent design of my book from cover to cover. Moreover, it was a pleasure working with her every step of the way.

Do you have a manuscript that needs smart and beautiful design?